Tag Archives: prayer

16 Elul and Prayer

BlogElul 2015

Prayer. It’s an interesting concept.

Are we talking to God when we pray? Is it like picking up the telephone? “Are you there, God? It’s me, Shocheradam” (hat tip to Judy Blume)? And if it is, is it annoying to God? Does it bother God when we pray? Does God sometimes think “Okay already, get moving with the prayer so I can get ON with this whole Universe-maintenance thing I’ve got going on”?

I was going to try to draw a parallel between Christian approaches to prayer and Jewish approaches to prayer, but I can’t.

Instead I want to talk about what prayer means to me. It’s not a conversation with God. It’s more like… a telegram to God. Slightly more old-school.

God, thank you for the people in my life.

God, please watch over my friend who is worried about their health.

God, thank you for my Yiddishkeit. 

God, thank you for the soul in me. (aka the Modeh Ani)

God, thank you for bringing me to this moment. (aka the Shehecheyanu)

God, help me get through this rough patch.

Mostly it’s thanks, and a few petitions for people who are in pain or need help.

Is that enough? Is it too much?

I don’t know, but it’s how I pray.

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The Spirit of the Law and the Value of NOT Doing It All

"Sunrise Los Angeles" by Bryan Frank on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

“Sunrise Los Angeles” by Bryan Frank on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Things looked better on Shabbat morning. And fortunately, that continued for the rest of the day into our afternoon at home and our evening with friends. 

Things usually do look better in the morning, did you ever notice that? Something about sleeping on it really does help fix most of the problems of low spoons, lack of energy, and general overwhelm.

Of course, I was trying too hard. I was trying to live by every rule, everywhere, to be a perfect Jew, even as I had admitted that it’s okay not to be perfect. There’s a definite difference between saying it and practicing it, and G-d called me on it on Friday, I think. I was at the end of my rope, frazzled, tired, worn out, overwhelmed, and still thinking I could somehow put together the equivalent of a holiday dinner AND bake challah for the next day’s temple Kiddush service when I was almost completely out of cope and energy. I was convinced that I could still follow all the rules and make things somehow come out perfectly even though I was scraping the bottom of the energy barrel.

Reality. It hits you in the strangest ways. Obviously none of those things happened. I’m just glad that the fallout was a few pieces of dough hitting the coffeemaker and the carpet, and nothing worse than that (like a cut hand due to a knife accident, or a concussion because I slipped and hit my head on a wet floor). 

It occurred to me this morning that one of the things I find so healing about Judaism is that Reform Judaism is not a rule-bound system. I grew up with a strong and frightening sense that if I didn’t follow every rule perfectly, all the time, to the letter, then I was in big trouble. Yesterday’s experience at temple in the morning, where I participated in the mid-service Torah study, and where I was reassured that everyone has had kitchen disasters and not to worry – we’ll love to try your challah next week, showed me it’s the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that we’re trying to get at here. People (and G-d) don’t expect perfection. They expect an honest effort. They don’t expect me to do it all correctly the first time. They expect me to focus on doing my best to do a little bit better next time.

It’s not about perfect adherence to the rules. If that was all it was, any religion would do. 

My life before Judaism didn’t allow a lot of time for contemplation or doing things deliberately. Due to some disabilities I have, for example, getting dressed in the morning can be a very complicated process. If I put on my jeans before I put on my socks, it’s harder to reach my feet, for example, because that restricts motion enough that bending my knees far enough to reach my feet becomes almost impossible. But there have been times when I’ve been rushing because I feel like I’m late (I rarely am) and then I have to undress and start all over again, usually berating myself for not paying attention well enough. Eating deliberately? What’s that? I have still caught myself being halfway through the meal before I realized I haven’t really tasted it (and that I haven’t said the brachot yet), and then kicked myself for it. I wasn’t raised with the habits of deliberation or contemplation. I was raised with the habits of rushing, doing it quickly, getting it done, and getting on to the next thing. While going to church was calming, it was only one hour a week. That’s not enough to get used to being calm and quiet (and for me it was always upset in the middle by the angry sermons I had to sit through). 

But with Judaism (at least as I’m practice it), it’s not about rushing out of bed and running around like a headless chicken trying to get six things done before breakfast so that things are always perfect. It’s about staying in bed when I wake long enough to remember to say the Modeh Ani before I get out of bed. It’s about taking the time to remember to say the brachot over my morning coffee. It’s about remembering to slow down and take time so that those become things I remember before I need to do them, not after. It’s about taking an entire 24-hour period every week to NOT rush, to NOT hurry, and to let that peacefulness carry over into the rest of the week. It’s the complete opposite of what I was raised with – reflection, rather than rushing.

The rushing seemed to me to be required. If you aren’t running around “looking busy,” you’re lazy, aren’t you? But then I wonder how many people would call a Buddhist monk “lazy” for his meditation practices. I know a few Westerners who probably would, but that’s not the point here. The Type-A personality should not be setting the standard for what reasonable effort looks like – they’re at one end of a very long spectrum. It is possible to be unrushed and not be automatically lazy. It is possible to take time to think and contemplate and not be lazy. 

And it is all right to take a day where rest, contemplation, consideration and thought take precedence over running around trying to do everything all at once. It is all right to live by the spirit of the rules as much as, if not more than, their letter. A blogger I follow on Facebook calls this “living hands-free” – to stop worrying so much about what everyone will think and start focusing on the moment, the process, rather than the goal. 

This is still very hard for me to grasp. We live in a culture that values speed and efficiency and the goal over reflection and deliberation and the process. But living a hands-free kind of life – which for me, more and more, means a Jewish life – demands adherence to the spirit of the rules over the letter of the rules, more often than not. It’s also about bringing that sense of reflection and consideration into the rest of the week, not just leaving it on Shabbat. I had had an entire week of no reflection or consideration, of feeling rushed, of trying to do too much at once, and I paid for it on Friday evening when things finally fell apart because I couldn’t keep all those balls in the air and the plates all spinning at the same time. 

This week, I will forgive myself for dropping the ball. This week, I will not punish myself for taking time to reflect and consider. This week, I will work on reducing my need to live up to every rule and stress myself out by rushing through every process. This week I will make room for contemplation. 

And next week will take care of itself. It always does – have you ever noticed that? 

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Counting My Blessings: Gratitude is a Choice

28 Sivan 5774

Even before I realized that Judaism was the path I needed to take, I was doing things that were Jewish. Gratitude has been one of the main ones, but it wasn’t always that way.

My partner, bless him, is an everlasting optimist. He rejects the negative in the same way I rejected the positive. He may get hurt sometimes, but he’s generally happier.

Two years ago this January, I posted something to my private LiveJournal blog about religion. I noodled about the idea that religion might be more about practice than belief – which, for me at the time, was a completely novel concept. I talked about studies I’d read that show that religious people seem to be happier and more grounded than people who are not religious. I wrote about AJ Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically and what the author seemed to get out of following every rule in the Bible for a year (which he did not expect): more calm, more focus, and more aware of his life and what was going on around him. I admitted, even back then, that even if you do not believe in the deity in question, the practices do things to and for you that you can’t get otherwise.

I think this was a helicopter too, although I didn’t know it at the time. Realizing that religious people are happier, and that the reason might be the practices, rather than the beliefs, really shook me up.

That post also had me admitting that I had a problem with Something being out there that I couldn’t sense with my five senses, but instead of saying “and so there’s no proof of it,” for possibly the first time in my life I asked if maybe there was something broken about me, that I couldn’t sense this Something that everyone else seemed to be able to sense. And I admitted that my anger at people who believed in G-d (at the time) was because I was scared that their ability to sense/perceive G-d when I couldn’t might be evidence of me being broken or wrong – and I know I’ve already discussed the roots of that particular hangup here in this blog, since.

It was a big step for me at the time, realizing that I needed a religion that was practice-focused, even if I didn’t say it in quite those words. I did admit at that time that I missed the practice of religion, even though I was still totally turned off by the belief systems.

In the spring of last year, I attended Renaissance Faire several times during the season for the first time as a prospective volunteer, rather than just a patron. At the end of the Faire season I was invited into a Faire family, and the open acceptance blew me away. It blew me away, in part, because logically I saw no reason why I should have been invited or accepted, but I still was. I admitted at that time that “logic is how to go perfectly wrong with confidence,” and that with my doctoral degree in social science I really ought to have admitted that humans are illogical, and run with that, instead of insisting on logic. I apologized to people who I’d been angry towards because of their religious beliefs. And I said “My insistence on logic and my rejection of anything that didn’t have hard concrete proof? Was my own stupidity and arrogance and…. misguided protection of the vulnerable person inside me, that didn’t know how to believe or trust without organization and structure and proof and logic.”

Then, this past January, I realized I was only looking at the negative things in my life – money worries, problems with my health, issues with my students. I’d always called that “realism,” but let’s be honest here; it was pessimism. For me, the positive simply didn’t exist.

At the same time, my partner the optimist had read a book called 10% Happier by Dan Harris, and he shared some of it with me. One thing that struck me was that research had shown that if you ask someone to list three things they’re grateful for every morning, their focus eventually shifts and becomes less pessimistic and more optimistic. If there had been no research, I probably would have pooh-poohed it, shrugged, and ignored it. But I’m a researcher, and so I am convinced by research evidence… so I decided to try it.

At first it was hard to come up with things I was grateful for. And it was equally hard not to think of them as trivial. But having a hot cup of coffee in the morning – I was grateful for that. I was grateful for this amazing apartment that my partner and I moved into last fall. I was grateful that I had friends who would reach out to me when I was hurting. So I began listing three things I was grateful for, every morning, and posting them to my Facebook as a sort of gratitude-accountability thing. At first, it felt really awkward – as any new habit does.

But then something amazing happened. I got happier. Slowly, but surely, I got happier. Sure, I still have my bad moments, but I can’t deny that I got happier by simply reminding myself of the things I’m grateful for.

How does this tie to Judaism? Well, most Jewish prayers aren’t about petitioning G-d for things. They rarely, if ever, say “G-d, do this or that for me, please.” They’re about praise and/or gratitude: Praised are you, G-d, for your works. Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, who makes me sleep peacefully. Thank you, G-d, for being there for me when it hurts; for giving me a body that works;  for this food which sustains me; for giving us the Torah at Sinai.

The Modeh Ani, one of the first prayers taught to children after the Sh’ma, is a waking-up prayer that starts the day with gratitude:

מוֹדֶהאֲנִילְפָנֶֽיךָמֶֽלֶךְחַיוְקַיָּים. שֶׁהֶֽחֱזַֽרְתָּבִּינִשְׁמָתִיבְחֶמְלָה. רַבָּהאֱמֽוּנָתֶֽךָ׃

Modeh ani lifanekha melekh chai v’kayam shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, raba emunatekha.

I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me; your faithfulness is great.

So Jewish prayer is rarely a petition for help; it tends to be a thank-you note or letter to G-d instead.

And now, having gone through this gratitude practice for over half a year, I am ready to pray that way.

Maybe I had to go through these seismic shifts in order to find a religion that was based on practice and gratitude. Maybe I wouldn’t have found Judaism if I hadn’t gone through them. So that’s another thing to be grateful for, isn’t it? Thank you, G-d, for the seismic shifts. Thank you for your still, small voice. Thank you for being there and being patient. Thank you for my yiddishe neshama and my pintele yid.

I’m thankful for my readership – you folks. I’m thankful for my mind, that allows me to take these steps and make these changes. I’m thankful that the rabbi accepted me as a conversion candidate.

What are you thankful for today?

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Song as Prayer

11 Sivan 5774

For each person, prayer (and worship) means something a little different. For some people, davening means quiet, almost whispered prayers in Hebrew while swaying with the joy of prayer. For some it means the joy of creation.

For me it’s always been about using the power of song to praise G-d. My father was a church choir director for years and years, and man, was he a purist about liturgy. We did not have 70s “folk music” at the Masses he directed. We had Mozart. Bach. Beethoven. You know – the good stuff. And when he couldn’t find good stuff, he’d write his own and the choir would learn it off in nothing flat. When my father finished his master’s program in music composition and conducting, the main feature of his master’s performance was a Mass he’d written called “The Walk of Faith,” and based on the pain of doubt and the need to trust. A recording of it was played at his funeral, and as soon as I can get the CD that my brother gave me to cough it up, I plan to play it on my father’s yartzheit in January every year.

The main reason I kept going to the Catholic church, after I started doubting G-d, was the music. Even in my 20s, when I was in deep denial and pain about the existence of G-d, I still managed to write an entire congregational Mass for the church that I was the volunteer choir director and pianist for at that time. (I guess it runs in the family or something.)

I tell people that my father raised me to be a liturgical musician. If I’d realized I had a yiddishe neshama ten years or so ago, I might have decided to go to cantorial school instead of going through a doctoral program. Singing kept me going to church for a long, long time, and it’s a big draw for me in going to temple, too. Fortunately the congregation at the Friday services seems to have a good sense of song, and some of them even harmonize! (Once I’ve learned the melodies well enough I’ll do the same thing, I’m sure.) I have not yet been able to attend Saturday morning services at my temple, but I want to. I want to hear the cantor and see if that makes me feel the way I felt when I was twelve and singing in my father’s church choir.

I hope it does, because I love to sing. I feel most like I’m worshiping when I’m singing, and when I hear or sing good music is when I most feel G-d’s presence. Since starting on this journey, I’ve been using my handy Spotify account to find music that is both singable and uniquely Jewish. Some of it is in Hebrew, and some in English, but I’ve begun to memorize various songs by popular Israeli and Jewish artists. Some of them are close enough to prayer that I count them as such: Shomer Yisrael and Hu Elokeinu, by Neshama Carlebach, make my eyes sting with tears every time I sing them or hear them. Right now I’m listening to L’dor Vador by Josh Nelson, and it’s having a similar effect. Whenever possible, I sing the brachot over meals. It makes them mean more to me.

But it just occurred to me why it’s so important to have this music available to me. It allows me to feel the presence of G-d again. It allows me to worship again. Yesterday, singing along with Josh Nelson, I felt a presence I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. The hairs on the back of my neck and on my arms stood up with the overwhelming feeling of rightness and awe that washed over me as I sang “L’dor vador nagid godlecha/L’dor vador, we protect this chain…”

This music is another spiritual helicopter for me, telling me that yes, I’m on the right path, and that this is right for me and what I’m called to do. Maybe cantorial school is still in my future – who knows?

What does prayer mean to you?

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