Just ten days ago sometime after 12 on the morning of Rosh Hashanah I completed my tour of children’s services and arrived back in the Main Service in the middle of the repetition of the Musaf Amidah. And it was noisy. Bustle and chat and hubbub. And I went up onto the Bimah and tried to capture something of the meaning of these days – what it means to present our lives to a God who sees through every vagary, bluff and mask. And I couldn’t. There was no space to pray. We w ere all, as a community, too busy presenting of ourselves to each others, masks on, roles being played. And so much chitter chatter.
This is a community of people who love going to the classical music concerts; a community of people who would never dream of chatting though an opera. And the problem is not that, as wonderful a singer he is, Stephen falls short of the heights reached by soloists who grace the stage at Covent Garden. The problem is that we don’t know what to do in shul confronted by a bald spiritual message and a book filled with strange Hebrew and an even stranger English. So instead of praying we fall back on what we know. ‘How’s business, how are the kids this year, how are the parents.’
Teshuvah u’Tefilah u’tzedaka maavirin et roa ha gezerah
Repentance, prayer and acts of justice take away evil from the decree we face.
Repentance requires we stop doing things we have already realised are wrong.
Tzedakah requires we act to support that we have already realised is right.
Prayer is how we realise that which we don’t yet understand. It’s supposed to be strange, it’s supposed to be difficult.
Let me try and ease some of the qualms.
Prayer, or at least prayer as I understand it, doesn’t require a particular literalist theology. God isn’t a Springsteinian Santa who knows if we’ve bad or good and distributes presents and blandishments accordingly. If we pray, even if we pray really hard, we still have a pitiful chance of winning the lottery. If you want to do well in this year it’s hard to improve on a teaching from Islam – first tie up your camel, then put your trust in God.
Prayer is also not about any special spiritual gymnastics. The Rabbis discuss the appropriate level of spiritual intent to fulfil the obligation to say the Shema. Their conclusion – the only thing you need to have as a spiritual intention when you say the Shema is that you have to intend to say the Shema. You don’t need to meditate on the meaning of a singular God or anything like that.
You just have to intend doing the thing you are doing.
To pray well the only thing that is required is that you intend to pray. In some ways it’s simple. To pray, you just have to want to pray and stop doing anything else.
Praying is making the decision to care more about the spiritual message of the day than the worldly messages being twittered or whispered around you.
What worth is your life, who have you failed this last year, what is stopping you from becoming kinder and better?
Those questions deserve the pause of a moment. And because approaching these kinds of questions straight on is daunting we have prayer – a place to be quiet, a ritual to follow, a form of words to use. And the idea is that these practices open us up to understand that which we cannot otherwise understand.
There is a story of a Chasid who went to the Kotske Rebbe,
Rebbe, he said, I have a problem, and he told the Rebbe about the problem.
You should pray, the Rebbe responded.
But Rebbe, I don’t know how to pray –
Ah, then you really do have a problem.
If you know anything about the Kotske Rebbe you will know that he didn’t believe that if we pray well enough God will solve any problem we face any more than I do, or any of us.
The point of the story, I think, is this.
When we pray we allow ourselves insights that are otherwise beyond us.
When we pray we step back from the grindstone, we become able to see beyond the tip of our noses, we get to feel sensations that are important, not merely whatever is pressing in that precise moment.
When we pray we ally ourselves to broader views, loftier horizons, and in that place we become capable of insights deeper and more powerful than those that arrive from more selfish modes of problem solving.
We can justify all we want, we can blame everyone else all we want.
When we pray Al cheit shechatanu – for the sin we have sinned before you – we admit of that which is truly our fault.
Prayer brings other perspectives, let it be admitted more important perspectives.
Perhaps the most important prayer is line that precedes the Amidah -
Adonai Sefatai Tiftach ufi yagid tehilatecha - God open my lips and my mouth will tell of Your praise.
It’s a prayer about the ability to pray. It asks for the help to pray.
We have other similar phrases and verses.
Ten belibeinu l’havin ulehaskil – place in our heart the understanding to serve You.
Return to me and I will return to you, teaches the prophet Malachi.
We just need a nudge,
So call for today while the gate is still open.
Leave the material behind, just for a little bit longer and ask for the possibility to pray.
Don’t worry unduly about what to pray for, those answers only emerge slowly, just pray for the chance to pray.
Two things to do
Submit to the ritual and turn off the chatter.
Submit to the ritual and turn off the chatter.
It sounds simple, but it is hard, especially in this strange language, with this even stranger translation.
And this brings me to our dear Chazan, Stephen, this brings me to you.
In truth I decided I would speak about prayer at Neilah, long before I lost the possibility of praying at the end of Rosh Hashanah. I decided I would speak about prayer at Neilah, the week you announced he would be leaving New London. I offer this sermon bizchutecha – in your merit.
Prayer is hard. It’s hard if you understand and can read the Hebrew fluently, it’s hard if you can’t.
And so the tradition allows for someone to lead us.
Someone on whose coattails we can ride.
We hang onto Stephen’s Tallit and he leads us through the drama of a Neilah.
That’s the point of a Stephen – we don’t need to figure it all out ourselves, we just need to join in.
And, frankly, a few moments on Rosh Hashanah apart, we are pretty good at riding on Stephen’s coattails – hanging onto your Tallit. It’s one of things we are best at doing, at New London.
Where Stephen leads us, we follow.
Shema Koleinu, Ashamanu, Adonai, Adonai – You lead and we sing along, pray along, joining together in leaving our pettifogging chitter-chattering behind. When we sing together, it works.
Hundreds of us, harnessed together in prayer, pulling simultaneously on ropes, coming closer to an understanding of what is means to be a member of this community, a Jew, a human being.
It’s a great thing for a community to have a great Chazan.
I think having a great Chazan means to things, two things our own very special Chazan brings to this very special community.
Actually the term Chazan, wasn’t originally a term used to apply to people who lead the prayers. There were two other terms, Baal Tefilah – literally Master of Prayer and Shaliach Tzibur – Emissary of the Community.
One of the special things that Stephen brings is to do with his being a Baal Tefilah and the other is to do with his being a Shaliach Tzibur.
Prayer is about getting beyond individual need, about seeing ourselves from the outside.
You can’t be a Master of Prayer when you lead prayers for other people based on your own individual needs – you can’t be a Baal Tefilah if you care more about how you sound, and how extravagantly you can show off your singing prowess.
You can only be a Baal Tefilah if, when you pray, you pray so others can come along with you.
And Stephen does that, and we all know he does that, and that’s part of why it works.
That’s why you are a Baal Tefilah.
And the other term is Shaliach Tzibur – emissary of the community.
To be a true messenger of the community you need to care about the people you lead, and the people you lead – we – need to feel that, and give you the zchut – the merit to serve as our emissary.
You have be there for adolescent Bar Mitzvah boys and eighty-three year olds who want to reprise a Haftorah they last read 70 years ago. You have to turn up at Shivah houses and sick houses. And the strains and the sheer physical efforts are intense.
Serving a community like this is about putting yourself in-front of a train and I don’t know how many people here know the sacrifice involved.
It’s not enough to turn up on Shabbat and sing. You have to be the glue which holds the community together so there is a community to appoint you emissary.
And Stephen does that, is that, and we all know he does that, and that’s the other part of why it works.
That’s why you are our Shaliach Tzibbur – our emissary.
And we will all, and I most certainly, will miss all this and much much more, Stephen, when you are gone.
And we have Succot to go.
And we have a good few Shabbatot to go.
But this is the last time we get the chance to be led by you in that most difficult of challenges on this most special of days.
So, dear Stephen, our beloved Baal Tefillah and our Shaliach Tzibbur - lead us home.
And to all of us, let’s jump on the coattails, let’s hang onto the Tallit
As we sing along, pray along, lose ourselves and find ourselves again, all through the magic of prayer.
Adonai Sefatainu Tiftach ufinu yagid tehilatecha
God open our lips and our mouths will tell of Your praise.
And in so doing, may we be sealed for a year of sweetness, happiness and health.
Gemar Chatimah Tovah.