Baruch Atah - You Are Praised-Rabbi Joshua Hoffman
Yom Kippur 5778
Hillel the Elder wasn’t born the great sage of Israel or the key founder of our rabbinic tradition. The legend has it that the poor student would garner just enough wages each day to provide sustenance for his body and to pay his entrance into the Beit Midrash, where study of the richness of Jewish tradition was found. One one occasion, Hillel was unable to acquire sufficient funds to enter the Beit Midrash. Undeterred by this setback, he climbed to the roof of the study hall to listen to the lesson. That night was Erev Shabbat and a snowstorm covered the city. young Hillel was left atop the Beit Midrash freezing to death. When the masters of the academy discovered what had happened, they brought him into safety, they even warmed his body contrary to the prohibitions of Shabbat and the use of fire.
It’s a model of devotion. The story teaches us that we are encouraged to enter into study and prayer, despite the most challenging of circumstances. Stories like this from the rabbis enliven our definitions of being Jewish.
Personally, I love rabbinic stories. For me, I consciously choose to enact the drama unfolded throughout the pages of the Talmud - with all the faith and all the doubt - the law and the legend - the dialogue and the soliloquies. It lures me to study and practice further. If someone like the great Hillel was once poor and put his life in danger to study, what could I possibly face that would prevent me from study? Listening to the tales of the rabbis is sweet, at times inspiring, even nostalgic.
The most powerful story from the rabbis took place just about 2000 years ago. Our people were witness to a cataclysmic event. Roman forces assaulted Jerusalem, the central location of our expressions of devotion to God. The culture, the practices and ways of Jews which were commanded from the time of the Exodus were destroyed. The Temple was gone. The Jews were defeated. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was smuggled out of the burning fortress, in a coffin no less, to establish the academy in the city of Yavneh, just south of what is now Tel Aviv.
This tragedy of destruction and inspiration of renewal is well rehearsed in our calendar. We are inextricably linked to this singular moment, in many ways more than any other historical event in our thousands of years as a people. In the wake of this catastrophe, our rabbis made an adaptation. We would no longer offer sacrifices to a God ejected from God’s home. In the absence of sacrifice, prayer would replace the daily offering. And so it began - first they used to recite the Ten Commandments daily. Then they found the Shema. Then the Amidah, which was recited during the week, on Shabbat, throughout holidays.
Our biblical ancestors offered lots of prayers. Abraham prayed to God for his future. Moses prayed to God to heal his sister, Miriam. Hannah prayed to God for a child. Job prayed to God for understanding. Spontaneous, heartfelt and focused on the concerns of the human condition. They didn’t pray an Amidah or Shema. Sure, the rabbis inserted these words into their mythic mouths to justify how the prayer service originated from them. It’s somewhat confusing. Prayers of the heart or prayers of the book?
We’ve learned well the modes and rhythms of Jewish prayer practice because the rabbis taught us so. We’ve even adapted them for contemporary voices, music to move our spirits, chants and meditations to gain greater focus. It’s impossible to imagine what would have happened if we had forgotten about the destruction of Jerusalem through the rabbis’ prayers. Judaism would not be the timeless religion it has become without perpetually making the adaptation of prayer in place of sacrifice.
In some ways, this prayer model fails us. We pinpoint one disaster or cataclysmic event in our own lives and pray for understanding. We look to the news and focus our attention to atrocities and threats, one after another and pray for the strength of decency to prevail over chaos. We pray when our loved ones are struggling with life and death, physically and emotionally in these moments, but not with the words of the Amidah or the Shema.
In our day, we lose their language, their metaphor, the awe and grandeur they aspired to. We’ve built cathedrals of space for our prayer, and still there is an emptiness of the spirit within the sanctuaries of our day. We’ll twist and wring meaning from the words of the Siddur, attempting to reclaim the power of prayer our ancestors wished for us. And, we’ll respectfully place the words into the back of the seat as we exit the room.
Once there was an international journalist on duty in Jerusalem. She happened to witness a man walking toward the Western Wall, the Kotel, each day in the morning and afternoon. One day she walked alongside the man and began to question him on his routine. “How often do you come here to pray?” “I’ve come here every day for the past 25 years.” “25 years?!” What are you praying for?” “I pray for peace in this angry world in the morning. I tell God about my troubles and then I go home, have my lunch and return in the afternoon. In the afternoon, I pray for a world free of illness and disease.” The reporter is amazed. “How do you feel after 25 years and praying for the same things day after day?” “I feel like I’m talking to a wall.”
Prayer to a wall is no prayer.
So much of this is the natural consequence of our evolution as human beings. Emile Durkheim was the first great sociologist who observed that in the ideological shift toward the self, meaning and significance ultimately rest within the self. Without an object of sacred attention, a God, we now turn to the self for meaning. There is no other, but the self. If it is good for me, I will do it. If not, then I won’t. It’s truly that powerful. At best, it is why there has been so much focus on the self encounter in prayer. So much so that we miss the balance in the equation. Durkheim coined a fancy term for this. He called it ‘collective effervescence.’ A self is not fully realized as a self until the draws of society lure him into the pulse of the collective.
In the 18th century, the Baal Shem Tov came forward to reclaim prayer for us anew as well. He was known to take his disciples deep into the forest to seek out and ritualize the act of prayer, not from the collected work of our ancestors, but from the heart, from the soul, from the self. He taught us that even by focusing on one word, even one single letter, a person can fulfill his obligation in prayer. He wasn’t rejecting the rabbinical model. He simply identified the problem. People don’t pray the Amidah. They read it, they internalize it, they speak it aloud. But to pray it? Can prayer be recovered? Can we recover prayer? We need to seek deeper.
It’s not that we don’t pray. On the contrary, the statistics suggest that all of us have at least a few minutes a day in some form of prayer. We feel prayerful in stadiums, in theaters, in nature. What we gain in a sense of awe, we lose in the pews. We have prayerful moments and should expect our tradition to resonate with our need, our despair and our fear, our gratitude and our joy.
This past summer, I witnessed the full solar eclipse on the banks of a lake in Wyoming. Nature does not get any more beautiful than that. The most moving experiences of that day wasn’t the astronomical magnificence of the sun’s corona around the moon - to be sure that is what will bring me back to watch future eclipses - but it was the incredible and spontaneous eruption of applause, laughter, tears, and joy in the presence of the moment. That alone was prayerful. What made the moment even more worthy of prayers of thanksgiving and joy was that we were flanked by families from England, Canada, and Italy. Language itself was irrelevant because we had the common shared experience. It was a global phenomenon and prayer happened there.
My teacher, Rabbi Bradley Artson taught that the Torah is the book of the priests. The Talmud is the book of the rabbis. The Siddur should be the book of the people. But a quick glance above the book spine reveals that this isn’t entirely the case. Language barriers, thematic obstructions, attention deficits make this book less accessible than ever before. When the subject of prayer departs from the formulaic constructions of the Siddur, there is a letdown in our prayer experience, even to the amateur or occasional petitioner. This is key - prayer is not a rabbinical secret that a few devout have access to. Like exercise for the body, prayer is exercise for the human spirit. We all need it to stay healthy and vital. But as things stand, we are more like Hillel upon the rooftop of the Academy freezing to death in search of meaning.
Each generation has instituted new forms of prayer into the Jewish lexicon to alleviate this problem. We have permission, unlike changing the laws of Torah, to accommodate a life of prayer to our needs. Music, meditation, erudite interpretation. Prayer as study has become the great threshold of experience. We even come together today to reenact the ways and customs of our people through prayer, mostly to learn from them. And in our days, the destination of prayer is the self - jumbles of neurons, emotions, rationality, and ego.
We can understand prayer for others. We can understand prayer as gratitude, even forgiveness. (Kind of ironic when the self is the center of the universe, isn’t it?) Rabbinic prayer aspires to something else. Prayer to God. But, have the rabbis endowed us with a functional model for us to use even today?
More than a momentary expression of need, of seeking clarity, purpose, and balance, effective prayer is the radical notion that we are bringing God into this world. Prayer, teaches Heschel, is more than a bridge between us and the unknown. It is to bring, in his words, ‘to bring God home.’ Thousands of years since the Temple was destroyed, there has been no home for God. And so, the surprising answer to this challenge is to empower us to make a home for God.
Making known that which is uncertain, doubtful, unclear in our lives - the well-being of loved ones, curing the maladies of humanity, fully understanding the consequences of our actions - these are attempts to know that which is unknown. As such, there really is nothing unknowable in this world. Prayer is the tool to attain this knowledge in our home.
Thousands of years ago, the rabbis constructed an elegant palace through prayer to welcome God’s presence in the wake of destruction. Today, we’re building a home here and our prayers are the steel-reinforced, concrete-bound beams that hold this sanctuary together. It’s our responsibility to beautify the hallways, decorate the social halls, soften the chambers with our prayers. Their words are the frame for our prayers today. Our prayers are the heart that pulsates throughout the palace.
Let’s build this home together.
We’re embarking on a year of experimentation with our prayer experiences. Introducing new melodies and bringing us into a community of presence is a great first step toward the goal of being known through our prayer. The music is here to move us, not simply to entertain our spirits or to achieve equanimity and tranquility in our existential struggles. This move brings us to the place where we can enter prayer, where what we say to ourselves and to our God take greater significance.
I propose we focus our prayer lives in a few ways for this coming year.
Vocabulary - While Jews speak to God in Hebrew, this gyration of the tongue is more than stresses and gutturals. The words have a poetry and elegance that cannot be fully translated. Chesed, Rachamim, Bracha. These are concepts that echo from the resonance of creation. Prayer is the attunement to these vibrations. And here is the secret. Regular practice and rehearsal of the words transcend the intonations and can elevate us to the sublime. We are not Hillel’s. We can enter through the front door here.
Action - Taking responsibility in this world isn’t an impulsive response to the needs of the moment, though there is an abiding cry for our response daily. Authentic prayer helps us listen carefully to the throbs of suffering and need around us and gives us strength and determination to help where we can. We often teach that Jewish prayer cannot take place without windows. Beyond the practical implications of being able to actually see what is going on, the window serves as a focal point. We pray as we peer out the window, to respond to needs of the world around us. And, the window lets in the light of the world so that our prayer unifies us with all of creation.
Joy - We feel it at the stadium, in the theater, on the banks of the lake or atop the mountains. The overwhelming sense of connection we can feel with the world around us is the single most important quality we can master as human beings. Joy is not found scrolling through Facebook or Instagram threads. Rather, joy is when our presence, our words, our actions are felt together.
There is no doubt prayer is difficult. Beyond the obstacles which are real and at times formidable, the constancy and commitment to prayer is simply a challenge in our everyday lives. I’m asking you to make an investment in prayer for yourself and our community. On Rosh HaShanah we spoke about the struggles in asking for help. Learning to pray together is how our community answers.
Baruch Atah - You are Praised. Recite these words first with your mind, then with your soul. Baruch Atah - My prayer for this New Year is that we deepen our prayer life together - we struggle and find inspiration together - we write and rewrite the prayers of our tradition together. And may this year’s journey bring us to greater heights of belief and practice together.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah.