Judaism - Prayer

Praying on the very tip of a rabbit’s hair

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!

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Judaism - Prayer

What would Moshiach Eat?

Two interesting moments at shul this morning, back in Thornhill:

1. My Rabbi paused before Aleinu to say a few words:

Aleinu is a prayer about the coming of y’mei hamashiach – the days of the Messiah, or the Messianic age, depending on your point of view. In that light, I would like to make sure that the latkes have been put in the oven, so that they will be warm by the time we’re finished praying. You can’t have y’mei hamashiach without latkes.

On the surface, I’m sure this was just a humourous interlude for most – but it struck a great theological chord for me. That a rabbi who strongly identifies with the Reform Movement would make a reference to the coming of the messiah, and leave open the possibility that someone might accept a personal messiah, and not just the generic “messianic age” is a huge indicator of the uniqueness of the Reform Movement in Canada, and in particular, my Rabbi. It was a joke, a casual reference, not intended to be a drash or a d’var t’fillah. But in those few, brief sentences, there resonated a resounding cry of the possibility for Reform Judaism to embrace in practice the spectrum of beliefs that it purports to do so on paper.

2. Not having put much thought into it before, I noticed this morning at the start of the amidah that our congregation repeats the line “Adonai s’fatai tiftach ufi yagid t’hilatecha” chanting it twice – in Hebrew both times. While there’s nothing that says you can’t chant it twice, there’s also no specific reason to do so. One might ask: why is this prayer read twice? What is it about this specific line that merits a double reading? The answer – nothing. Then why do we chant it twice?

Before I go out in search of the actual answer, I want to posit a hypothesis…

A number of years ago, due in large part to the influence of the rabbi, our shul made a conscious decision to increase the amount of Hebrew used during services. As a result, almost the entirety of Shabbat Shacharit is now conducted in Hebrew. My guess is that on the way, the pre-Amidah line was read in both Hebrew and English, to facilitate the transition. At some point, the English was dropped, but people were accustomed to chanting it twice, so the English was just replaced with Hebrew, resulting in a doubly-chanted Hebrew line.

That’s my hypothesis. Tune in next week when I hope to have an answer from the Rabbi.