Monday, October 3, 2011

Rabbinic Pastor David Daniel Klipper's Rosh Hashanah 1st Night Sermon

Erev Rosh Hashonah Sermon, 5772

I believe this is the fifth year that I’ve been invited to give this sermon, so it’s the fifth year in a row that the first sermon you hear in the New Year is the one delivered by me. Rabbi Hammerman either thinks that I set a good tone for the rest of the year, or else he is looking to make sure that the bar isn’t set too high. But in either case I’m honored to be here and apprecia-tive of the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

Some of you may know me from Friday night services, in which I play percussion with Cantor Mordecai. Some of you may also know that I work as a chaplain and as someone who trains chaplains at Stamford Hospital. This is a second career for me. I started chaplaincy and spiritual direction training in 2002, and retired from investment banking after 24 years in early 2004. Given that I have chosen to devote my professional life to chaplaincy and training chap-lains, it would be logical to assume that I think that chaplaincy and spiritual care are important – and I do.

And yet I sometimes wonder about my role. Patients often want me to pray for them or give them a blessing, and I’m happy to do so. Yet as I’ve thought about the matter more deeply, I’ve asked myself, ‘What am I really doing when I offer a blessing?’

One of my chaplaincy students helped me focus on this issue. She regularly participated in a monthly Midnight Run in which adults and teenagers distributed food and clothing to home-less people in New York City in the middle of the night. This student was a compassionate and empathic person, and she prayed for the people that she helps. But one day in class, she started to wonder about prayer. She said, “Do I really think that God needs to be reminded by me about the homeless man I just met? Am I seriously saying that God wouldn’t care for that man unless I said my prayer? Of course not. But if God cares for that homeless man regardless of whether I include him in my prayers, then what good do my prayers do?”

It’s an interesting question and it forms the basis of what I want to talk about tonight. What is prayer? What does prayer do? Why do we pray? When Abraham Joshua Heschel was in Selma, Alabama, to march with Martin Luther King Jr. in the struggle for civil rights, he said he was praying with his feet. Sometimes when I’m playing percussion on a Friday night, I feel like I’m praying with my hands. Are these really prayers? If so, what kind of prayers are they?

There are a number of typologies of prayer. There are prayers of love and praise, in which we tell God how wonderful God is or how much we love God. There are prayers of thanksgiving, in which we thank God for something. There are prayers of supplication, in which we are asking God for something. The version of the Amidah that we say on Shabbat, for exam-ple, is different from the one that is said during the week. During the week, there are a number of prayers of supplication in the Amidah. On Shabbat, these prayers are not included, because Shabbat is supposed to be sufficient for us and a day on which we don’t ask God to do more than sustain creation, grant peace, and send healing. Some people separate out prayers of intercession, in which we ask for something from God for someone else, from prayers of supplication. The final type of prayer, which we do a lot during the High Holidays, are prayers of confession, penitential prayers.

Let’s talk about each of these. Prayers of love and praise have to do with our telling God how great God is and how much we care for God. What do we think that does for God?

I know what it does for people. I frequently tell my wife that I love her. I do so because I want her to feel loved and cherished by me. I do so because I know that she, like all of us, can allow another’s perceptions of her to shape how she feels about herself. I want her to feel good about herself because I think she is a wonderful person. But do I think God’s self-perception is a function of what people think? Do I think God needs my love or praise in order to feel good about God’s self? I certainly hope not. That would be a pretty insecure God.

Prayers of thanksgiving seem to me to be somewhat similar to prayers of praise. When my wife does something nice for me, I try to remember her to thank her. Why? Well, it lets her know that I appreciate what she has done, which hopefully makes her feel good and valued. It may be that I’m thanking her for something I hope she will do again, and that is more likely to happen if I thank her than if I don’t. But again, do I think that God needs me to feel good and valued? As I said before, I hope not. Are there things that God is doing for me that I want God to continue? Perhaps, but do I think that God will stop doing them unless I thank God? Do I think I can control God’s behavior by whether I thank God or not? I don’t think so.

What about prayers of supplication or intercession? These are certainly very meaningful for people. We want to be sure that if our loved one is sick, that his or her name is mentioned in the Mi Sheberach prayer of healing. Patients in the hospital often cry when I pray for them. I had a friend who ultimately died of cancer tell me that he felt that the prayers being said on his behalf were at least as important as the chemotherapy he was receiving and if he had to give up one of them he would probably choose to give up the chemo. Clearly, these prayers touch some-thing fundamental in our being.

But what do they touch? Sometimes people feel that they have somehow forfeited the right to be cared about by God because of things they have done. For these people, the fact that someone else would think they were worthy of being prayed for can be very moving. They feel good that I think they are worthy of prayer. But then what is meaningful about the prayer is how I, as a person, feel about them. Or perhaps because I am a chaplain they view me as a proxy for God so my saying a prayer for them gives them a sense that God cares for them. But let’s come back to my student’s question. Do I really believe that God wouldn’t care for them unless I said the prayer? I find that hard to believe. If it was true, it would give me a power that I would feel very uncomfortable about having.

Finally, we get to prayers of confession. One view about confessional prayer is that God needs to know that we feel remorse for what we have done in order to forgive us. Fair enough; I recognize that there may be many people whose conception of God would include the concept of forgiveness being conditional upon repentance and remorse. Clearly, that is consistent with the liturgy of the High Holidays. But why do we need to say the prayer in order to demonstrate our remorse? Do I really think that God doesn’t know I’m remorseful until I say the prayer? Our liturgy says that the High Holidays atone for sins against God, but that for sins against others we have to make amends to them directly. But what if I couldn’t make it to synagogue for the High Holidays? What if I was filled with remorse and had already made amends to the extent I could, but I was sick and in the hospital and so couldn’t come to synagogue to say the right prayers? Do I think that God wouldn’t forgive me because I didn’t say the right words in the right place on the right day? Again, I don’t think so.

And speaking of being in the right place, who says that prayer can only be done in a syn-agogue? While Judaism holds that prayers that require call and response, such as the Mourner’s Kaddish or the Barchu, not be done without a minyan, I don’t think that Judaism holds that a synagogue is the only place there is to pray. In fact, when I’m being a chaplain at the hospital, I sometimes say something about God being as present in the hospital room as in a house of wor-ship and no one has ever disagreed with that statement. No one has ever told me that I shouldn’t be praying in a hospital room but should wait until I was able to be in a synagogue. Indeed, there are teachings that place the Shekhinah (the feminine aspect of God) at the head of every sick-bed.

By now some of you may be thinking that I seem to be a pretty unorthodox chaplain. I’ve basically argued against any of these types of prayer being capable of changing God’s mind or behavior, and I’ve talked about how one doesn’t have to be in a synagogue to pray. So what am I doing up here at the start of the High Holidays, in a synagogue, in which we are and will be saying many prayers?

Let me digress for a moment. I’d like each of you to do a little thought experiment. Spe-cifically, I’d like each of you to imagine a time when you experienced a sense of holiness. By holiness I am not necessarily talking about something religious. It could be a time when you felt a sense of awe at the beauty of life. It could have been characterized by a deep feeling of peace. It may have been a feeling of unqualified acceptance of the world. It was a feeling so deep and so different from ordinary life that the word ‘sacred’ could be used to describe it.

Perhaps you had such an experience here in Temple Beth El. Or it may have been when a child or grandchild was born. Perhaps it resulted from a particularly meaningful and intimate conversation with someone. It could be at a specific spot in nature. I know a woman who had such a feeling of spirituality and connection on a trip to Alaska that she seriously contemplated moving there in the hopes of regaining that feeling. I know for me I sometimes have that feeling in Cape Cod. So you can see that I am defining the word ‘holiness’ broadly. [brief pause]

I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but I expect that most of you have experienced a sense of holiness at some point in your lives. The specifics of that experience might be unique to each of us, but the experience of having that feeling would not be unique. Indeed, the fact that each of us might have a different experience of holiness demonstrates that the experience of holiness is not restricted to one place, or one time, or one circumstance. Holiness is capable of being experienced in almost any circumstances.

There is a wonderful illustration of this in a book called Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life, written by a rabbi named Alan Lew. In it, he writes about visiting a congregant in Roosevelt Hospital in New York City who was terrified of death and who had been having a very difficult time trying to cope with his imminent death from cancer. As of the day of Rabbi Lew’s visit, this man had been in a coma for four days. This was Rabbi Lew’s experience,

“But on the fourth day, I could see as I came in that he was sitting up in bed. I was shocked. None of his doctors had expected him to come out of this coma. And, as I got closer to his bed, I could see that there was something very strange about him. He seemed to be soaking wet. His bedclothes were completely soaked. It was almost as if someone had hosed him down. It wasn’t until I got to his bedside that I realized what was going on. He was weeping profusely, and he was completely covered in tears.

‘Maury, what’s wrong? Why are you weeping?’ I said.

‘Rabbi,’ he said, ‘four days ago I felt myself slipping into what I was sure would be my final coma. But then this morning I woke up, and now look at this!” With that, Maury swept his arm across the wardroom like a magic wand, and something about his ges-ture allowed me to see precisely what he was seeing. We were in one of those big old hospital wards at Roosevelt, the kind with ten or twelve beds and big vaulting windows. An immense shaft of sunlight was beaming in through one of those windows, and there were dust motes swirling around in the sunbeam like spiral nebulae. Nurses glided noiselessly around the ward like angels. We were in a perfect, radiant world.

Maury held my hand in an iron grip. ‘This is religion,’ he said.”

If you read the mystics—whether they are Jewish (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev), Sufi (the poet Hafiz), Christian (Meister Eckhart), or Buddhist (Ticht Nhat Hanh)—you will find the same theme, which is that holiness is always with us, within us and around us, in both the profound and the ordinary aspects of life. The trick is to wake up and notice it.

So the answer to the question of what I am doing up here right now, and what I will be doing sitting in the congregation for the remainder of the High Holiday services, is that I am try-ing to be emotionally and spiritually open to the perception of holiness that I know intellectually is all around me. Our High Holiday services, and these ten days of awe are a wake up call. They invite us to acknowledge to ourselves and God all the ways that we have not been fully con-scious, not perceived the holiness in others (and ourselves, for that matter), and so fallen short of being the best person we can be.

So I will now come back to where I started, which is to look at the nature of prayer. Ear-lier I asked, ‘What is prayer? What does prayer do? Why do we pray?’ I don’t think we pray to change God; I think we pray to change us. God is not going to be different because we prayed; but we might.

I think we pray to open ourselves up to holiness. I think we pray to try to access deep acceptance, profound peace. I think patients may be moved when I pray for them because as I pray I am seeking to access that sense of holiness, and perhaps my connection to holiness facili-tates their having that connection as well. Being prayed for can open up a channel between you and God. When that channel opens, it is often incredibly moving. If you think back to the expe-rience of holiness you remembered, I’m sure it was profoundly moving when you experienced it.

So as we start the year 5772, I offer a prayer for each of us. I pray that we are able to use this time of the High Holidays to get right with God and get right with ourselves. May we be given the strength, courage and wisdom to get right with other people. May the prayers we hear and the prayers we say open up our hearts. May we be given a greater facility for expressing love. May we be given the ability to meet difficulties with composure and setbacks with sereni-ty. May our eyes be opened to the beauty of the world and the beauty of one another. May we be able to perceive the holiness present in everyday life, and as a result have our lives be made richer, deeper, and more satisfying. Finally, by accessing the spark of the Divine that lives within each of our hearts, may we be able to experience wholeness, acceptance and deep peace.

Shanah tovah.


Ron Krumpos said...

One of my favorite quotation on mystical prayer:

“Think of yourself as nothing and totally forget yourself as you pray. Only remember that you are praying for the Divine Presence. You may enter the Universe of Thought; a state of consciousness which is beyond time. You must relinquish your ego.” Maggid of Mezerich

Ron Krumpos said...

Unfortunately, most people of all faiths use prayer to petition favors for themselves or others. They too seldom listen to what the divine expects of us.