the Gates: The Spirit of Prayer
Kol Nidre Sermon
October 7, 2011
If you enjoy cruise-ship
vacations, you have likely come across a cruise-ship rabbi. Often times when rabbis retire, they take a
cruise-ship gig. Unless you suffer from
sea-sickness, it’s good deal. The cruise
can offer Shabbat services and the rabbi can enjoy an all—inclusive vacation.
One such cruise-ship rabbi told
me the story of his first gig, which took place during the winter holiday
season. As the rabbi chatted with some
passengers who had arrived early for the Shabbat service, he prepared to create
a make-shift community. He asked them if
they had any favorite melodies or requests.
One woman said, “Rabbi, I would like to hear Kol Nidre.” It was December. And the woman requested Kol Nidre.
This woman’s request raises the
question: What is the purpose of Jewish prayer?
There are many different reasons to pray. For this cruise passenger, prayer offers a
link to her past and perhaps to other Jews all over the world. For many people, prayer offers inspiring
music and poetry. For others, prayer
offers a connection to the others in the congregation. For some, prayer offers a practice that binds
one to the rhythm of Jewish time. For
some, prayer offers an opportunity to recite and absorb the ultimate messages
of meaning and of living embedded in the liturgy. And for still others, prayer offers the time
and space to wrestle with an understanding of God or to have a conversation
with God .
I find each of these different
purposes for prayer to be meaningful.
However, tonight, I would like to focus on the spirit of prayer. No matter our proficiency with Hebrew or
transliteration, no matter our steadfastness in faith or in skepticism, no
matter our experience or lack there-of with the worship service, every one of
us can seek out the spirit of our heart and soul, and bring that spirit to
Jewish prayer. The 20th
century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, challenged the Jewish community and
chastised his rabbinic colleagues with his teachings about prayer. Heschel taught that in order to discover the
spirit of prayer, we must set aside religious bashfulness, open the mind and
untie the heart. Don’t credit or blame
the voice of the clergy, the design of the sanctuary, or the pages of the
prayerbook. Words are not made of paper,
Heschel insisted. The spirit of serious Jewish
prayer is expressed in an outpouring of the soul.
Tonight’s service began with Pitchu
Li, from the Book of Psalms. The verse
reads: Pitchu li sha-arey tzedek, avo vam odeh yah, meaning, Open for me the
gates of righteousness; I will enter them and praise God. Over the next 24 hours of Yom Kippur, the
liturgy will speak of gates several times: open the gates of prayer, do not
close the gates, the gates are closing, the gates never close.
As we pray to open the gates that
we may enter, I would suggest a play on the verse. Rather than meaning “open
for me, the gates” imagine we are saying, “open me, the gates.” I can be the gate that closes off to prayer
or I can be the gate that allows my soul to pour through. Pitchu Li: Open me.
Open me, the gate, that I may
enter. We witnessed such an outpouring
of the soul last week when, early Rosh Hashanah morning, for the first time, we
invited congregants to ascend the bima and to stand before the open ark, for a
moment of personal prayer. I was
overwhelmed to see so many of you seek out intense spirituality. Like many of you, I felt uplifted to witness a
community, eager for deeper intimacy in the prayer experience.
The power of the moment was not
in the open doors of the ark; the power was in the open gates to your
souls. You opened your minds and untied
your hearts; religious bashfulness fell by the wayside. One by one, and family by family, and groups
of friends, over 100 people chose to approach the ark. As the whole congregation recited the words
to the Amida, praising the God of our ancestors, we witnessed multiple
generations step up and take prayer into their own hands.
For me, the power of the ritual
extended far beyond my own turn at the ark.
As I watched fellow community members express personal prayers while we
all continued to pray, I believed those private prayers were woven with shared
experience. Both as individuals and in
the midst of community, this was serious prayer—an outpouring of the soul.
The ark is not reserved for
prayer leaders; its intensity belongs to us all. Each one of us enters prayer with our own
personal words and passion and struggle and journey, even as we choose to take
those individual journeys while praying the same words, in the same time and
To be clear, I do not believe
that God is more present in the aron kodesh, the holy ark, than in any other
room in this building. I do not believe
there is a God who hears us better when we pray in one place rather than
another. And I do not believe God is
more likely to answer us on that exquisite bima than anywhere else in the
world. But, sometimes, I am more present at the ark. I can
hear my prayers more clearly as I am inspired before its glory and
symbolism. I might be more likely to discover answers when standing before the
scrolls of the highest and holiest purpose of our people.
God’s answers? I did not hear God’s
answers when I stood at that ark. In
fact, I don’t believe God really answers our prayers, at least, not in the
literal sense. I do not believe God is a
puppeteer, or a magician, or a vending machine, or a slave serving human
taskmasters. And I do not believe such definitions are
requisites for Jewish prayer.
colleague of mine spoke with a congregant who had stopped attending Shabbat
services. “Why,” the rabbi asked him, “are
you no longer participating?” The man
replied, “I feel like a hypocrite. I
don’t even think I really believe in God.
Who am I to pray, if I’m not even sure to whom it is I am praying?” Don’t worry about it, the rabbi said. Just don’t worry about it. Don’t let God stop you from praying. You don’t need a definition or understanding
of God to pray. Just pray.
Well, one might ask, how do I attempt
to move God if I don’t know whether G exists? Don’t worry about moving
God. Move yourself. The Talmud teaches: Your prayer is not
accepted unless you put your heart in your hands. Pray to move the divine within yourself—to
shape the soul within you, or the heart, or the mind, or whatever name you have
for the center of yourself that seeks to understand who you are, how you
connect to the world around you, how you matter, and what matters to you.
The Hebrew word for the concept
of prayer has nothing to do with God or request or certainty. Tefillah, or in its infinitive form, L’hitpallel
is a reflexive verb meaning: to turn into one’s self. We join together according to Jewish time, we
rejoice in the words, lessons and melodies of the Jewish world, we reach out to
one another as a community. At the same
time, we turn into ourselves. Through
the spiritual practice of tefillah, we delve into our spiritual life, to
perceive ourselves as a part of something greater than ourselves, to discover
who we are and who we might become.
Professional dancer, Liz Lerman’s
hallmark contribution to her profession is her approach to rehearsal and
feedback. Here is how Liz Lerman explains
it: “Rehearsal is a period of time that is set aside for exploration, testing,
learning and repetitive practice.
Rehearsals give us a place to make mistakes. I imagine,” Lerman continues, “the
experience of prayer in just this way. I
am rehearsing a set of ideas. I allow
myself to go into it with all my attention and knowledge, recognizing that I
can step back, reflect, and rethink—and in the spirit of the best rehearsals,
report to myself what I have learned.”
prayer is a rehearsal for the dance of life, then this is our time to
matters to us and to move ourselves to live in a way
that reflects our highest ideals. During
prayer, we bring the burdens and struggles of our everyday lives and begin to
work through them spiritually. We weigh
ethical dilemmas, we cultivate compassion, we confront our tempers, our
transgressions and our potential downfalls.
We set priorities and we experiment with ideas. We try and return, we rehearse, and then
bring it into life.
In Hasidic thought, prayer is a
time to work on the self. Rabbi Menachem
Mendl of Kotzk taught: everyone receives
only half a soul from heaven; the other half must be worked on here on earth. Prayer is a time to heal and to grow, to
shape our attitudes and intentions, to seek out wholeness in our souls.
Our worship services are crafted
to evoke varied possibilities of emotion and spirit. Sometimes, we are in sync with where the
liturgy is guiding us, sometimes, not.
To bring the real, raw experiences of the heart— resentment, passion,
joy, gratitude, dilemma, jealousy, confusion, gratitude, sadness,
relationships, grief, goals, desperation, devotion, hope, brokenness, the search
for wholeness—means there are many very different experiences taking place at
once. If the congregation is joining in
celebratory Kabbalat Shabbat music, and it’s not where your heart is in that
moment, there’s no need to wait for the silent prayer to express yourself.
Yet, perhaps sometimes, many of
us in the congregation are drawn in to a common moment. When we recite the blessing of healing, the
Misheberach here, prayer seems to bind us more closely together. Some people are crying out to God with pleas
for healing, some are adding voice to the energy around sharing a concern, some
are supporting their neighbor in a time of need. As we listen to the names of those touched by
illness, and we pray the words of the blessing, I suspect that despite
differing theology and perspective, we share some things in common. We care about each other’s hardship. We yearn for meaning even in our moments of
brokenness. We are not alone in times of
struggle. And we all experience times of
brokenness, the need for healing, and the journey of growth.
No matter our theology, we can
each bring the cares, the burdens and the passions of our own souls, as, in the
words of our congregation’s vision: we seek to awaken our human spirit to the
possibilities within and between us.
To discover soul-stirring prayer,
we must set aside religious bashfulness, open the mind and untie the
This year, may the power of our
prayer, be not only in the open doors of the ark, but also in the open gates to
our souls. Pitchu li sha-arey tzedek,
avo vam odeh yah, Open me, the gate, that I may enter.
Material drawn from the writings of: Rabbi Abraham Joshua
Heschel, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Liz Lerman.