Falling Into Prayer – Ekev 5779

At the end of Parashat Ekev, as Moses is exhorting the Israelites to remain faithful to God and the covenant, he makes a speech that may sound familiar:

וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְוֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־י-ְהוָֹ֤ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶם:

“Now it shall be, if you listen to my commandments which I command to you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all of your hearts and with all of your souls…”  (Deut. 11:13)

We know this passage as the second paragraph of the shema.  It is the one that we usually recite silently.  Notice that it is not the language of prayer at all.  It is Moses telling the Israelites to listen to and serve God.  If they do, they will be rewarded with abundance.

So how did it come to be included, not just in our prayers, but in the Shema, which serves as the central biblical passage of Jewish worship, the anchor of our service?

The answer is found in the Talmud (BT Ta’anit 2a).  The word avodah, meaning service, usually refers to the Temple rituals: Priests and Levites offering daily animal sacrifices. But here, Moses modifies the usual expression when he speaks to the Israelites: וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם — “to serve Him with all of your hearts.”  He is not talking about Temple rituals and animal sacrifices.  The Talmud cites this phrase and then asks: Eizo hi avodah she-hi ba-lev?  What kind of service is performed in the heart? Hevei omer: zo tefilah.  You must say that this is referring to tefilah — prayer.

Maimonides summarizes the matter succinctly, as usual.  He declares that “It is a positive commandment to pray every day, as it says: and you shall serve the Lord your God”  (Ex. 23:25).  He then cites this passage in the Talmud to explain that the service in question is the service of the heart; that is to say, tefilah.

The Torah is silent regarding the specific content of our prayers.  Nowhere does it say that we need to recite these particular words that appear in the prayer book.  Our siddur is the product of human beings striving to express themselves to God.

So what is tefilah?  What is prayer?

There are a few examples of prayers in the Torah.  As it so happens, one of them appears earlier in this morning’s Torah portion.

As Moses continues his recounting of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness over the previous forty years, he comes to the episode of the Golden Calf. As you may recall, the Israelites encountered God at Mount Sinai.  That is when they received the Ten Commandments.  We read them in last week’s parashah.  The first two commandments are:  I am the Lord your God.  You shall have no other gods before Me.  And, Don’t worship idols.

Forty days later, there is a bit of confusion about when—or whether—Moses is coming back.  So what do the Israelites do?  The obvious thing: build a statue of a golden calf and start worshipping it.

For those keeping track, they have just broken commandment numbers one and two.  Not a good start.  It sure didn’t take them long, did it?

Now, Moses has to intercede on the people’s behalf to prevent God from annihilating them.  He describes what happened in his own words:  וָאֶתְנַפַּל֩ לִפְנֵ֨י יְהֹוָ֜ה — “I threw myself down before the Lord like the first time; forty days and forty nights, bread I did not eat, and wine I did not drink, on account of all your sins that you committed…”  

The Torah likes to the play with language.  It is full of puns and patterns.  Hebrew is built on three letter root words.  Most verbs, nouns, and adjectives are constructed by manipulating those three letters in various ways.  In this case, the root for אֶתְנַפַּל is נפל, which in english means “fall.”  אֶתְנַפַּל makes it reflexive and forceful – I threw myself down.  

While נפל is a pretty common root word in the Bible, אֶתְנַפַּל is not.  Moses did not just fall to the ground.  He threw himself to the ground.  But there is more.  God was also furious with Aaron for his role in constructing the Golden Calf.  Moses again describes his courageous actions: וָאֶתְפַּלֵּ֛ל גַּם־בְּעַ֥ד אַהֲרֹ֖ן  — “Then I prayed on behalf of Aaron…”

Here, the word is אֶתְפַּלֵּל.  Sounds a lot like אֶתְנַפַּל.  But with one letter different.  Instead of נפל, the root is פלל, which in English means “intercede” or “pray.”

A few verses later, Moses recites the actual prayer that he had used to intercede for the Israelites and for Aaron.  Again, he pairs the words אֶתְנַפַּל and אֶתְפַּלֵּל.  “When I threw myself before the Lord… because the Lord was determined to destroy you, I interceded to the Lord and said…” and so on.

The Torah, very deliberately, juxtaposes these two nearly identical words to tell us that there is a connection between praying and throwing oneself on the ground.

It is clear, from this and other passages, that tefilah involves directing one’s words to God.   Looking at the various prayers that appear in the Bible, they tend to involve consistent themes.  The worshipper praises God, reflecting on God’s power and might.  Usually God is addressed as compassionate and forgiving.  Those are the qualities the worshipper is hoping to awaken.  After praise comes request.  The worshipper asks for something: a child, healing, mercy, victory.

In this passage, Moses asks God to have mercy on the Israelites and Aaron and forego the plan to destroy them.  But with the added element that he physically throws himself on the ground.

What does throwing oneself on the ground mean?  It is the most extreme form of bowing: full prostration, which nowadays we only perform during the High Holidays. It is a physical expression of humility: to lower oneself as close to the ground as possible.  It would certainly convey that message to the recipient of the prayer.

Think also about the effect that it would have on the worshipper.  How is the meaning of Moses’ words enhanced by him saying them with his face in the dirt, as opposed to if he had been standing tall?

To really pray, we have to first become aware that we are, in fact, powerless before our Creator.  The true act of service of the heart, real prayer, can only come from a position of losing oneself, of putting everything on the line, honestly and openly.  

Moses’ throwing himself on the ground is his way of praying with his whole self.  Literally, his entire body.  His physical posture contributes to his emotional state.  Ironic that, in order to most fully serve God with his heart, he has to also use his body.

Building Our Singing Community

The most profoundly meaningful moment of prayer in my life occurred on the day that I did not get in to Rabbinical School.

Growing up, I was about as involved in my childhood Conservative synagogue as you could be.  I was a leader in USY.  I was first a teacher’s assistant and then a full teacher in the Religious School.  I came to services just about every Shabbat throughout middle school and high school.

So naturally, everybody who knew me, from the members of the congregation, to the Rabbi, to my non-Jewish public high school teachers, told me that I should become a Rabbi.

While I was a well-behaved teen-ager, I still wasn’t about to do what a bunch of adults told me to do, so I did not give it too much thought.

As I went through university, however, I stayed Jewishly connected, and by the time I graduated, becoming a Rabbi had become a very real possibility.  I spent a couple of years working outside of the Jewish world, just to be sure, and that helped me make my decision.  It was now time to apply.  And this is where I made my big mistake.

I believed what everybody had been telling me.

I figured I was a shoe-in, but I did not really understand what I was in for.

There is a legend about rabbinical school entrance interviews at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  The stories go like this:  There is a panel of 6-7 esteemed professors and Rabbis sitting around a table, with the candidate alone on one side.  The table is glass.  At some point they offer the candidate a glass of water and watch to see whether or not he or she recites a blessing before drinking.  They ask the candidate what the current date is on the Hebrew calendar.  And so on.

The Seminary was under renovations at the time of my interview, so I didn’t experience the glass table, the water, or the calendar question.  I was asked about faith and practice.  What do I believe about the origins of Torah, and how are my actions expressions of that belief?

These are certainly important questions about religious authenticity for a prospective rabbinical student, but I had never considered them for myself, and certainly did not have the language to discuss the matter.  I totally bombed the interview.

A certain member of my interview committee was not pleased, and he let me know it in no uncertain terms – so much so that the Dean of the Rabbinical School, Rabbi Alan Kensky, had to intervene and gently tell him to back off.

I was allowed to attend a preparatory program, but I would have to re-interview at the end of the year to begin Rabbinical School.

That experience was crushing to me.  At the time it felt terrible, but in retrospect it was one of the most important experiences in my religious life.

All of this took place on a Friday.  Shabbat was beginning that night.  I didn’t have any close friends in New York City at the time, so I walked by myself to a modern Orthodox synagogue on 110th Street, Congregation Ramat Orah.

My ego having been deflated that morning, there was an empty space in my heart that night for true prayer.

I still remember it.  The wooden-pew lined sanctuary was packed with people who were all strangers to me.  Chandaliers hung from a tall ceiling, lighting the room with a warm glow.  And everyone sang.  I still remember the melody for L’cha Dodi.  It was slow.  It took a really long time.  And it was perfect.

In one of the rare true-prayer experiences of my life, my usual barriers were stripped away.  I was vulnerable.  My emotional state, combined with an atmosphere in which it felt safe to let go, provided an opportunity to pray to God in an honest way.  To recite words which were familiar, but infused with kavanah that could only come from a place of brokenness.

Those moments have been rare in my life.  I suspect that moments like this are rare for many of us.

Last Shabbat, our community had a unique prayer experience.  Joey Weisenberg, a musician and ba’al tefilah, prayer leader, introduced us to the idea of building a singing community.

While Joey spent some of his time with us talking about what makes prayer “work,” the most profound lessons came when we experienced it first hand.

I learned a few things last weekend:

1.  We can sound really good.  [Listen to this brief recording of our pre-Kabbalat Shabbat session]

2.  The physical space in which we are praying matters.  Singing in the chapel, close together, is very different than singing in the sanctuary when we are spread much further apart.  The acoustics of the social hall, with its sound dampening ceiling tiles and carpet, is radically different than the reflective tile and glass surfaces of the foyer.

3.  How we are configured matters even more.  To be a singing community, people have to hear and see each other.  It is hard to do when we are far apart.  It is easy when we are close together – and as we found out when we crammed together around the podium, that means really close.

4.  The melody is secondary to all of these other factors.  When we came together in the center of the room and sang the exact same niggun as when we were spread out to the edges, people were brought to tears.

And finally, the last point, which is the most crucial of all:

5.  To build a singing community, the members of the congregation are at least as important as the person leading it.

That means that it is up to all of us.  If we want to continue our transformation into the singing community that we experienced last Shabbat, we have to do things differently than we have been doing them.  We have to break patterns.  We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  I promise:  It will be uncomfortable.

But isn’t that kind of the point?

So many of our people say that they don’t find services to be spiritually meaningful.  American Jews report that they are more likely to feel God’s presence in the woods than in a synagogue.  If that’s the case, then we are doing something wrong.  Where else should a Jew expect to find God than in a synagogue?

Listen to these words describing the synagogue in America:

Services are conducted with dignity and precision.  The rendition of the liturgy is smooth.  Everything is present: decorum, voice, ceremony.  But one thing is missing: Life.  One knows in advance what will ensue.  There will be no surprise, no adventure of the soul; there will be no sudden outburst of devotion.  Nothing is going to happen to the soul.  Nothing unpredictable must happen to the person who prays.  He will attain no insight into the words he reads; he will attain no new perspective for the life he lives.  Our motto is monotony.  The fire has gone out of our worship.  It is cold, stiff, and dead.  True, things are happening, of course, not within prayer, but within the administration of the temples…

When do you think this was written?

Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered these words to Conservative Rabbis at the 1953 Rabbincal Assembly Convention.  He later incorporated them into his beautiful book on prayer, Man’s Quest for God.  (pp. 49 – 50)  In it, he offers a poignant critique on Jewish worship that is as relevant today as it was then.

But don’t conclude that the problem lies in the rote nature of the prayer itself.  Don’t assume that by changing the words of the siddur and introding flashy innovations, we will suddenly be able to feel something when we pray and have real kavanah.  Heschel suggests otherwise:

The problem is not how to revitalize prayer; the problem is how to revitalize ourselves. (p. 77)

I first read this book in Rabbinical School, and it has stuck with me.  One section in which Heschel discusses the role of the sermon has particularly resonated.  The sermon, he says, was never of primary importance during Jewish worship.  And yet now, as he speaks to his rabbinic colleagues in the mid-1950’s, it is given “prominence… as if the sermon were the core and prayer the shell.”  (p. 79)  Then he complains about sermons that are indistinguishable from editorials in the New York Times, popular science, or the latest theories of psychoanalysis.  Or, that Rabbis deliver scholarly, intellectual discourses that identify the historical pre-Israelite pagan roots of various Jewish holidays.  All of this misses the point entirely.

“Preach in order to pray.”  Heschel urges.  “Preach in order to inspire others to pray.  The test of a true sermon is that it can be converted to prayer.” (p. 80)

Heschel’s plea is always present for me.  Always.

“Preach in order to pray.”  I find it to be a tremendous challenge.  My default mode is “intellectual.”  I do not think of myself as the kind of person who expresses a sense of deep spirituality.  I am not someone who would be comfortable leading meditation.  I am very comfortable discussing the various traditional interpretations of a biblical phrase, and then comparing them to modern biblical scholarship.

“Preach in order to pray.”  That would require me to be open, honest, and vulnerable.  That is scary.  On the other hand, the times in my life when I have allowed myself to be vulnerable in front of others – times when I have been honest about my mistakes, my fears, and my doubts – those are the times when I have been able to pray with the greatest kavanah.  But to bring myself to do that every week is not easy for me.

But this is not about me.  It is about our community.  Heschel’s challenge, and Joey’s, is to us not as individuals, but as a community.

Do we want this to be a place in which tears can flow?  Do we want to be surprised when we pray in this room?  Do we want to find God in our synagogue?

There are numerous ways in which to build a community in which these kinds of things can happen.  Heschel doesn’t have anything specific in mind.  He writes:

“My intention is not to offer blueprints, to prescribe new rules – except one: Prayer must have life.  It must not be drudgery, something done in a rut, something to get over with…”  (p. 76)

Singing together is a powerful way to give prayer life.  It has been an important part of Judaism ever since we crossed the Sea of Reeds.

So here is what I suggest.  And again, it is up to us.  It will be different, and possibly uncomfortable.  When we return the Sefer Torah to the ark in just a few moments, we’ll bring the Torah around the room.  Today we’ll go around the back and come down the aisle on the other side so that we cover more ground.  As the Torah passes you, if you like, join in the procession behind it, continuing all the way up to the ark, where we will sing Etz Chayim Hi together.  It’s a Tree of Life – but only when we give it life.

Then, we’ll go straight into musaf.  Again, you are invited to stay up front and stand close together around the podium, joining all of our voices in song and prayer together.

If we are going to become a singing community, we’ve got to commit.  If we make that commitment, I am confident that it will happen.