Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Tonight we stand on a threshold. We have opened a door into a world that reaches back thousands of years and at the same time, opens into worlds of possibility for our collective future. At the center, on the threshold, in this moment, rests each individual heart.
Time becomes a circle as we stand with our ancestors, breathing in the same melodies and chanting the same words that like an ark, have carried our people through time and place.
For many of us the words and sounds carry only the power of nostalgia. For many of us, the concept of G-d has lost meaning. With this loss the notion of prayer has become at best, challenging and to many, simply irrelevant. Tonight I wonder: can prayer become a useful tool for our times? How might these hours spent in the synagogue become valuable, become more than just an exercise in nostalgia? And if G-d is a living concept for you, how might we revitalize the act of prayer?
Prayer, no matter its form, is designed to be an act of reconnection. Whether it arouses a reconnection with G-d, with the cosmos, with some essential truth, with the core of one’s being or with one’s highest Self, it is an act of self-expansion.
When the great Temples once stood in Jerusalem, animal sacrifice was the primary means for connecting with Spirit. In Hebrew the word sacrifice is korban and comes from the root karov which means “to come close.” The offering of a burnt sacrifice, whether flesh or grain, took something physical and transmuted it into something ethereal, which ascended. The sacrifice was described as a stand-in for the person himself . As the smoke would rise a transformation took place in the offering. Through the act of sacrifice, it was understood that both the offerer and the cosmos were transformed. After the destruction of the Temple, prayer became the primary tool used to reconnect with G-d and affect transformation. Words from the heart would serve as offerings, and when spoken with intention, could produce personal and collective transformation.
In our days, we are experiencing a profound sense of disconnection. We have, as a society become profoundly disconnected from the earth and her needs. We have become disconnected from physical contact with one another as cyber-space has become the new marketplace and town square. We live in a world that commodifies our relationships, our basic human needs, even our emotions. Hatred is on the rise in the form of xenophobia, racism and anti-semitism.
There is a palpable need for love, justice, and the value of interdependence to have a voice. And we do see these voices expressed through frequent and sizable marches, protests and new civil engagement. And this is good!
But here we sit tonight, in the synagogue, and we look to our tradition for guidance. What does our tradition have to offer for this moment and how might prayer be efficacious?
When the 2nd Temple was destroyed, 2000 years ago, our Rabbis turned their gaze inward in order to understand the cause and create repair . They concluded that the primary cause for this catastrophe was the baseless hatred that had festered within the community itself. They saw hatred as the root cause for the destruction of their world. And they saw the means to repair the fabric of their society through the establishment of ethical teachings that prioritized ‘respect’ and the preservation of human dignity as cardinal values. They looked inward and then took action.
On Yom Kippur we are given this opportunity to do the inner work of self-reflection. Our most basic task is to take personal responsibility for the way we think about and interact with one another. Do we jump to anger too quickly and then become attached to our judgments? We all know that anger and hatred are contagious and can all too easily expand into a destructive wildfire.
In response to the destruction of the Temple and what the Rabbis perceived to be G-d’s anger, the Talmud tells the following story about anger and about the efficacy of prayer. The story begins with a discussion about the paradoxical idea that G-d, like us, also prays.
Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Yosi: How do we know that the Holy One prays? It comes from a verse in the Bible that says: And I will bring them to my holy mountain and make them rejoice in the house of my prayer. The verse does not say in the house of their prayer, but rather my prayer/tefilati. From this verse the Rabbis conclude that God is referring to his own prayer.
( So naturally the next question follows) And what does G-d pray? Rav Zutra bar Tovyah quoted Rav: Here is God’s prayer: May it be My own will that my compassion subdue my anger and that my compassion prevail over my other dispositions; and that I conduct myself with My children according to the attribute of compassion and that I deal with them beyond the measure of justice.
(And now the Talmud records a story: ) Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest, said: Once, I entered--before and within— (note this language; we will return to these words) to offer the incense in the Holy of Holies and I saw Akatriel Yah, the Lord of Hosts, sitting on his throne, high and exalted and He said to me: Yishmael, my son, bless me/ barecheyni. I said to Him: May it be your will that your compassion subdue your anger and that your compassion prevail over your other dispositions; and that you conduct yourself with your children according to the attribute of compassion and deal with them beyond the measure of justice. He nodded His head to me.
We learn from this that one should not take lightly the blessing/ beracha of an ordinary person. (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 7a)
In this amazing story we see, at the surface level, that G-d needs the support of a very particular kind of prayer. A prayer that supports G-d’s inclination toward the side of compassion rather than anger: to stand in another’s shoes, to still G-d’s reactive Self, and take the high road. ( so to speak)
This is a wild text. And the Rabbinic imagination is famous for its creativity. We can analyze this story from many perspectives. I once taught this text and a woman responded, initially, that it made her feel dizzy and queasy. I hope that is not the case for anyone here. I am bringing this text to illustrate a deeper idea about prayer.
To begin, we know that the story takes place on Yom Kippur because that is the only time that the High Priest would enter the inner sanctum with incense. We know that his task is to confess his sins and the sins of the people and bring about expiation- forgiveness for everyone. He enters the Holy of Holies. In this most intimate of spaces, alone with himself and the Divine Presence, the High Priest must confront the truth of his own life, and the life of the community.
Now let us take a closer look at these two words mentioned previously in the Talmudic story- “Before and Within”. The High Priest enters “Before and Within” in order to confess the sins of his household and his community.
The word ‘before’ begs the question: before whom? All we know is that at this moment the High Priest has come into a relationship. I am suggesting that the High Priest comes into relationship with the Truth of his life and of his community. The High Priest confronts Truth.
And then the text says, he enters within. It is reasonable to ask- within what? I would suggest that he enters a space within himself in order to confront the truth. So we might understand the moment as follows: The High Priest enters into a relationship with the Truth that resides within him. It is from that place, that he is able to offer a prayer that the quality of compassion should overcome the quality of anger.
Throughout this Yom Kippur we will sing the 13 attributes that define G-d’s qualities; those of patience, compassion, kindness and forbearance. Adonai Adonai EL Rachum V’chanun… It is taught that we are reminding G-d of these qualities so that we might achieve Divine forgiveness. When we chant these words I encourage you to go, as the High Priest did, Before and Within. To use these and all the other words of prayer throughout the day to come closer to your Truth, to remind yourself of your capacities for compassion and patience.
In Hebrew the word for pray is L’hitpallel. This is a reflexive verb, meaning that it is something done to oneself, like getting dressed or washed. L’hitpallel therefore, means getting prayed. What could this possibly mean- getting prayed? We generally think of prayer as a communication between oneself and the Divine. But Prayer may be , more importantly, an internal dialogue, a tool for transforming the Self. This is the meaning of getting prayed.
Now, let us imagine how much more that potential is amplified when we lend our voices to one another. There is power in community when we join together to express our highest ideals. As we sing and pray together during these many hours, may we build an ark that lifts and supports one another. May we connect and reconnect with our True Selves, with our families, with our neighbors and our community so that we might serve the highest good.
And May we all experience the blessing of a sweet new year.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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