This post was originally given as a Kol Nidre sermon by Rabbi Aaron Weininger at Adath Jeshurun.
I returned home one night and found an email waiting from a rabbinic colleague, Julia, addressed to a small group of friends. “Wishing you guys a happy and healthy New Year,” it began. “May this year bring each of you only good things. (And while I’m at it, she wrote, you all know what Dave and I want more than anything in the coming year – so please include us in your prayers.)” Those of us reading the email knew what Julia and Dave wanted more than anything — to end the pain of infertility and to give birth to a child. That is the prayer of their hearts.
Earlier that night at Sebastian Joe’s, I celebrated with Jill and Devora who surprised their family and friends when they decided to get their marriage license under Minnesota’s new law. For these two women, the prayer of their hearts was recognized in the eyes of the law.
On this night, the prayers of our hearts are tucked away like precious letters in a desk drawer, waiting to be opened.
The ancient wisdom of the Talmud teaches, rachmana liba bai, “God desires what’s inside the heart.” The name of our new mahzor, Lev Shalem, means a full heart. It suggests both the power and irony of the High Holy Day prayerbook. God’s name fills the pages, but the holidays are not really about the words between our hands. They are about the words of the heart, the relationships face-to-face that form and tear and need mending. The formal text can only take us so far.
What is the prayer of your heart?
The prayer may be to find companionship or to heal from illness. It may be to rekindle faith, to reconcile with a family member or friend, to have more patience. The prayer may be to let go or to forgive. It may be to find comfort from loss.
I have a hard time praying to “God the Sky Judge,” a God who sits on a throne with a long white beard; who keeps a checklist, rewarding the good and punishing the bad. Life is more complicated than that. Is not God also?
I do believe God is sitting somewhere, as I felt God’s presence in the leafy overhang at Sebastian Joe’s, sheltering Jill and Devora as they became a married couple after 12 years together. Even God enjoys a scoop of ice cream before the weather turns ungodly cold.
And I do believe God is writing somewhere. I imagine God’s tears record the brokenness of the world—as Julia and Dave struggle with infertility and seek the help of God through the hands of doctors and nurses.
Rachmana liba bai, “God desires what’s inside the heart.”
Tonight the prayers of our hearts reach the Holy One of Blessing when we make ourselves vulnerable, when we open ourselves to being in relationship with one another and to the joy and pain of being human.
God hears our prayers. God’s tears fall when God witnesses our pain, God’s laughter erupts when God sees our joy. Our prayers are heard by one another when we ignite the Divine spark within, to connect to the glow of another soul. By refraining from the distraction of material pleasures, we allow the spark inside to shine brighter on Yom Kippur. We commit ourselves to the ways of the Holy One of Blessing by becoming a Holy Space of Blessing. Our prayers are heard when we gather tonight, exposed in our mortality, fasting, admitting that we have missed the mark. Will we be awake enough to cry when God cries, to laugh when God laughs, to respond to one another’s prayers?
The texts of Kol Nidrei attune us to the heart: Hat libeinu l’yirah et’sh’mecha… “Open our hearts to revere your name, circumcise our hearts to love you: then
we will turn to You, faithfully, with a perfect heart.”
Let us offer prayers from the heart to make the words of the mahzor resonate with meaning in our community.
Tonight a couple who struggles with infertility is praying next to a widow who mourns the empty space in bed,
who is praying next to parents who feel pulled in one million directions,
who are praying next to a teenager who brings her creativity to inspire our kids in SMP,
who is praying next to a non-Jewish partner who lovingly attends synagogue and supports raising Jewish children,
who is praying next to an older adult who is spiritually seeking and doesn’t want to be left behind,
who is praying next to a recent college graduate who wants to deepen his Jewish involvement but doesn’t know where to start,
who is praying next to an infant who opens her eyes with wonder.
Looking out from this bimah, my heart is full.
I know the prayers in this Holy Space of Blessing rise from loving, whole and broken hearts. Our sages teach, devarim hayotzim min halev nichnasim el halev, “Words that rise from the heart, enter the heart.”
Whatever the prayer of your heart, this is the space for you to uncover it. We may often be running to be somebody else or to get somewhere else. Tonight, I invite us to be our best selves, here in this moment. I invite us to know the prayer of our hearts and learn somebody else’s prayer too, when she is ready to share it. Invite somebody new into your life, to a Shabbat dinner or a coffee date, and get to know him. Invest in a friendship, and call that person to wish her “Shabbat Shalom.” Show compassion, be slow to anger, just as we ask God to be with us tonight.
“Words that rise from the heart, enter the heart.”
Pearl taught me this by example when I was a chaplain for a social service agency on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. On the verge of turning 90, Pearl lived in a city housing project. A rickety elevator, an adventure to ride and a miracle to survive, brought me to the sixteenth floor every Tuesday. Upon knocking on her apartment door for the first time, Pearl almost didn’t let me in. “What are you doing here?” she asked. I recognized the comforting gruffness of a lifelong New Yorker.
“I’m studying to be a rabbi, I replied through the sliver of open door, I’m here to see how you’re doing…”
“I’m doing just fine. You don’t need to visit me,” she didn’t miss a beat, “At any rate, I’m not really Jewish anymore.”
Well, I guess that was that, I thought. What can I, a rabbi-to-be, offer her?
But there was music behind Pearl’s words. I just had to be willing to hear it. It wasn’t about me offering her anything. Thankfully she let me come into her apartment. She helped attune me to the prayers of her heart, living on the margins, alone. Almost no one came to visit Pearl anymore. On a small table her mother’s Shabbat candles gathered dust next to faded pictures of her siblings. Prayers of wholeness and brokenness rose in the form of childhood memories, the loss of her son, the struggle to make ends meet later in life. Embarrassed year after year when she could not afford High Holiday seats, Pearl eventually left her Jewish community, or as she saw it, it left her.
Our mahzor reminds us tonight,
Al tashlicheinu l’eit ziknah, kikhlot kocheinu al ta’azveinu,
“Do not cast us away as we grow old; do not desert us as our energy wanes.”
Tonight when I read this passage, I pictured Pearl and the prayers of her 90- year old heart. Tears and laughter were its melodies. She taught me more in one summer than any single rabbinical school class could teach in five years. Those prayers filled my heart in the way only a human text can. Pearl’s prayers rose from her heart and entered mine.
Tonight, imagine the prayer of your heart like the sounds of the shofar we heard on Rosh Hashanah:
Some prayers reflect brokenness, like the wailing of t’ruot and the painful gasps of shevarim. Other prayers reflect wholeness, like the clarion call of the tekiah.
How will you choose for your prayer to be heard? Rachmana liba bai, “God desires what’s inside the heart.” Rabbi Brad Hirschfield teaches,
Seeing is not believing; believing is seeing. When you believe in the person in front of you, you see the very best. And when you’re open to seeing the unexpected and to seeing what you don’t necessarily agree with… and you are open to seeing the possibilities that people have to connect in ways you never imagined—then that’s seeing. As rabbis, we’re trained to tell people how they’re supposed to see, yet I think—he writes– it’s more important for us to learn to see the way other people see.
As we see the prayers of our hearts, we also have a spiritual obligation to look outward to see a broken world. What do oseh shalom and other prayers for peace mean if we are not willing to acknowledge that world? Tonight the prayer of my heart is the elusive prayer for peace. It is the prayer of an older brother, one that I send in earnest to Israel’s border with Egypt, where my brother Dan serves in a combat unit of the Israel Defense Forces. It is a prayer I send to complete strangers in Syria who have suffered the horror of chemical weapons. Not because I have a proposed solution, but because on Yom Kippur– considered by the tradition to be the most joyous day on the calendar– I think we must link our hope of renewal to a world in chaos.
In relative comfort, even on this day of atonement when we refrain from eating, we have the freedom to reflect on that terror but not live in its path. Devarim hayotzim min halev nichnasim el halev, “Words that rise from the heart, enter the heart.” I hope the prayers of those in pain will be heard, and what rises from their shattered hearts will enter our own. My heart, so full being with you in this Holy Space of Blessing, breaks open to a world in need of repair.
The Hasidic Master Abraham of Slonim teaches, “You should act in prayer as if you were a farmer: first you plow, then you seed, afterward you water, and finally things begin to grow. In prayer, first you have to dig deeply to open your heart, then you place the words of prayer in your heart, then you allow your heart to cry…”
Holy One of the Heart, Ancient Source of Blessing:
As we discern the prayers of our hearts– prayers of love, of the pain of infertility, of faith reanimated, of joy, of loss—may those prayers rise tonight and inspire the best version of ourselves in the New Year. May those prayers, in their wholeness and brokenness, fill our lives with light and bless us with peace.