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Measuring Ourselves – Behar-Behuqqotai 5777

There is a classic Hasidic story about Reb Zusya of Anapol:

As he lay on his death bed, Reb Zusya trembled with fear. His students asked him why he was afraid. Reb Zusya said, “In the world to come, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Avraham Avinu, or Sarah Imeinu, or Moshe Rabbeinu / Moses our Teacher?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?'”

reb zusya of anapol

The final resting place of Reb Zusya of Anapol

How do we understand ourselves? That is, when we take those rare moments of reflection, how do we measure our emotions, our choices, our relationships? How do we judge ourselves?

Now of course I’m not talking about the tangibles. I’m not concerned with what you do for a living, or how much money you earn, or how many children you have or what kind of car you drive, although we for sure know that there are people who measure themselves according to those things. And let’s face it: those are easy things to measure.

What’s much harder is the internals, the intangibles. How do we understand who we are and why we behave the way we do? How do we evaluate whether we have made the right choices? Not so easy, or so measurable.

One possibility is that we measure ourselves based on the range of our life experiences. Who were the people in our lives whom we trusted, who taught us many useful ideas and skills? Who were the people that served as role models? What are the thoughts and principles that we have acquired that drive our choices, that sanctify our relationships?

For many of us, that will include our parents. It might also include teachers whom we remember fondly, or neighbors, or public figures, or authors. It would probably include some of the things that they taught us, the sayings and phrases that they gave us that come to the fore when we need them.

Those learned principles will certainly also include the lessons learned the hard way – the time that a good friend engaged in risky behavior that landed him in the hospital; the colleague who continued dating the person that was clearly wrong for her, and eventually was devastated when the relationship ended.

We hear these voices and we draw on them when we need them – to evaluate ourselves, to check our behavior, to  judge our choices.

I recall once being on a highway during my previous life in Houston, when suddenly there was a downpour that suggested Parashat Noah. Suddenly, I couldn’t see a thing, even though the wipers were on full blast. And then, out of nowhere, I heard my mother’s voice: “Get off the road!” she said, firmly. And I did. My safety, my mother said, was more important than whatever I was headed to.

We take the most salient things that stick in our heads, the pieces of wisdom that we accumulate as we go through life, and we refashion them for our own purposes, to be our measuring-sticks as we move through life. We pull them out, usually sub-consciously, when we need to re-examine that framework, to chart our course through life, to make decisions. They are all part of the glue that holds our lives together as we continue on our own personal journey.

We measure ourselves through the lens of past experiences and our reactions to them.

***

Now the interesting thing here is that Jewish prayer, tefillah, is a kind of model for this very phenomenon.

You may have heard me say that the essence of tefillah, of Jewish prayer, is self-judgment. Prayer is not just mumbling curious words in an ancient language – it has a structure, themes, choreography, history, customs, tradition, laws, etc. And the Hebrew word for “to pray,” lehitpallel, is actually a reflexive verb, meaning that you do it to yourself. The relatively obscure root, פלל (p-l-l), actually means “to judge.” So when we rise to lehitpallel, we are standing in judgment of ourselves.

And tefillah, prayer, is meant to be a text upon which we meditate when we stand in judgment. It is the Jewish mantra. And it is filled with the most resonant, the most appealing bits of Jewish text. Let me explain:

Everything in the siddur was assembled from previously-existing words and phrases, mostly from the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible. It’s almost like a quilt made from recycled cloth: these phrases were selected from various textual sources and re-fashioned to suit the needs of the composer. These composers lived throughout the last 2,000 years in different places around the Jewish world; some we know, and some we do not. But all of them abided by the simple rule that these quilts are stitched together from the ancient sources. (A few  things, like the three paragraphs of the Shema, are direct quotes from the Torah, and were therefore not composed specifically for prayer, but most of the siddur is not like that.)

This quilt is warm, reassuring. The swatches of material repurposed for regular use bring together ancient wisdom and the gravitas of generations of Jews, who clung to them through the centuries and across continents, through pogroms and triumphs, through forced expulsions and Zionist yearnings.

There were, in today’s haftarah / prophetic reading, a bunch of these nuggets that have been recycled throughout our liturgical tradition:

בָּרוּךְ הַגֶּבֶר, אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בַּה’; וְהָיָה ה’, מִבְטַחוֹ

Barukh hagever asher yivtah badonai, vehayah Adonai mivtaho.

Blessed is the one who trusts in God, for God will be his stronghold. (Jeremiah 17:7)

This line appears in two places: in Birkat Hamazon, the “grace after meals,” and also in a section at the end of the weekday morning service called Qedusha deSidra.

וְהָיָה כְּעֵץ שָׁתוּל עַל-מַיִם

Vehayah ke-etz shatul al mayim

[God shall be] like a tree planted upon the water (17:8)

This is quoted in the piyyut (liturgical poem) called “Geshem” (“Rain”), recited on Shemini Atzeret in the fall, anticipating the beginning of the rainy season in Israel.

בֹּחֵן כְּלָיוֹת

Bohen kelayot

[God is] the one who searches the heart (lit. checks the kidneys) (17:10)

This image of God appears in a piyyut for High Holidays, Vekhol Ma’aminim (“And all believe…”).

וְלָתֵת לְאִישׁ כִּדְרָכָו, כִּפְרִי מַעֲלָלָיו

Velatet le-ish kidrakhav, kifri ma’alalav.

… to give to every person according to his ways, to each the fruit of his doings. (17:10)

An adapted version of this appears in the standard funeral liturgy, in the section recited after burial called “Tzidduq HaDin,” the justification of the decree.

רְפָאֵנִי יְהוָה וְאֵרָפֵא, הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה:  כִּי תְהִלָּתִי, אָתָּה

Refa-eni Adonai ve-erafe, hoshi’eini ve-ivashe’ah, ki tehilati attah.

Heal me, God, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved; for you are my praise. (17:14)

This is found in the weekday Amidah, recited three times a day, except that the language we recite has been pluralized (i.e. “Heal us, God, and we shall be healed…”).

What is the lesson here?

One of the beautiful things about Jewish practice, about living our lives in Jewish time, is that we benefit from a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. Our textual sources, our collective body of knowledge, has enabled us as a people to see farther, as Sir Isaac Newton put it, by standing on the shoulders of giants.

shoulders of giants

When you walk into a synagogue and pick up a siddur, whether you know the history and development of the material therein, whether you can read Hebrew or not or know the melodies, you can rely on the fact that what is contained within is tested by time and filled with the best bits of Jewish tradition. You may not agree with it all (and I certainly struggle with some things in our liturgy), but at least you know that it is a genuine product of generations, and that all you have to do is pick it up to stand on their shoulders.

lev shalem

And, pulling back the lens, this very Jewish idea can infuse our entire lives with holiness. Just as the siddur / prayerbook, the Jewish mantra, is based on the most inspiring pieces of ancient text, just as the vehicle for self-judgment is a quilt of the wisdom of our ancestors, so too do we understand ourselves by peeking through the lens of the lessons we have gleaned from our most important teachers, the people who have personally given us their lessons. So too do we measure our lives by drawing upon all of the most powerful pieces of wisdom handed to us by others.

The lessons that we draw from our educators, parents, and friends help us to measure ourselves. We stand on their shoulders and thrive on their wisdom to give us clearer vision about who we are, about how we relate to others.

And that is what we do throughout our lives.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/20/2017.)

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The Ballet, the Symphony, and the Siddur – Vayyiqra 5776

By some strange series of coincidences, Judy and I managed to attend both the ballet and the symphony last weekend. (This is one of the greatest advantages to Pittsburgh over New York, BTW – while NYC may have far more options for cultural offerings, here it is cheaper and easier to see world-class performers. Just one more reason why Pittsburgh is truly awesome.)

Upon leaving Heinz Hall, Judy made the observation to me that at times, listening to a symphony orchestra live is similar to the experience of sitting in synagogue services and letting the sounds of tefillah wash over you and put you in a meditative zone.  It is a distinctly “low-tech” experience, where you seemingly do nothing more than sit.  But, psychically, spiritually, so much is happening in this state.

While I must say that usually I am a little more engaged in the recitation of words of tefillah rather than letting it “wash over me,” I certainly appreciate where she is coming from. The synagogue experience, in some ways, is the culmination of two thousand years, and arguably three thousand years of development. It is a highly-refined, carefully-constructed piece of spiritual canvas upon which the words of liturgy have been painted. Love it or hate it (not all of us are shul-goers), the synagogue experience, that is, davening / sitting in the pews is certainly the most well-known image of observant Jewish practice.

And, like the symphony and the ballet, it functions on a few different levels. On the one hand, all can enter and participate (by merely being in the audience and listening or watching or following along in the siddur / prayerbook). On the other, to truly appreciate what is being created and referenced and invoked in its vast complexity, requires much more knowledge and effort.

2011 PittsburghSymphonyOrchestra Fisheye.jpeg

Pittsburgh Symphony. ZsadlerTemplate:MichaelSahaida,photographer

And in some sense, the origin of Jewish prayer is drawn from the parashah that we read this morning, Parashat Vayyiqra, which details the basic types of sacrifices offered on an ongoing basis in the Temple. The sacrificial system, as practiced in the mishkan (portable altar) and later the First and Second Temples, was the earliest form of Israelite worship, and arguably the ancestor of tefillah / prayer. Rambam (aka Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1205 Spain, Morocco, and Egypt) tells us that the ultimate goal of animal sacrifice was to bring us to the better mode of worship, that is, tefillah, the prayers of our hearts, minds, and lips.

So, while I am happy (as a vegetarian and a lover of animals) that we have not offered animal sacrifices since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE (thanks, Rome!), I must concede that the very holy acts in which we have been engaged this morning are originally derived from Parashat Vayyiqra and the sacrificial rites of ancient Israelite tradition.

Back to the ballet and the symphony. Consider the following: the siddur / prayerbook that you hold in front of you is a pastiche of texts, poems, instructions, customs, and choreography that span Jewish history. The oldest parts are ancient writings that may be 3000 years old; these are drawn from the TaNaKH, the Hebrew Bible: the Shema, the Psalms of Pesuqei Dezimra, Veshamru, etc.  And then there is a whole range of composed prayers from the rabbinic period, in the first couple of centuries of the Common Era. Not counting the brand-new material like the Prayers for the Country and the State of Israel, the youngest parts are only about 500 years old, poems like Lekha Dodi.

The range of piyyutim, liturgical poems (the Hebrew word piyyut is a borrowing from the Greek poietes, poet) spans over a thousand years; the payyetanim, clever wordsmiths from the Middle Ages, wrote thousands of these special additions to the siddur. In certain periods of Jewish history, congregations looked forward to hearing newly-composed piyyutim presented by the hazzan (cantor) every Shabbat.

The structure of every Jewish service, like a symphony or a ballet, has multiple movements. Every service has a specific formula, and they are all built around two things: Shema and Amidah. The Shema (along with the berakhot / blessing structures around it) we say morning and night, as instructed in the first paragraph. The Amidah, the silent, standing prayer, replaced the daily morning and afternoon sacrifices in the wake of the Temple’s destruction. Together, the Shema and Amidah may be thought of as the central movements of the symphony, sometimes accompanied by special extra pieces that appear from time to time: reading the Torah, the joyous Psalms of Hallel, and so forth.

Choreography: Tefillah is a kind of dance! We step forward, away from our everyday selves and into the heavenly court when we begin the Amidah; we step back at the end to return. We bow at certain times. We elevate ourselves like angels during Qedushah, our feet held tightly together like the heavenly beings described by Ezekiel in his vision of the chariot (Ezekiel, chapter 1). We shuckle – sway to put our whole body behind our words. We stand, we sit, we cover our eyes, we march around with the Torah.

History. Like the ballet and the symphony, each movement of tefillah / prayer has a story behind it. The Amidah, for example, is rooted in Talmudic literature, and, as I said earlier, is understood to replace the daily sacrifices about which we read earlier.

In the weekday Amidah, the original eighteen berakhot (benedictions) recited three times daily were standardized by Shim’on HaPaquli in the Beit Midrash of Rabban Gamliel in Yavneh during the first century CE (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 17b).

And there are stories behind the choreography and the customs. Why do we recite silently the line after the opening line of the Shema (“Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le’olam va’ed”)? Not only because it’s not in the Torah (unlike the rest of the three paragraphs of the Shema), but also because a midrash tells us that when God gave these words to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, the heavenly court of angels (yes, more angels!) responded with these words. So we add them, but only in an undertone to prevent breaking up the words of the Torah.

History, culture, our stories have all shaped the siddur.

And yet, the siddur is a work that is still in flux. Really, everything in the category of Talmud Torah, learning the words of Jewish tradition and passing them down from generation to generation, is a work in progress. While the text of the Torah does not change, the way that we read it and understand it certainly does.

Likewise, the symphony and the ballet have changed:

  • instruments have changed
  • tuning has changed
  • audience taste has changed
  • training of dancers has changed
  • interpretations have changed

And so forth.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

And we, the Jews, have changed as well. So too have our modes of prayer. And yet there is a kernel of continuity which will always make our services uniquely Jewish: the Hebrew language, the structures of berakhot, the basic “dance” moves, the silent moments, etc.

The symphony will continue. We will always dance through the choreography of services, to create that sacred space through reciting our ancient (and not-as-ancient) words from movement to movement. Whether you let it wash over you like a member of the audience or you are first violin or a principal ballerina, leading the whole endeavor, the pieces fit together in a harmonic, choreographed expression of what it means to resonate with Jewish history, culture, and tradition.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/19/2016.)

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