At school, we’re required to lead a number of services for the community throughout the year. The following is from an iyyun tefilah (contemplation/meditation on prayers) that I delivered as part of shacharit services I led at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem this shabbat:
In Sophie’s World, Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder compares the world in which we live to – of all things – a rabbit:
“All mortals are born at the very tip of the rabbit’s fine hairs, where they are in a position to wonder at the impossibility of the trick. But as they grow older they work themselves ever deeper into the fur. And there they stay. They become so comfortable they never risk crawling back up the fragile hairs again. Only philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of language and existence. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ they yell, ‘we are floating in space!’ But none of the people down there care. ‘What a bunch of troublemakers!’ they say, ‘Would you pass the butter, please? How much have our stocks risen today?'”
There’s a moment when I walk to the bus stop to go home from school, when the buildings part and I have a clear view straight down Rechov Keren HaYesod and Derech Hevron, over the Judaean Hills, and beyond the limits of Jerusalem. From this vantage point, I can see the concrete walls of the Separation Fence rising out of the dusty earth. Here in Israel – particularly in Jerusalem – we exist in a world where there are boundaries all around us. Physical and symbolic. Hard and soft. Between the “us” and the “them”. Between rich and poor. Between Israelis and Palestinians. Between religious and secular. Some boundaries are necessary and exist to help us make sense of our world; others are often obstacles and barriers for us.
This Shabbat, I invite us to think about these boundaries, and our relationship to them. Later, as we read from parashat Noach, we’ll hear about how humanity crossed the ultimate line; overstepping its collective boundaries, and resulting in the ultimate punishment – the end of existence for almost all of humanity.
As we pray together this morning, let us consider what we can learn from Noach about honoring appropriate boundaries. But let us also consider how are we like the mortals in Sophie’s world, held captive by our own boundaries. How should we be like the philosophers? As we pray, how can we arrive at the outermost reaches of language and existence – that place where we find God?
We start the Amidah with the words: Eternal God, open for me my lips (s’fatai) that my mouth may declare Your praise. S’fatai, as we know, means (my) lips. But s’fatai may also be translated as “the banks of a river,” in other words, the limit or defining line of a body of water. A boundary.
But not just any boundary – the banks of a river are a soft boundary – the river can expand beyond its limits, and become more than what it once was.
Perhaps… our opening petition is better read: “Eternal God, expand my own boundaries, so that my mouth may declare Your praise!”
A thought and question to help us focus during the Amidah: How do we limit ourselves from praising God? What do we want to ask for, so that we can arrive at those outermost reaches of language and existence that we rise on our toes three times to reach – that place where we find God!