Thursday, December 19, 2013

Shabbat-O-Gram for December 20

Ask NOT What Your Service Can Do For You… 

This Friday evening, Cantor Mordecai and I will take a field trip with some congregants, attending services in Manhattan at a place that has been called the “Next Big Thing” in the movement to revitalize prayer.  Services will also take place back here, at the usual time, with Katie Kaplan leading (thanks, Katie!).  If you would like to join us in NYC at Romemu, contact the cantor or myself; and even if you can’t make it, their website is worth a peak.
Recently, the cantor and I also attended a daylong conference on “Prayer as Practice,” organized by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. where we shared ideas on how to instill services with greater intensity and significance.  This is a high priority objective here, and we have recently enhanced our Friday Night services even more by bringing Beth Styles aboard.

We are now ready to take the next step, and that step involves each of us.

Typically when we enter the synagogue for services, we ask ourselves questions like, “What is the rabbi going to say today?” or “Will I be inspired by the music?” or “How can I survive until the Kiddush?”   I’m proposing that we need to change the focus of those questions and become more active participants.  This might sound like I am calling for a Kennedy-esque moment, i.e. “Ask not what the service can do for you…. but what you can do for the service.” 

Not exactly.

I prefer to take the “not” out of that plea.  I think it is perfectly fine for us to ask what the service can do for us.  Yes, by all means, ASK!  And when you do that, something magical will begin to happen.

We should ask that question, but the key is to ask it before we walk in the door. In other words, we need to enter the room with a goal in mind.  We should be able to articulate to ourselves just what it is we need from that service and what we want our encounter with the prayers to do for us.

·         Some might be looking to the service for inspiration to effect social change in the world, to work for the liberation of oppressed minorities, to help the homeless or the hungry, to work toward an end to gun violence, child abuse or climate change.  A number of prayers can help us along that path, along with readings in the supplement and personal reflections.  But it’s the experience as a whole that can give us hope, some strength in the face of the endless frustrations and setbacks that we all face when trying to repair the world. The service both grounds us and propels us forward. It gives a sense that our exhausting struggles aren’t in vain.

·         Others might be seeking a deeper connection to Israel and Jewish peoplehood.  I can’t chant Lecha Dodi, for example, without seeing the gorgeous mountains around Safed in my mind’s eye – or the people at my summer camp gathered at sunset .  Hashkivenu keeps bringing me back to moments when Israelis were especially vulnerable.  Plus. the use of Hebrew connects me in a profound way to Jews everywhere and from every generation, past, present and future.

·         For others, the service is that safe place in which to work out our own inner conflicts, seeking guidance and comfort in the face of relationship issues, job related stress or health crises. It’s a place where we can be alone-together…and never lonely.

·         For others, the service is a time to cultivate positive ethical qualities like patience, optimism (or, on a more spiritual level, hope), listening, empathy, spontaneity, or self discipline.   Prayer itself is a discipline – and the act of committing to attend public worship on a regular basis can anchor us, just as a commitment to regular exercise or yoga might.  For many who come to our services now, they can’t imagine NOT being here.

·         Some might be motivated by the struggle to forge a more personal relationship with God.  “Struggle” is the operative term here.  The very term Israel MEANS to struggle with God.  In a real sense, it’s a struggle to connect, to find meaning in life that goes beyond self-interest and ego.  This is the place where that struggle can find resonance, if not resolution.

·         For others, it is a chance to slow down the crazy pace of life.  The repetition of melodies and the leisurely pace of the service helps us to do that.  Studies show that meditative prayer actually slows down the heart rate and reduces blood pressure.  If your goal is to reduce your stress level, you have come to the right place. 

·         For others, it’s a chance to reconnect with family members, those no longer with us (through Kaddish), those we’ve come to visit or, for that matter, those we’re not talking to!  

·         For those visiting from out of town (e.g. college students), it’s also a great time to reconnect with roots – to find our way home.

·         For others, it’s simply the chance to connect, perhaps for the first time, with a non-judgmental community.  Our service is so accessible (and our congregants sol welcoming) that it provides a low threshold for those seeking to find their way in.  We break down barriers that separate people, so that our differences seem trivial by the end of the service.  At our Kabbalat Shabbat service, you are guaranteed at least one “Shabbat Shalom” greeting from someone you don’t know!

·         And for others – including me – a prime goal is that the experience of praying together opens our hearts to love, so that each week we become just a little more capable of reaching out.  I truly believe that we have become a more loving congregation because of our services, and that in turn has made me a more caring person.  And that in turn, has begun to have an impact on our community, our world – and on Judaism itself.

People have noted that at our services, many close their eyes in intense prayer, some even weep. Know that most of these are people who only recently wouldn’t have been caught dead at Shabbat services at all, much less weekly.  I would venture to guess that most have serious questions about God and a number are undoubtedly agnostic.  But none of that matters if we come here with a goal to set aside the static of daily life, the issues that always distract us, the cynicism that infects our souls and the loneliness that chases us into seclusion.

It all begins with the music.  It’s been said that chanting is “part science, part ecstasy and part mystery.”  Contemporary philosophers speak of “stages of consciousness” that we ascend through repeated chanting in settings such as ours.   The more we do it, the higher we are able to leap.  Week after week, it gets better.  Our hearts really do become more open.  The words leap off the page and come alive through our prayer.  

Having a goal facilitates a sense of ownership and investment and it neutralizes the two dominant themes that interfere with authentic, heartfelt prayer: nostalgia and obedience.  If the only reason we come to services is that Zayde did it, odds are we won’t come back very often – and even if we do, our grandchildren won’t.  Nostalgia compels us to ossify what we are romanticizing, to freeze it in time, to change nothing, even when old forms have otherwise become meaningless to us.  Too many synagogues (and movements) have succumbed to that.  Nostalgia and blind obedience to old ways are not helpful.

The beauty of Jewish prayer is that the liturgy changes very little, but everything else is constantly being reimagined: the melodies, the architecture, the prayer space, the instrumentation, even the way we dress.  We should feel totally unbound in seeking the best ways to make prayer “work” for us, all the while adapting it to cultural trends around us.  Even Leonard Cohen tunes can find their way into a contemporary service – but the words remain the same.  Without innovation, we are dooming a 3,000-year-old tradition to the trash bin of history by rendering it irrelevant.   I don’t think Zayde would like that too much.

Once you articulate a goal, the measure of success is not determined by the “performance” of the service itself.  If my goal is that I emerge from services a more patient person, the measure of success is not whether the cantor’s voice cracked or the rabbi mixed a metaphor.  It’s whether I’m less impatient the next time I’m standing in a long line at the bank.  Setting personal objectives brings clarity to that nagging question as to what connection there is between what we are doing in the synagogue and what we are doing on the outside.  Everything we do in here suddenly becomes astonishingly relevant to our lives out there.

So your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to help bring yourself to the next level – to Prayer 2.0.  That will enrich your life immeasurably, and it will also enrich the lives of your fellow congregants. 

So ask. By all means, ask what your service can do for you; and in doing so, you will do a whole lot for your service and your congregation.

“My Kid Wants a Christmas Tree”

One of the most discussed statistics from the recent Pew survey was that a surprisingly high number of Jewish families reported having Christmas trees in their homes.  It actually shouldn’t be so shocking, considering how prevalent Hanukkah bushes were back a generation ago, in the 1950s, as Jews strove to assimilate.  There is no easy answer when a child asks for a tree, but even without Hanukkah to “protect us” this month, as I wrote a few years ago, the way to counteract a day of XMas saturation is through a year of living Jewishly.

Shabbat is a weekly chance to "gather around the tree," albeit a tree of wax, for a moment of reflection and a warm hug . And the day is bookended by candles, with the multi-colored multi-wicked havdalah candle accompanied by sweet smelling spices at the end. Then throw in the Sukkah and the family festivals of Passover and, most fun of all, Purim, and you've got more than enough to compensate for the tree.

In the end, the Christmas tree is a religious object, "pure and symbol." (Click here to see a terrific comprehensive listing of the Christian symbols involved – even the candy cane has religious significance).  Anyone who calls the tree a secular matter is simply, well, barking up the wrong evergreen.  Want a secular symbol in your school?  Fine.  Tell the principal to leave the tree up an extra month and use it to celebrate Tu B'Shevat!

So what is the best response? I've always felt that kids need a firm grounding in one faith and, if that faith is to be Judaism, it is best to keep the tree out of the house.  However I see no problem in helping Christians celebrate their holiday in other houses, hospitals or homeless shelters, as my family has done at Pacific House for years.  This would be true of Christian grandparents too.

And then, as much as possible and all year, long, we need to light those Jewish flames. This is especially true in this era of mixed identities and the blurring of lines.  For kids, the response is to affirm the values, warmth and joy of our tradition.

Now if it's the adult who wants the tree, that's an entirely different question.

Looking Ahead

Our services will have varying leaders and styles during the next few vacation weeks. By the time we are all back together in early January, we’ll be ready to apply all we’ve learned and the spiritual energy we produce here should be extraordinary indeed. 

Check our upcoming bulletin and other announcements for a plethora of January events. Of special note is a showing of the film “Journey of the Universe” on Jan. 14, with guest speaker Teresa Eickel of Interreligious Eco-Justice Network.  It is one of the most inspirational spiritual films I’ve ever seen, and yet it hardly mentions religion at all. See more information here.  Also, we’ve got some great Shabbat programming coming up, including a new series of Learner’s Services, where a key theme of contemporary Jewish life will be  wedded to both the portion of the week and a prayer from the liturgy: Shabbat Conversations: Parsha, Prayer and Purpose.  Also, we’ll continue the series “This American Jewish Life,”  with TBE congregants sharing perspectives on their life journeys. These testimonies showcase the extraordinary stories our congregants have to tell.  Last week, Dana Horowitz spoke of how the murder of her father changed her life – and through her, it has changed us all (read her story here).

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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