High Holiday Sermons: Why We Pray

As your clergy, we spend a lot of our time talking and teaching about prayer: the mechanics of Jewish prayer; the history and theology of our liturgy; the order of the service; when to bow, sit, stand, or sway. As leaders, we think about prayer a lot and we spend hours each day reflecting, thinking, discussing, debating, planning our public worship. We debate the nuance of each piece of music: What does it mean? How does it flow with the overall service? Does the music match the liturgy? How does it touch the soul? Why? Is it inspiring? We plan, we try out, we agonize over every moment of the liturgy. As we begin a new year, we wanted to go a bit deeper and share with you, our holy community, why we pray. Tonight, we share ourselves with you in a deeper way and invite you in to our inner spiritual lives, as together, we wrestle with the great spiritual question: Why do we pray?

Rabbi Jason David Rodich

Jason Head ShotI pray to connect with the Jewish stories about God, and it’s through these stories, these ancient visions, that I find my way back to my better myself and then out again, to other people.  And to peace, wholeness, the sacred, wonder, awe, fear, dread, joy, delight, pride, the sublime.  My humanity.  Our humanity.  The right thing to do.

Modeh ani l’fanecha, I remember that I am grateful to be alive, to encounter each of you here tonight, to be married to my husband, to have a family.  As we rise for the opening psalm of p’zeukei d’zimra, the verses of praise, I feel the weight of that tallit on my shoulder and I am no longer just me.  I am the Jew who has risen for thousands of years with thousands of questions, reaching, hoping, wondering…are you there?  I rise with the heavy Israel breath of millions of Jewish women and men before me, baruch sh’amar v’haya ha’olam, blessed is The One who spoke and thus the world existed, and at least temporarily I learn to believe with all my heart and the sweet baggage of generations.

And then we listen.  Shema Yisrael, Listen oh Israel.  And on a good day I am the little boy with apple juice and messy hair, reciting simple words of faith, hugged and held by a room of faith-singers.  There is one.  It’s my first truth.  Simple, straightforward. The path to light and love is just this. Just this. Just this.

I am almost tired. We’ve said this all before, and still we are here.  Ahavah rabah ahavtanu, God’s love for Israel is eternal and is expressed through a very old and very heavy scroll that is difficult to find words in.  And it smells funny. But then I give in, and I close my eyes, and there is a mountain, and a great-great grandfather, and clouds and tablets.  Truth comes dramatically sometimes. Everything that I thought  I knew was wrong and I have to start all over again.  Sometimes there is revelation. Esa einai el he’herim.  Where is my Sinai?

Ancestors, God’s strength, bow, rise, bow, rise and then it happens.  Kadosh kadosh kadosh.  I lift up three times and I am Isaiah’s vision.  I am an angel. I am a creature that can utter holiness into existence. I pronounce God’s presence and it is both routine and radical.  We’ve said this since forever, and yet I dare to be me and declare God in a world where violence and greed seem to reign supreme.

We’ve been singing for so long, and then it’s time for quiet.   And so I mutter.  Heal me, forgive me, hear me. Build a bright and shining city of peace.  I stand before you because somehow I transformed from pathetically modern and urban to a being in awe before glorious power, begging and pleading for a world much different than this one.  I vision justice, safety and belonging for each of us.  I think of a world transformed from literal insanity to meaning.  We can make this make sense.  I just got a picture of it right here on this page.

Bayom ha-hu, on that day, l’taken ha’olam, we will fix this place. Jerusalem and Gaza City will burst with flowers and song. Ferguson and North Minneapolis and South Chicago will be safe from fear and persecution.   Anachnu korim, it’s for this that we bow, for the possibility. For what might be.  Yitgadal v’yitkadash.  We stand on the shoulders of giants. We’ll get there.  We’ll make it. Oseh shalom, Maker of Peace. I can face the day.

Wendy Goldberg

Wendy  Goldberg 2010I pray in part, for the same reason I love baseball.  For the love of the game.

I love how in baseball, players go up to bat, day after day, week after week, knowing full well that if they’re pretty good, they’ll succeed only a quarter of the time.  If they’re really really really good, they might surpass one third of the time making contact.  It’s the same for me with prayer.  I participate in prayer a lot, and I should only be so lucky to make contact a third of the time.  Make contact with what?  Oh, I’m not sure on that.   I’m in it to make contact–contact with something bigger than me.  Some people call it God, some people call it a higher power.  Mostly I pray because I’m hoping to make contact with me.  To remember who I am and what I care about.  In the hustle and bustle of life, where we are forever on (…Facebook), I pray both to make contact with myself and hopefully remind myself that I’m not the only one, that it doesn’t rest solely on my shoulders, that the mistakes I make are part of the game, so to speak.

I watch baseball players step up to the plate, in front of crowds, knowing that most of the time they’ll strike out, or even if they make contact, they might still get out.  Yet they step up to the plate again and again.  This is how I pray, too.  I might not feel anything sometimes.  I might be in a slump and not even worthy of whatever I’m saying.  Yet I step up to the plate again and again.  Maybe this time I’ll hit a single.  Maybe one day, ONE DAY, I’ll knock it out of the park.

I’ll tell you, though, that in a real baseball game, I’m lousy.  Really bad.  I can’t hit the ball and can’t field the ball very well.  I get flustered and embarrassed on a real team, though thanks to my dad, sitting over there, and my son, who has me playing catch every day after school, I throw fairly well.   In prayer, I might be just a little bit better, because I’ve practiced a whole lot more.  But I still often feel inadequate, even though I know the words and I know the tunes, and I understand the context.  Yet I still step up to the plate.

I love the rituals of prayer.  I LOVE wearing my Zaide’s 92-year-old worn-in t’filin, my absolute favorite Jewish ritual, which is a talk for another day.  I’ve even dared to cover my head with my tallit, to shut out everything around me, and maybe, just maybe, make contact.  With myself.  With, gulp, dare I say, God.  I love the steps and the bows, though I don’t usually intend them for God.  I’d love to, but I’m just not sure on that one.  Just as I love our own little rituals, I love watching baseball players with their little rituals.  Swinging seven times before they signal they are ready for the pitch.  Crossing themselves, holding their necklaces and looking skyward.  Do they really think God is going to help them hit?  Do I really think God is going to help me behave, be productive, stay honest, stay strong?  Not really.  In both scenarios, I think a lot of luck and even more hard work is involved.

So I turn to the siddur.  I LOVE the Mishkan T’filah siddur.  I could write a whole thesis on this siddur, which inspires me every time I open it.  When I’m not the prayer leader, I’m hardly ever on the page of the congregation. I’m always off-road, probably another reason I can’t really play baseball. I’d be the little leaguer sitting in the dirt between third base and short-stop, digging, feeling the sandy dirt.  What I find in the Mishkan T’filah is great wisdom, and insights that help me remember that there’s something bigger than me in the universe, prayers and poems that remind me who I am and why I’m here on earth, how I can be bigger than my struggles, that I can be bigger than the status quo, and that there are higher purposes for being human than I’ve kept track of lately.

And I pray because I love being part of a prayer community.  It’s all about the team for me.  I don’t usually pray on my own,  I rarely ask for things.  But it’s rather hard to hit a baseball when no one’s throwing the ball.  It’s lonely out in left field when a ball never comes your way.  I pray in community because there is a magic to being present in community.  To being present as people say kaddish, celebrate milestones, share sorrows and gratitudes that again, remind me that it’s not all about me, that there’s something much bigger.

Just like the baseball player who’s behind in the count in the ninth inning, the go-ahead run on third, but with two outs, it’s risky business to swing, knowing you might be the one to save the game, you might be the one to lose the game.  Those times that you lose the game, you could quit.  Those times you hit that homerun, you could think you’re always going to, and you’re not.  But the players come back again and again.

So why do I pray?  It’s simple.  For the love of the game.

Rabbi Michael Adam Latz

rabbi-latzI don’t know how not to pray.

I pray because I’m grateful and prayer creates the container, the space for me to say, Thank you, Thank you, Universe, Adonai, Creation, Stars, Moon, Ancestors, for the life I have; Thank you for our beautiful daughters whose very creation would have been impossible a generation ago; Thank you for my tender rock of a husband, for our parents and siblings; for this amazing, wild, wondrous life; for the privilege of being a rabbi, for being human. B’makom shein anashim, hishtadel l’hiyot ish. I pray because in the places where people forget to be human, we are compelled to act humanely.

I pray because it is so damn easy to fall asleep, to ignore the majesty and agony of the world around us: Hitor’ri, Hitor’ri. Wake up! Wake up to the pain and the joy and messiness of life, all of it! Wake up to the world as it should be. But wake up. That’s the shofar: Our spiritual alarm clock. T’kiyah: Are we awake to our great spiritual potential? Sh’varim: Are we paying attention to the brokenness inside us and around us? T’ruah: Are we awake to the beating heart inside of us, the mystery of life? T’kiyah G’dolah: Are we present and awake to how big the world is and the call to bring expansive love into the world?

I pray because sometimes the world is so beautiful, the words get stuck in the back of my neck and prayer is my ecstatic, joyous, spontaneous response: Kol Haneshamah t’hallel Yah. Every breath, every being, Hallelujah!

I pray that my hands will be tender enough to turn the pages of old photo albums, where the pages are yellowing and the binding starting to fray, but the images are too precious to discard, too binding to let go.

I pray that I can live forever and never miss a minute of our daughter’s lives, because loving them and parenting them with Michael has been the greatest joy of my life.

I pray that someday, despite all the funerals I’ve lead and caskets I’ve helped lower into the ground and shovel fulls of dirt I’ve thrown back to the earth, I might accept that people die even though my heart is shattered into a million pieces and I pray that my heart stays compassionate when sitting with others pain and grief.

I pray that I know when I don’t know, that my heart will wake up, my compassion will be released, that I will be able to listen-deeply, carefully, lovingly-listen to how I can be a vessel of tikkun-healing and repair-to others in our world.

I pray for the courage to be defiant against despair, to stand up against those who do violence against the human spirit, who turn weapons into idols, who fail to appreciate the sublime determination it takes to be human.

I pray for the courage to forgive and to be forgiven, to find an opening wide enough to believe in our shared humanity, strong enough to let go of past hurts, wise enough to know that people are beautiful and complicated and frustrating and chutzpadik and fabulous.

I pray to be real. If we can’t share the truth of life, the mystery, the joy, the agony, the heart ache; if we can’t lift the wedding couples high into the air and weep tears of joy and if we can’t sob when we say Kaddish, and we can’t be touched by a child coming to Torah or a parent’s blessing or welcoming a baby into the covenant of the Jewish people, then what on earth are we doing here?

I pray to be ecstatically alive-to feel all the agony, the joy, the possibility, the longing, the hurt, the laughter, the promise of this New Year. Prayer is the response, the visceral, tender, cellular, radically absurd perspective that we are more than a mass of cells, that this life means something, and our great spiritual responsibility is to seek out that meaning and hold it and shape it and demand it grow!

I pray in the spirit and memory of my great teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (z”l), that “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.” When I weep with survivors of gun violence and with my brothers and sisters working to end racism and Israelis and Muslims slogging through the emotional swampland of co-existence and good people of faith whose souls long to sing, we rise in prayer against the cynics and the peddlers of misfortune to proclaim there is hope and dignity and purpose and love. Prayer offers a vision for the universe, as the rabbis taught, the way it should be.

Why do I pray? To take a leap of mystery, to crack open our hearts, to live as a full human beings. Praying, in this New Year, is embodying the pain of this summer and the joy of new possibility; to grasp, somewhere, at the edge of the abyss, when the shofar causes my heart to tremble and my hands to shake, somewhere at the edge of memory and nostalgia, we have a chance to begin the world anew with the only thing that truly matters: love.