Friday, 18 September 2009

On Prayer

If Teshuvah Tefilah and Tzedakah are the three driving forces of the RH/YK season, it's Tefilah, prayer, that gets the thin treatment in sermons.

It's hard to give a sermon about prayer.

Prayer is the thing that happens around the sermon, outside the sermon.


But I feel a need to speak about prayer, because I think prayer is where most of us get lost, most of the time.

We're almost certainly stuck with some remnant of a defeated vision of prayer in which we once asked something of God and God didn't come through for us.

And while we might like the tunes and while we might like standing together with other Jews through time and space singing the same prayers, I'm not sure that that is enough.


There is certainly a hefty volume to get through today, packed full of prayers.

And they are all ordered neatly – siddur – the very word means order.

Machzor – comes from the Hebrew to repeat. It's expected, standardised.

And there are these neat patterns to the liturgy; we say this twice a day, and this three times a day.

The musaf Amidah for Rosh Hashanah is a paradigm of order;

Three sets of three blessings,

Three opening, three closing and in the middle, the core of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, another three.

We call them Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot and each of these, in turn, fit into a nice and neat pattern, you get three verses from Torah, three from the Prophets and three from the Writings and one more from Torah, three times over.

It's all so neat and tidy that one could be forgiven for thinking that prayer is indeed neat and tidy.

You turn up, start on page 1, finish on page a hundred and something and go home having successfully prayed.

And that would be a terrible error.

Because real prayer is not about structures and three of these and ten of those.

It's not about standardised systems and rules and neatness.

Prayer's not supposed to be comfortable.

Prayer is supposed to be discomforting, raw.


There are, in our haftorah readings over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tremendous prayers.

We read yesterday of Hannah's prayer, interrupted by the local priest who thinks she is drunk.

How long are you going to keep on with the drinking? Asks Eli.

I'm not drunk, Hannah responds, I'm bitter of spirit and I'm pouring out my heart before God.[1]

Eli's missed a real prayer arrayed right before him.


We read in the book of Jonah, we'll read it in nine days time, of sailors desperate on a ship tossed in the waves and the citizens of Nineveh, desperate to be saved.

And the captain of the ship said to Jonah – what are you doing asleep, get up and call to your God and maybe – ulai – God won't destroy us.[2]

And the King of Nineveh calls on his people to repent and pray – umi yodeah – he says, and who knows, maybe God will turn from His anger and not destroy.[3]


Ulai - Maybe

Mi Yodeah – Who knows


Prayer isn't about clarity or certainty.

It's about a void and an attempt to find some kind of language that eases the disconnect between our selves and the world we find ourselves inhabiting.


The Talmud asks, who is appropriate to lead prayers for a community on a fast day?

Rav Yehudah answers, someone with a large family who has no ability to support them.[4]


Real prayer stands on the other side of the scale from order, standardisation, structures.

Prayer is born of an existential insecurity. An empty gnawing born of uncertainty.

Real prayer is about the inability to sit securely in ivory towers surveying our wealth and privilege.

It's about the nagging sense that something is missing.


On Rosh Hasnnah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

Who shall live and who shall die,

Who by fire and who by water.


The truth is that even if, today, I am wealthy and well, mi yodeah what could come tomorrow?

And that's why real prayer is at the heart of our journey through these sacred days.


These are days inured against assuming that what is will be.

Assuming anything.

Our lives are up for review.

And prayer, real prayer, asks of us to be honest in this place.

What is really going on for us?

Can we touch a place of honesty in saying something and meaning it?

Can we touch a place of honesty which is worthy of setting before God – bochen clayot – who know our very innermost thoughts?


In the central Unatanei Tokef prayer we talk about the creations of the world appearing in single file before our God. We each have moment. The image the liturgy uses is of a shepherd counting his flock, each sheep passing under the staff on their own.

What do we truly have to say in our moment before the Heavenly shepherd?


The great Yiddish writer Yud Lamed Peretz has a short story, Bontshe Shvayg, Bontshe the Silent. It's a story about a simple Jew who lives a simple life but whose death is the cause of great commotion in the world to come.

The angels trumpet his simple decency, his refusal to cry out, his willingness to just get on with things.

Not even the prosecutor in the great angelic court on high can find a case to bring against him.

So the judge looks tenderly out a Bontshe and offers him the chance to chose his own portion of paradise.


Take what you want, it is yours, all yours

Bontshe looked up, his eyes were blinded by the rays of light … so many angels.

'Truly?' he asked, happy but abashed.

Why of course, it's all yours. Ask for anything you wish, you can chose what you like.

Truly? Asked Bontshe again

'Truly, truly, truly' clamoured the heavenly host.

Well then, smiled Bonthse, 'what I would like most of all is a warm roll with fresh butter every morning.

The judges and angels hung their heads in shame. The prosecutor laughed.[5]


The problem being that we spend so much of our lives, so many many words, not so much being dishonest, as being dull.



Hi, how are you?

Fine, thanks and you?

Oh fine, thanks for asking.

We must catch up one day?

I'ld like that, I'll give you a call.

Sure, we can meet up for lunch.


And so on it goes.

We don't practice spiritual bravery, we don't practice being this kind of honest.

Our souls are dulled.


Most of us spend most of our lives under such a thick veneer of emotional safety and politesse that the encounter with the starkly honest comes only in fleeting moments.

And in truth it is only possible to pray, really pray, for a split moment.


I got caught in a moment of honesty this year.

It happened, when my three year old son ran into the road and got hit by a passing and thankfully not a speeding car.

He's fine, my son, but sitting in the ambulance, standing in the operating theatre off to the side of the A&E in amongst the tubes and needles and blood curdling screams I prayed, really prayed.

I got caught in a moment of honesty.


It doesn't have to come in moments of terror.

I've been at a number of batei din in the past couple of weeks. And at the end of the whole interview and the Mikvah and everything I get to give these extraordinary people a blessing.


May God bless you and keep you


I know these people, I know their journey and I know their hunger and their sincerity and commitment and I know how deep it goes. And it's a tremendous honour to offer that prayer in that place. And I usually cry, and they usually cry. And that is what prayer is supposed to be about.


Prayer wants to be as real as the time you asked your beloved to marry you, or the time you said yes.

Prayer wants to be as real as the time you felt your life really could go one way or the either and you sucked in a breath and strode out into an unknown future.

Prayer wants to know what you really are thinking about, once all the household chores and football scores are left behind like the inconsequential details they are.

Prayer wants to know what is happening in your soul.


What is the role of the structure; the machzor and the siddur?

It's a practice, a spiritual practice.

It's like doing scales, running merrily up and down the keyboard in the hope that when it's needed the techniques we've spent time absorbing into our souls will bear fruit. And our practice during the year is so we can reach today and pray.

And practice is necessary, but practice should never be confused with performance.

Nor should what happens up here on the bimah, or up there in the choir loft be confused with performance.

Performance is private.

And if someone catches you at it, they'll think you're probably drunk. Let 'em think what they wish.

You have your own life to save.


Can you get there?

Can any of us, or are we all too bound up in what Martin Buber calls I-It relationships; shallow superficial, functional encounters, that we have lost touch with the ability to bare ourselves?


There are other sermons that could be given on whether God listens, or whether we can truly topple the decree arraigned against, but none of these other sermons mean anything if we can't truly pray.

None of these other sermons mean anything if at the moment we stand before God we have nothing to say for ourselves.

And today is the day to stand before God.

It's getting late in the day, it might be a little late to reverse years of accreted spiritual limescale today.

The good news is we have until Yom Kippur before the gates close.

And I would like us to find, in the space between now and then, a moment in which to pray.


Let me offer some tips.


First we need to trust that it's OK to admit that we fall short.

We don't have to pretend, to ourselves, or our God, that we are flawless.

God won't mind, God created us that way. To pretend otherwise is a dishonesty.

Let it go.


Secondly we need to develop a sense of un-ease with ourselves, un-ease directed against a too polished life in which we try too hard to hide the bits that don't fit and the relationships we would rather avoid.

This is the bit where we want to run away, talk about warm rolls and fresh butter, football scores and shopping chores.

We need to bring some attention on to the parts that don't work.


And thirdly we need to step back, step away from the humdrum, fickle business of the world. Shul is great for stepping away – no phone, no blackberry, no itinerary, agenda – any of it. Just you passing before your Your Creator like a sheep making an appearance before the Shepherd.

Come to shul, or go somewhere else where you can step away, but be somewhere where you can pray – where you can meet yourself.


These things don't come easily, especially when we are out of practice.

My experience is that they come more easily on Yom Kippur than Rosh Hashanah – so we have nine days to get it right.


And what do we get if we manage to cut through all the barriers and blockages?

What happens is we manage this moment of exposure, intimate and honest.

Well first we get an opportunity to meet ourselves – the long-lost deeply-buried version of our souls that we packed up and put away in the loft many years ago, that's worth something.

And this meeting will change the way we see ourselves, it will change the way we see the challenges and prospects that come our way in this year ahead.


If we can begin to see ourselves more clearly, understand our needs more honestly I guarantee our relationships with those around us will be transformed, made deeper, less fickle, less prone to be sidetracked into discussions about shopping lists and football scores. It will enrich our ability to live well in this world, with those people we share this world with.


And finally – God might be tempted. Our job, on this day, is to hurl up our prayers towards the heavens, changing ourselves and our inter-personal relationships as we do so. But we believe that just as real prayer cuts through our own souls, it can cut through the morass clogging up the heavens.


Ulai – Perhaps

Mi yodeah – who knows


But prayer, real prayer is far too important to let us get sidetracked too the exclusion of all else by the issue of God's response.

Prayer changes us.

It changes the relationships we create and thereby the world in which we find ourselves.

It changes the way we see ourselves and the way we see the world around us.

And it may change God.

All of that is tremendously valuable and I urge us all to try it.


I want to end with a prayer.

It comes from the Talmud.

The story is told that when the students would leave the study hall of Rav Ammi they would say to him the following,


May you live to see your world fulfilled,
May your destiny be for worlds still to come,
And may you trust in generations past and yet
 to be.  
May your heart be filled with intuition
and your words be filled with insight.
May songs of praise ever be upon your tongue
and your vision be on a straight path before you.
May your eyes shine with the light of holy words
and your face reflect the brightness of the heavens.
May your lips speak wisdom
and your fulfillment be in righteousness
even as you ever yearn to hear the words
of the Holy Ancient One of Old.


And I am sure they would, if they were due to leave on Rosh Hashanah conclude their prayer, as I conclude mine,

And may your year be full of sweetness, decency and health,

Shannah Tovah

[1] I Sam 1:15

[2] Jonah 1:6

[3] 3:9

[4] Taanit 16a

[5] I.L. Peretz Reader, ed Wiess. Trans H. Halkin p.152

[6] Talmud 17a, Trans L. Kushner

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