The Joys and Challenges of Prayer

Over the course of the past month the narratives of the Jewish people were on full display.  The sanctity of the Hebrew month Tishri filled us with the beauty and meaning of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and and the festive importance of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah.  Shul on the Yamim Noraim was truly magnificent.  We are all grateful for the commitment of so many folks who spend so much of their own time preparing for the Days of Awe.  I am always touched by the commitment of  those folks who contribute their talents and desires to lead us in prayer.  Each of them brings something unique to the various parts of the service which they lead.  The real message, though, is that we are a shul that depends on congregants stepping forward in every dimension of our shul’s life.  It is true of the lay leadership of the congregation as it relates to managing the daily affairs of the congregation; it is true of those who make sure that our daily minyan is vital and vibrant; it is true for those who leyn(read Torah) on a regular basis; and it true for those who help us by volunteering in the office to help us manage our work flow.  That we share with almost every other congregation in American Jewish life.  Yet having folks come forward to lead us in prayer on the most significant days of the Jewish calendar is indeed a unique feature of this congregation.  It underscores the notion that we are responsible for our own religious lives.  And while it is true, that this shul is served by very competent and talented  folks who work on behalf of the congregation, absent this sense that our religious lives are our individual responsibilities, the collective message of the shul would be lost.

One of the beautiful aspects of shul during the Yamim Noraim these past couple of years has been the use of the new Rabbinical Assembly mahzor. I am touched by the number of comments that have come my way over the past two years about the depth and insight which the Mahzor provides during the unfolding of the services themselves.  The name—LEV SHALEM—- means a full heart.  The intent of the editors of the Mahzor was to provide both a rich and engaging davenning opportunity for all who used the Mahzor and to ensure that during the course of shul our hearts were touched not only through the paryters in the center of the page—but the notes on the side .  They succeeded brilliantly.

Over the course of the coming year, it is my hope that we can continue our engagement with prayer in ways that prod us to incorporate the depth of prayer more fully into the depth of our lives.  I would like to begin a congregational conversation about prayer-its joys and challenges for you.  It would be very helpful for us as a shul community if each of us would take a few moments and reflect about prayer in your own lives—whether of the communal nature here in shul or moments of private prayer which nurture your soul as well.  Over the course of the Yamim Noraim, I was very intentional in using liturgical passages inside each of the four major sermons I delivered.  I did so to demonstrate that liturgy and prayer have a life outside of formal services or moments of self reflection.  In spite of the fact that prayer is a very difficult subject to speak about, and in spite of the fact that it is often times according to repeated studies of the American Jewish community  one of the least likely acts of  most Jews, it is a central part of the tradition.  And watching a a shul over the course of yontiff—I saw the sparks of the Divine found in the davenning which was occurring in shul.  So…

At the bottom of this page are a few questions to help you think about the question of Prayer.  However, more important than answering these particular questions are your own feelings about prayer, its challenges and its joys.   In the coming weeks please look for an opportunity for us to speak together about prayer inside our communal settings.


What does “prayer” mean to you?  Where do you find yourself in prayer?  Describe what you love about praying at Beth Jacob Describe what challenges you about praying at Beth Jacob.  I leave you with the words of a wonderful colleague—Rabbi Naomi Levy  who wrote..  “communal prayer is a structure.  It’s the house, with a foundation, and a roof and walls.  That is what keeps you safe.  That’s what keeps you solid. And God willing, it will be there a long time, long after we are gone.  But if you never paint it, never hang a picture, or you never put in furniture and a rug, its not a home.  It’s a house, its not a home.  You must make the house of prayer into your home filled with prayer.”


Finally, in the midst of a month of constant shul and yontiff—one other story line about us as a peole emerged as well.  The price that Israel paid for the release of Gilad Schalit was overwhelming to ponder.  Releaseing a 1000 terrorists back into the world is risk that each of us understands.  But saving a single life reminds us that at our core we are a people who believe in the infinite value of human life and reminds us also of the meaning of the state of Israel and its commitment to our collective and individual survival.  What a month for us a people as a nation and as individuals.  I pray that it is a peaceful and meaningful year for one and all.