Shabbat Shuvah

Wed, 10/02/2019 - 11:29am -- Cantor Phil Baron

Parashat Vayeilech
6 Tishrei, 5780
Cantor Phil Baron

Shabbat Shuvah

In a recent poll respondents were asked an important question about Jewish prayer.  Okay, the respondents were members of the Valley Beth Shalom 3rd-grade class, but still.  The question prompted them to pick the most important word in the ancient prayer formula, “Baruch Atah Adonai.” After all, even 3rd-graders know the important preamble to most of our blessings.

Before giving you the results of the poll I’d like to ask you to consider your own answer to this question. Which of these words deepens your prayer experience and leads you to a holy connection?  Is it “Baruch” (blessed), is it “Atah” (you or you are), or “Adonai” (a name we use for God)? After all, I’m guessing you use this traditional phrase frequently or at least periodically in daily or weekly prayers, or at the occasional Shabbat gathering.  What does it mean to you, and have you considered the wording?

And while you’re pondering, I’ll ask another question: how seriously do you take this prayer formula?  Observant Jews use it countless times daily, but I wonder how focused their prayer is after so many repetitions.  For instance, if you say the blessing for washing the hands, most hygiene-conscious people would repeat the formula multiple times each day.  Likewise, the blessings for food. How can you truly focus on the importance of this phrase in the rush of your busy day? And how often, even in the synagogue, do we mumble these words mindlessly, like the lyrics to a pop song muttered while doing some other task?

On Erev Rosh Hashanah Rabbi Feinstein assigned us an achievable goal for the New Year. He asked us to improve ourselves by 2%.  He asked to be 2% better friends, better parents, better children, better human beings. For me, those improvements begin with having a deeper relationship with God through prayer. And that connection begins with one word.

The results of the 3rd-grade poll were consistent with my informal polling of adults.  By far most of the students and others said that “Adonai” was the most important word. Of course, naming God in prayer should be an awesome experience.  The second-highest vote-getter was “Baruch” since it begins the preamble. “Blessed” is such a grand evocative word, even though its meaning is not so clear. Just a few students (and no adults) said that “Atah” was the most important word.  I’m with the minority.  

We’ve all had the experience of someone saying hello, or “How are you?” in passing without really desiring a response.  Sometimes it’s worse -- it’s like people don’t really see you at all, but grunt an acknowledgement as they breeze by you toward something or someone more important. Is that how we should pray? The word “Atah” -- You -- when spoken or contemplated with intention puts us in relationship with people -- or with the Divine. If we are to deepen our experience of prayer, we might consider directing our hearts toward the object of our prayer. 

“Da lifnei mi atah omeid” (“Know before whom you stand”) is the phrase above the Holy Ark in many synagogues. The beginning of this “knowing” is in the blessed relationship we enter into each time we say “Baruch Atah Adonai…”  This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return.  During the coming year, as we return again and again to this simple phrase I encourage you to turn your attention to “Atah” - the One whom you are addressing.  See if it makes a difference in your prayer, and in you.

Wishing you a sweet and meaningful New Year.