I was in church last Sunday afternoon. Admittedly, it was the first time I’d been to a church service in a while.
I participated in an interfaith prayer gathering in support of the people of Ukraine at St. Paul’s Cathedral, presided over by Bishop Zubik of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese. In attendance were people from across the religious spectrum of the region, including Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian spiritual leaders, as well as over 500 attendees. While some of the overtly Christian language was uncomfortable to me, the overarching message was a resonant one: we stand with the Ukrainian people. In addition to words of prayer and remarks by some of the clergy participants, including a very moving personal story from Father Ihor Hohosha of St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, the service was occasionally punctuated by people calling out, “Slava Ukraini!” “Glory to Ukraine!”
It was inspiring to see so many people together in one place – the first indoor gathering of that size that I have attended in two whole years, and all the more so to unite across theological lines in support of a cause.
One might criticize such a gathering by saying, “OK, that’s great. But what the Ukrainians need is actual, material support – arms, military personnel, humanitarian aid, and so forth. What good does having an interfaith prayer service do?”
Actually, ladies and gentlemen, prayer accomplishes a lot. And that’s why we are about to launch Beth Shalom’s #ComeBacktoShul campaign. I’ll come back to that in a few minutes.
What does tefillah / Jewish prayer accomplish? And why engage in it?
Here are the major communal and individual benefits:
- Tefillah / prayer brings us physically together. As you know, you have to have a minyan, a quorum of 10 people for it to be a complete service. That means you have to show up, something which is hard enough today even without a worldwide pandemic. And, as we have all learned in abundance over the past two years, being in the same room with other people is much better than seeing your fellow participants on your screen.
- Tefillah makes us feel like a community. אל תפרוש מן הציבור, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” says Pirqei Avot. When we have at least 10 people together in a room, we feel interconnected. We understand that we are parts of a greater whole. We build a qehillah qedoshah, a congregation founded in holiness.
- Prayer sensitizes us to the needs of the other. If you are doing it right, engaging in tefillah reminds you that, in this solitary moment of ritual, we are connected to God, to each other, to our ancient tradition. It reminds us that connection requires being open to and aware of the people around us. There is a custom that many have of giving tzedaqah during the weekday morning service, because that is a moment in which we are most sensitized to the needy around us. (We cannot pass the tzedaqah box on Shabbat, because handling money is forbidden on Shabbat; nonetheless, even on Shabbat, tefillah should lead us to see the Divine spark in everybody.)
One of the first things that we say as part of the morning service is from Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century kabbalist (you can find this on p. 102 in Lev Shalem):
הריני מקבל עלי מצות הבורא: ואהבת לרעך כמוך
I hereby accept the obligation of fulfilling the Creator’s mitzvah: Love your neighbor as yourself.
We cannot even begin to daven without first acknowledging that we are in relationship with the people around us.
- Tefillah is meditation. Jews are never silent, even when they pray. Our meditation is not like Eastern meditation; our mantra is in Hebrew, and has many more words. But if you are truly mindful about your prayer, if you are truly in the moment and successfully let go of the other things that are tugging at your attention during services, our prayer tradition functions the same way. That too is very hard. But if you commit yourself to doing it regularly, you will achieve the same thing that you might achieve in other kinds of meditation.
- Tefillah teaches Torah. The highest ideal in Jewish life is learning; the most essential mitzvah out of all 613 is engaging with words of Torah. If you are paying attention, prayer is study, and study is prayer; they reinforce and build on each other.
- Tefillah means “self-judgment.” If you are doing it properly, prayer is an opportunity to check in with yourself, to evaluate where you are, what you have done right and wrong, and to see if you can tip the scales in the right direction. As with all of the items above, tefillah is a tool for improving yourself and improving your community and your world. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught that, as we open our mouths in prayer, we should start by saying, “Dear God, whatever jealousies and resentments I might harbor in my heart, please remove this judgment from me.” Self-judgment.
Yes, for Jewish prayer there is a high bar. Even if you cannot read Hebrew, you still have to be able to manage transliteration. And you have to know when to respond, and when to be silent, when to stand/sit, when to bow, and so forth. And to understand the meaning of the words – to be able to glean something from them, that takes real work. I had many semesters of liturgy and liturgical Hebrew in Cantorial School, and I still encounter words or idioms I do not understand.
But of course some of those things do not require a deep knowledge. The mere act of gathering as a community so that we can feel connected to one another is an outcome that we can all achieve, even if you don’t know the words, or when to bow.
And yet, every time we gather for a service, we raise the level of qedushah / holiness in ourselves, in our relationships, and in our community. And in doing so, all of the benefits I just mentioned help us work toward improving this world.
So even though Ukraine is very far away, our gathering to say words of prayer on behalf of the Ukrainian people will surely help, even though we might not see the results immediately. Every prayer helps a little bit.
Which brings us back to why we are here. Yes, we are here this morning to celebrate with a bar mitzvah as he is called to the Torah. Yes, we are here to be with each other, to have lunch together.
But more pointedly, we are here to pray. And we do that every day at Beth Shalom, twice a day, morning and evening.
And we need you to come back to pray with us. In person.
Thank God, our rates of transmission are as low now as they were last summer. Thank God, many of us now are boosted. We hope that soon young children will be able to be vaccinated as well. I am grateful, and I am sure that you are too.
I have heard recently from multiple members of Beth Shalom, in different ways and using different language, that right now, after two years of pandemic, they feel disconnected from our community. Well, folks, there is just one solution to that: #ComeBacktoShul.
We need you to be here. Physically. In-person. We need you to come back. We are waiting for you.
And we need you to bring a friend. Find the people whom you know have not returned, and invite them to come back as well. We will welcome everybody with group air hugs all around.
So here are a couple of practical considerations:
- We are still wearing masks in the building, at least for a couple of more weeks. We want to be sure that everybody feels safe. It’s not going to be so easy for us to simply start to gather again. It still makes me a bit nervous to be around unmasked people right now. But that is a temporary thing. We’ll get used to it again.
- We are serving food again, and I hope that we’ll be able to start up our weekday-morning breakfasts soon.
- We will continue to make our services available via Zoom. However, within the coming months we will no longer be, as we have been for the past two years, in the mode of “she’at hadeḥaq,” which is rabbi-speak for “an urgent situation.” As the urgency of the moment recedes, we are going to return to the mode where a minyan is constituted only by people in the room, and we will not count Zoom participants toward that minyan. That will be a big change for our weekday minyanim, so you might want to consider helping us out morning and evening, so that we can continue to make a quorum. I anticipate that (if everything continues moving the right direction) this change will be coming around Pesaḥ.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that the Jewish center of worship is an ecumenical space, one that is for everybody. Isaiah says (56:7):
כִּ֣י בֵיתִ֔י בֵּית־תְּפִלָּ֥ה יִקָּרֵ֖א לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים׃
For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Rabbi David Qimḥi, a late 12th/early 13th c. French commentator, also known by his acronym רד”ק (Radaq), said this about this verse:
וגם אל הנכרי כל שכן לשבים לדת ישראל:
And if Isaiah’s words applies to non-Jews, all the more so to those who are returning to Jewish worship.
This house is open to you, and to everybody. Now is the time to return. We need you to join us in prayer. The world needs you; the people of Ukraine need you. #ComeBacktoShul.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/12/2022.)