God Is My Light

“In this do I trust,” says the author of Psalm 27.

“For David,” the psalm begins. Is this the statement of authorship as tradition would have it, or could it be a dedication? This one is for you, David, you who nurtured your trust even when you were being hunted, even when you didn’t even have clothes to wear, even when your son betrayed you and your baby died.

I’ve recited this psalm annually for many years, but it was only in the past few that I managed to memorize it (sort of). This has given me the internal space to reflect on its transitions as well as on the verses which have captivated us through melody. “One thing I ask from God, this do I request: to dwell in God’s house all my life and to have visions of God’s beauty while visiting God’s sanctuary.”

The psalmist says that he is not afraid if a host encamp against him, for there is one thing he trusts, namely that all he has ever wanted is to dwell in God’s house. This relieves fear, I’m guessing, because there is no place which is not God’s house and so as long as he is conscious of that, there is no harm that can dislodge his trust and ultimate joy in being alive, nor make him afraid of death.

Why Do I Pray?

“Why do I pray?”

By this I mean, why do I find liturgical prayer meaningful? Why not just meditate, focus on my breath, and empty my mind?. If liturgical prayer seems founded on the notion that there is me and there is God, that somehow God is waiting for me to let him know what I need and that once I’ve expressed that need, She will hear and grant my requests, then how can I take that seriously, knowing what I do about the nature of the universe, about the seemingly limitless cruelty possible, about all the suffering that seems to go unheeded? Further, if all is One, then there really is no “out there” andto whom are my prayers actually addressed and in what direction do they go?

Once I thought to write about this in the form of a theological essay. But I am neither a theologian nor a systematic, academic thinker. As my friend and teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager has said and which is true for me as well, I don’t really “believe” in God; I experience God. And so my reflections on prayer arise from experiences, some cosmic and life changing; most the little insights and bits of meaning that come to me in prayer.

Malchuyot, Zichronot & Shofarot

Some years ago, I was honoured to be the ba’al musaf, prayer leader for the additional service on Rosh HaShanah. As it turned out, my son Shefa had led the same service about two years before I did and we were comparing notes. He asked me how far behind schedule the congregation was when I began and I said that they were only about forty minutes late when I began. He replied that it was a full hour late when he began and we both remembered that, by the time we were done, the full house had been halved. We both saw this as a shame, since the unique elements of the Rosh HaShanah service, namely the blowing of the shofar and the three special sections of the musaf all come at the end of a long morning when people are tired and leaving for lunch.

This year, Hanna and I have been working with the same issue as she designs a special edition of Machzor Kol Koreh for her congregation in Boston. To follow the traditional order of the service means putting these elements at the end. In our case, it’s not so much that this means the service will run very late as that these crucial parts of the service will be further abbreviated and rushed if the earlier parts of the service take longer than expected.

So here are the two ideas which resulted from both conversations:

The Hallel

One deficiency in the current versions of Siddur Kol Koreh has been the abbreviated Hallel. Last January, since the Shabbaton in Boulder coincided with Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, I prepared an expansion of the Hallel for that part of the service led by our newly ordained Shulamit Wise Fairman. Now, in anticipation of Pesach, I’m sharing with you an expansion of that expansion. It is still missing the two half psalms omitted on Rosh Chodesh and most of Pesach, as well as much of Psalm 118, but otherwise it is complete. And I’ve reformatted it so that it is the same as the rest of Kol Koreh.

Some features:

Amen and Amen

Most of us know the Reform movement’s HaMotzi which begins “we give thanks to God for bread” and concludes with the traditional b’rachah in Hebrew and the word “amen.” I rarely sing the b’rachah itself and prefer to listen to it and then respond with an “amen.” In this way, others have said the blessing on my behalf and I can eat bread without repeating the blessing if I so choose or else I have confirmed their blessing and then can make my own, but without saying “amen.”

This is what I was taught growing up: one doesn’t say “amen” to one’s own b’rachah. Even more, saying amen to your own b’rachah is a sign of ignorance.

Also as a child, I had learned to recite the long form of the Ashkenazi Birkat haMazon / Grace after meals by heart before I could read, since we sang it every Friday evening and Shabbat lunch in my home. In the middle of the Birkat haMazon, I knew that the blessing for rebuilding Jerusalem concluded with: “Blessed is God who rebuilds Jerusalem; Amen.” Naturally, when I was old enough to be in school, I wanted to know why it was permissible to answer one’s own blessing with amen in this case. I was told that originally this was end of the Birkat haMazon and so, in this case, it was permissible.

Kaddish•Public and Private

Dear Friends,

In the fall of 2004, I had the great joy of learning together with eight rabbinical and rabbinic pastor students. We studied comparative nuscha’ot, the different ways in which the same prayers were formulated in the liturgical traditions of various Jewish communities. In the course of that study, we came upon a kaddish in the siddur of Rav Amram Ga’on meant for recitation by individuals. This caught us all by pleasant surprise, since we had all been taught that kaddish, being a call and response, could only be recited in a minyan and that there were no equivalents for private prayer.

The custom of having mourners recite the kaddish had not yet been established when Rav Amram lived, much less the idea of setting aside or creating opportunities for a kaddish identified as specifically for mourners. At the same time, today we are all aware that people who, for various reasons, cannot be part of a minyan but still want to honour the relative or friend who passed away by reciting a kaddish even when alone. So this kaddish of Rav Amram’s, available in all the places where a regular kaddish appears, offered a wonderful opportunity to create what so many needed while still respecting the tradition of leaving a call and response for when there is a minyan.

(Each unit of the kaddish ends with the recitor saying, “And say ye: Amen” to which we respond with “Amen.”)

My Heart Opened

I’ve been a shul goer most of my life. Before I could read, when my father was the executive director of Temple Anshe Chesed in New York and I went to their kindergarden, he would take me into the sanctuary on Friday afternoons when everyone had gone home and I would go through the entire Torah service in front of the ark. And every Shabbat, we sang the full Ashkenazic version of Birkat haMazon / Grace After Meals, which I also memorized before I could read. What made this easier than perhaps it looks to adults was that both the shuls I went to and my family used the same melodies for the same prayers all the time. While this makes them familiar and easier to memorize, it also flattens out their affect and narrows the emotional range which the words can communicate. Birkat haMazon, no matter the day or the meal, always began with the familiar table thumping melody, useful as a social connector perhaps but less so as a conveyor of gratitude to the Source of Blessing.

I was also a troubled child. My mother died when I was nine and, with the exception of two helpful talks I had with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan when I was twelve, there had been no one to help me process my loss and connect it in a meaningful way with God. Though I was a yeshivah student through high school, I wasn’t able to see a relationship between the Judaism I was being taught and the Divine. I have come to see how the still immediate impact of the Shoah intensified this difficulty, since my teachers also were wrestling with the same questions on a much larger level, but their silence wasn’t something I could understand at the time.

May This Year Be a Blessing

Dear Chevre,

A few years ago, I was sitting next to R. Lori Klein at the Shabbat evening service at OHALAH. I don’t remember whether I noticed her siddur or whether she showed it to me first, but I took an immediate liking to this Nusach S’faradi Tahor, as it was called. At some point, I just asked her to take mine for the rest of the service so I could look through it as we davvened. When I got home, I asked our son Noah, who was then part of the US embassy staff in Tel Aviv, if he would find me a copy, which he did. There are several important things I’ve learned from using this siddur now for at least two years which I hope to share with you all, and here is the first.

Actually, let me back up before I start. Most of us have grown up using different variations of the same nusach ha-t’fillah / mode of prayer, and that is Nusach Ashkenaz, literally the German mode but really the European. All the siddurim we most commonly use, including those of the major movements as well as many of the creative siddurim that are around, are essentially Nusach Ashkenaz. Hassidim use their own version of Nusach Ashkenaz, often called Nusach S’fard or, in the case of Chabad, Nusach Ari. This nusachborrows much from Nusach S’faradi and from what is known as Nusach Eretz Yisrael and yet retains the basic feel of Nusach Ashkenaz. (The Italians also have their own nusach which in many places is uniquely theirs.) Finally, there is Nusach S’faradi, the form of the liturgy used by Jews who come from Muslim countries and particularly North Africa. While I have davvened from both Nusach Ashkenaz and S’fard for decades, I realized I had never really used Nusach S’faradi before.