Sign In Forgot Password
Petaluma's Inclusive Center for Jewish Life

Why Pray

09/25/2022 09:19:50 AM


Guest Rabbi Rebecca Joseph

“Why Pray?” – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783

Shana tova! It’s wonderful to be together in the first hours of this new year – 5783.

After being online only for the last two years, we are gathering for High Holiday services in person and live streaming. Wherever you are, our BIJC congregational family welcomes you!

Whatever brings you here tonight, whether you have been celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with this congregation for decades, found your way here during the Covid pandemic, or – like me! – are here this year for the first time; I sincerely hope that you will find in our services what you most need in this season for reflection, reconciliation, and adjusting to changing circumstances and new realities.

In the weeks of planning and preparation for these High Holidays, I’ve been delighted to meet and work with many people in this community. In our conversations, almost everyone shared a story about why they come to services and what it means to them. Things they mentioned include:

Reconnecting with the Jewish community. Kibud av v’eim – Honoring their parents. A sense that this is what Jews do.
Nostalgia for experiences earlier in life, especially during childhood. Passing on traditions to children and grandchildren.
The memorable melodies of the High Holidays. These are all great reasons to be here; each of us may see our own motivation in one or more of them.

One thing that does not seem to be on most of our lists is many hours of praying together with numerous repetitions. While there are people for whom extended immersion in prayer is a most desirable gift – this may be you!, prayer, for many of us, is one of the most challenging things about participating in these services.

There are numerous difficulties we can encounter with prayer. Let’s start with a really big one. I think of it as the “God Language Conundrum.” Here are a few ways that it can show up for us during these holidays:

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, which was a finalist for the 2018 National Jewish Book Award. In the prologue to her first book, Stars of David, she admits:

I’m still in synagogue twice a year on the High Holy Days…In synagogue on Kol Nidre – the eve of Yom Kippur – I always feel hypocritical confessing my sins. But that doesn’t stop me from asking God for clemency: My list of lapses is always easy to summon up. During one service, I found myself weeping during the Shehechiyanu (the blessing that thanks God for giving us life, sustaining us, and allowing us to reach this moment). I was overcome by the singing, everyone standing and swaying, arms around neighbors they didn’t even know. Of course, minutes after that transcendent moment, I found myself flipping ahead in the prayer book to see how much of the service was left.1

The late Edgar Bronfman, Sr., long-time President of the World Jewish Congress and billionaire scion of the Seagram’s dynasty, once said, "The problem is that in synagogue, we talk about this Avinu Malkeinu [“Our Father, Our King”] business all the time. I don’t do that. I mean, I can sing it, but while I’m singing it, I’m saying, 'It’s not my father, it’s not my king.'"2

In “An Atheist’s Prayer for the High Holidays,” published on the Jewish parenting website,
Kveller just this past week, Alexandra Moss writes:

God opens the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and seals it on Yom Kippur. Or so I was taught. I’ve been an atheist since before my bat mitzvah. I bristle at the misogyny and the miracles of the Torah.

Still, as the Days of Awe approach I slip into old patterns: the prayers, the food, the sacred time with family. These 10 days are another sort of opening, a lure back into the traditions of my childhood, my ancestors. A temptation no less powerful than the apple was to Eve…

Covid, monkeypox, polio. Polar ice caps melting twice as fast as predicted. “Thousand- year” floods every single year. Fires engulfing the globe’s forests. Mass shootings of schoolchildren. The desecration of American democracy.
What values do I want to impart to my children? What rituals do I want them to remember when they’re grown?

…I may not believe in the Book of Life. In a God who weighs our actions and apologies. But in a world that’s crashing all around us, I still hope – pray? – that my loved ones and I will live another year. 3

If any or all of these anecdotes resonate for you, you are – Jewish. And you are fully welcome here. Here are a few other common obstacles to a meaningful High Holidays prayer experience and some suggestions for working with them:

There is a lot of Hebrew and even some Aramaic in the services. Machzor Eit Ratzon, our High Holiday prayerbook, includes English translations and transliteration of every prayer. Prayer in any language is acceptable, as is praying in your own words. If you can’t find the words, concentrating on the sound of a melody or setting an intention of gratitude can be very meaningful.
It’s hard to concentrate on following the service for so long. In the right-hand column and shaded boxes in the machzor, you’ll find commentaries, reflections, and meditations for you to use at any time. You might also try lingering on a word or phrase in prayer for a while as the service continues. During the silent Amidah (“Standing”), try a slow walking or rolling meditation if you use a wheelchair. Take a break when you need to. Rejoin the group when you’re ready.

There’s a lot of choreography. Moving our bodies is an integral part of Jewish prayer. Throughout the services, I’ll provide cues for when we do what together. Many are also in the machzor. You can sway or dance lightly with the music when it moves you.

Though it is traditional to stand when the Ark is open and during some prayers, you are just as reverent sitting when standing is not possible or difficult for you. Other movements, such as bending forward, can be modified for seated positions.

There is no question that High Holiday services ask a lot of us, especially when it comes to prayer, which presupposes a relationship with God and structures communication in ways that present myriad potential obstacles to a meaningful experience.

I encourage you to let go of expectations based on High Holiday services in years past or what anyone has told you or you think you should be experiencing when you pray. Make these services your own by using the options that best give you access to the benefits of prayer. Among others:

The feeling of release that comes from expressing our deepest truths.
The feeling of wonder that comes from praising from within that which extends infinitely beyond us.
The feeling of awe that comes from acknowledging a Creative power greater than ourselves.
The feeling of rejuvenation that comes from recognizing our proximity to the Source of Life. The feeling of well-being that comes from sensing God’s presence in our lives.
The feeling of joy that comes from recognizing that we are worthy of our own prayers.

Praying as a group and individually together, keep in mind that the goal is not reaching a state of sustained transcendence. None of us can do that, though we can deeply savor any transcendent moments we experience and the process of awakening that may take us there.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that every word of prayer is like a fragrant rose that one has just picked in full bloom from the bush. Whether from the liturgy, our own words, or the yet-to- be articulated yearnings of hearts, may our prayers in abundance, however we offer them this Rosh Hashanah and throughout these Days of Awe, form a gorgeous bouquet expressing our faith in redemption, reconciliation, and the promise of blessings in the New Year.
1 Abigail Pogrebin, Stars of David, p. 5
2 In Stars of David, p. 190
3 Alexandra Moss, “An Atheist’s Prayer for the High Holidays,” September 20, 2022

Thu, June 1 2023 12 Sivan 5783