Yom Kippur - 2012-5773
How I Pray
It is truly awesome and moving to sit in this sanctuary on Yom Kippur. We are surrounded by a large congregation comprising our family and friends. We listen to the cantor and choir, we participate in the familiar melodies and prayers. There is great power and majesty in these words and perhaps we feel a spiritual connection to our history when we gather on Yom Kippur.
Perhaps there is also great power in knowing that Jews around the world are reciting these same words today. If we know that Jews in South Africa and Canada and France and Israel are saying the same words then perhaps we feel an awesome sense of connection to the larger Jewish community.
But these prayers aren’t just about how we feel today. They aren’t just supposed to add meaning and solemnity to our Yom Kippur observance. They are supposed to help us reflect on our life and help us begin the process of transformation.
Yet I find it hard to recite prayers I don’t believe in. The machzor has us imagine that we are servants and God is our Master. We are supposed to be humble and accept God as sovereign of the universe. Our humility is supposed to lead us to recognize our faults and to make appropriate amends.
The liturgy also wants us to understand God’s role in our lives. According to the prayers God is watching over us and keeping track of our deeds. The more good deeds we do or the more sincere prayers of repentance we recite today, the better chance we have of being written in the book of life. So I ask us to confront these words and question whether the image of God and the idea of the book of life as portrayed in the liturgy have any meaning for us today.
When we walked into shul today, we didn’t leave our lives at the door. We don’t exist in this sanctuary in a vacuum. We are here because events of the past year have led us here and have shaped us emotionally and physically. We are different today than we were last year - not only are we a year older but we celebrated family “simchas” or we attended funerals of loved ones or we underwent surgery or chemotherapy. We have changed.
As a nation we lived through the mass killings at the movie theater in Colorado and the Sikh temple in Wisconsin and we heard the sordid and horrific account of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes against children. Individually and as a community we lived through painful experiences this year. And so I ask, do the words we recite today respond to these communal and personal experiences? Do the words help us with answers? Do the prayers satisfy our emotional needs?
Let me begin to answer these questions by explaining what I think prayer is and what prayer is supposed to do. I think prayer is an attempt to understand our relationship to God. Prayer is supposed to help us recognize that we as human beings have a relationship with God the Creator. This relationship isn’t one of equals. It’s a relationship where we express our gratitude to God for having been created.
Prayer should also help us understand what our responsibilities are toward God. Once we recognize that we believe in God we have to recognize that belief should lead us to behave a certain way. Prayer helps remind us that we should be good, we should be ethical, we should be stewards of the earth, we should care for all of God’s creation.
Prayer also helps us turn inward. When we pray we are supposed to confront ourselves honestly and sincerely. Who are we and what are we doing? Are we good enough? Are we living up to our potential? Are we behaving ethically and morally? Are we setting a good example? Are we proud of who we are?
Finally prayer responds to our immediate needs and emotions. When we are in pain we pray for healing, when we are celebrating we pray with joy, when we are in mourning we pray for comfort. Whatever we feel at a particular moment in our lives prayer should respond to that feeling. Prayer takes that moment, articulates our thoughts and feelings, and transforms it in helpful and calming ways.
Almost everything I have described prayer to be - self-reflection, responding to emotions, searching for meaning in life - are important acts for us to engage in. We don’t have to be religious to recognize that thinking upon these things helps us grow. But when we add God to the description - as we must do when talk about prayer - then we recognize that what we need to do becomes holy. We aren’t just here today for a self-help workshop. We are here to elevate our lives and put our lives in a bigger context. That’s the function of prayer.
So far I have been very broad and general in my explanation of prayer. I wanted to be sure that we recognize that prayer necessitates belief in God. But now we have to understand how our belief in God affects how we pray.
Our machzor and the traditional daily liturgy would have us believe in God in a very specific way. The prayers before us respond to an image of God that is active in our lives, a God that determines what we will do and what will happen to us, a God that actively listens to our prayers and responds to us. So if we believe in that kind of God then the prayers in our machzor are perfect. They respond to beliefs and needs in a way that is consistent and clear and emotionally and spiritually satisfying.
But what if we don’t believe in that God? You know what my theology is as I have explained over the years. My God is the Creator, who made this world imperfect on purpose so that we can perfect it. I see God’s handiwork all around me and that motivates me to seek perfection in my life and in the world. I know that God didn’t cause events - either natural or man made - to happen and I don’t believe that God is writing me or anyone into the book of life or death today.
So how can I, or anyone who believes like me, pray these words and find sufficient meaning in them to motivate us and satisfy our spiritual needs? How can we pray about God causing bad things to happen when we don’t think God caused people to be killed at a movie theater or a Sikh temple?
One obvious answer would be to write a liturgy that reflects this theology. If these words don’t make sense to us then we should write new prayers that do make sense. We should spend the time in this High Holiday season to reflect upon our theology and then write prayers that would respond in a motivational and uplifting way. It would be a very challenging exercise and in the end it would be most meaningful and enriching.
Or we could find a machzor that has more meaningful and modern readings and more interpretive prayers. There are many editions of the machzor published by the different Jewish denominations and others that have explanatory notes, alternative readings and alternative prayers. Several of you already bring different machzorim to shul and others bring other reading material found on the internet or in other books that highlight the themes of the holidays.
Though writing our own prayers or looking for another machzor are legitimate responses to our personal struggles today, I personally, still want to pray these words because I still feel power in them. To me reciting prayers that are 1500 years old is meaningful and awesome. I find sanctity and holiness in the liturgy. It is humbling to know that my ancestors recited these very words for centuries and that in 2012 in Olney, MD they are being recited again.
Much of my thoughts while reciting the prayers focus on that historical connection. But sometimes just making that connection isn’t enough. I do need to find meaning in the words in I say and I want the words to honestly reflect what I believe. So instead of rewriting the prayers I reinterpret them.
The God I believe in is distant. The God I believe in set the world in motion and stepped back leaving it up to us to make the world better. Yet I also believe that God still cares about me. I believe that God cares whether I am doing good and am striving to achieve my potential. In a way, that doesn’t make sense. God should either be transcendent/distant or immanent/personal - God can’t be both.
Theologians insist on consistency. One’s understanding of God needs to be the same no matter the circumstance or the emotion. I shouldn’t believe in a personal God in times of joy and a distant God in times of tragedy. One needs to believe in the same God all the time.
So even though we might all accept that God causes good things to happen to us I can’t accept - even though that would be consistent - that God causes bad things to happen to us. It might be okay to celebrate a personal God at a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, but I can’t believe in a personal God at a funeral.
Consistency then causes me to opt for the distant God. But because I’m human my emotions cause me to be inconsistent. I want to pray. I want to believe that God cares about me. I want to believe that my actions make a difference in the bigger scheme of things. I want to feel commanded to do Jewish things because all of this helps me understand that there is a higher purpose to my life. All of this - prayer and mitzvot - help me accept that I’m not subject to human beings for a definition of morality, but rather to a divine system.
So though it may not be logical I pray to a distant God in an effort to get closer. When I pray these words I want to bridge the gap between this world and God’s world and I want to express my desire to be better. By doing so I want to try to experience what it would be like to live in such a sacred perfect universe.
Which leads me to reinterpret the words of the prayers. One example should suffice to explain my method. It’s in the ונתנה תוקף - unetaneh tokef - prayer that we find the concepts of the book of life and death when we sing בראש השנה יכתבון וביום צום כפור יחתמון - berosh hashanah yikatayvoon uveyom tzom kippur yaychtaymoon - on Rosh Hashanh it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. The ark is open and we stand as we sing this melody fervently. I don’t believe that we are being written by God in any book today yet I sing this prayer just as fervently because I believe that I have to live my life AS IF I am being written in that book. There’s a difference of course between actually being written and AS IF but the AS IF allows me to be consistent in my theology. I can understand the prayer to be poetic, an attempt by the author to help explain the mysterious. Why are good people punished? Why do some die by fire and others by sword? This prayer has an answer. But the answer doesn’t work for me. When I don’t read it literally I can understand it as a motivational piece. Live in fear and awe of the mystery of life. Live in mystery and awe of the powers of God. Behave in the only way we can in the face of such sanctity and divinity - by repententing, by praying and by doing acts of charity. To that thought I can respond fervently and sincerely.
Our belief in God can be a source of comfort and protection in this life. We don’t have to read this prayer literally. The poetic language helps us articulate beliefs about God who is unlimited and abstract. I need words to help me concretize the abstract. The prayer book provides those words and sometimes I need to reinterpret them so that it not only can make sense but can motivate me.
Reinterpretation can also help us make sense of the national or personal tragedies we have witnessed and experienced. How do we understand the mass killings and other examples of Man’s inhumanity to Man? My new understanding of the unetaneh tokef takes the blame from God and claims that evil will happen in this world. Though that is a frightening thought we are left with the sense that if we do our best, and others do their best, then we can control evil. We will recognize our communal responsibility and do our part to eradicate evil from our society.
Prayer then is a response to our basic human emotions. At our core we know we need to be good people. At our core we know that there must be a meaning to life. If we believe in God then we know that God is the eternal motivator to do good and be good. Our prayers today should respond to those feelings. We should spend the time reading the machzor today. Reflect upon the prayers and make them make sense for us. No matter what kind of God we believe in, we have to make the prayers make sense. It’s not enough that the melodies are moving. The words ultimately have to hit home so that we can feel transformed by them. We should walk out of the service tonight after we blow the shofar feeling spiritually cleansed. We should walk out feeling that our prayers made sense and that we now know what we need to do in the year ahead.We are about to begin the yizkor service. At the end we recite psalm 23 which concludes - ושבתי בבית ה לאורך ימים - and I shall dwell in God’s house forever. May we confront this machzor honestly and sincerely then we may feel AS IF we are in God’s presence. Amen.