There is something in the opening moments of the Yom Kippur evening service, right before Kol Nidre, that always speaks to me, “עַל דַּֽעַת הַמָּקוֹם וְעַל דַּֽעַת הַקָּהָל. בִּישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽעְלָה וּבִישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽטָּה. אָֽנוּ מַתִּירִין לְהִתְפַּלֵּל עִם הָעֲבַרְיָנִים:” With the consent of God, and the consent of this congregation, in the heavenly court, and in the earthly court, we are granted permission to pray with sinners.”
What struck me this year, was not so much the permission to pray with sinners, which I have spoken about in the past. That we are all sinners, we all transgress, we all do harm. Especially on Kol Nidre, when our awareness of our shortcomings should be at their highest. If we did not have permission to pray with sinners we would not be able to pray at all. No, what struck me this year was simply being given permission to pray at the very start of Yom Kippur.
This is the only service I know of where we are given explicit permission to pray and it’s a good thing because we spend most of Yom Kippur immersed in a sea of prayer, in a language most of us don’t understand relying on translations that are sometimes adequate but rarely great. And even if we understood the Hebrew, we would find ourselves grappling with a world view that is very, very old and thus comes out of a different set of values and even a different way of seeing the world than our own.
Further, prayer is not something most of us do regularly or at all, so we don’t really know what to do or how to do it. In one sense, of course, we know what to do. If you have ever wished for a yellow light to stay yellow just a little longer when you are running late, you are praying. Whenever you ask that your loved one gets home safely, you are praying. Whether you know it or not. But that is spontaneous prayer. To do what we are setting out to do, to engage with all these words, these ancient forms and structures with concentration and focus and have some kind of transformative experience, that kind of prayer is hard.
Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek, in an article in The Forward, titled “Wow, please, thank you: How I learned to pray on a walk in the woods,” said: “I cannot believe that what the Holy One wants from us is to just rapid-fire shoot through a whole bunch of words without really absorbing them, growing, changing,”
He continues, ““If you can move through the liturgy and it’s opening your heart up — great, fabulous, go for it. But that’s not true for most people,” he added. “We Jews live in our head. And I think prayer done right is not a head exercise. It’s a heart exercise.”
The hard part about prayer, Rabbi Spodek said, is not learning the Hebrew or understanding the liturgy’s structure or knowing when to bow: “It’s can you get in touch with your own sense of gratitude? Can you get in touch with your own fear?”
So, how do we move from our heads to our hearts, from our thinking to our feelings. I certainly suffer from this affliction. I live in a world of words. I teach with words. I lead with words. I motivate with words. I comfort with words. I spend much of my time in my head, using words as tools. Words are really helpful in solving lots of day-to-day problems like writing drashot, but they can’t help me with the change or transformation I need to make at the deepest levels of my being: the levels of emotion, spirit, and belief. I can’t think my way to feeling better about myself, my self-worth. I can’t think my way through my fears and anxieties. I can’t think my way out of my need for certainty (that does not exist in life), and my fear of the unknown. Even if I could, so many of my thoughts are circular, or negative, or critical, or self-justifying, they don’t help.
Like on Erev Rosh Hashanah I am sharing some of my personal struggles with you, not to burden you, but to give you permission to grapple with some of your own. This is the purpose of the High Holy Days, to go inward, to explore ourselves at the deepest level, and to change the things we need to change. This is the essence of Teshuvah.
If Jewish prayer is too wordy and too hard to move us in our souls, sometimes a line or a word of a prayer can jump right off the page, burrow into our hearts, and trigger transformation. A few years ago, this line from Debbie Friedman’s misheberach for healing did for me, “May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.” It was like a trigger for change. It raised so many questions. What does it mean to make our lives a blessing? How could we live in such a way that our interactions with others were not transactional but transformative and supportive in a beautiful, positive way. Isn’t that, after all, what it means to make our lives a blessing? That people feel blessed, encouraged, uplifted, supported, or strengthened by being with us? What do we need to do that? What kind of strength do we need to move beyond our own fears, egos, needs, anxieties and insecurities to be a blessing to others? Where do we find that strength? So many ideas and questions unfolding from one sentence, that I had sung for years without ever giving it any real attention. Suddenly, with a little attention, my whole focus shifted. That is what happens when we let a prayer enter our heart; it can open doors in our innermost being. It can transform us and how we want to be in the world.
During these chagim I am grappling with making some real changes in my life and one of the things that prevents me from changing, from loving the way I know I am capable of but don’t yet believe is my sense of self-worth. Yes, I think I like myself well enough. But at the deepest level, at the level of my soul I am not so sure if I am really a good person. This belief about myself cripples me in some essential ways. It keeps me stuck. And then, I thought of this line from our morning prayers, אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַֽתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא אַתָּה בְרָאתָהּ אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי, My God, the soul which you have given me is pure. You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me.”
Wow. What a simple truth: our souls are pure. Or, if you don’t like soul, if that’s too religious then use essence, or spiritual core, or highest values, or whatever works for you. But, if I had to boil down the essence of Yom Kippur from all the prayers we will recite and all the words we will say, it would be this: our souls are pure. We may obscure them through distorted beliefs. Or tarnish them through mistakes and actions that hurt others. But our souls, our essences are pure. We need to regain our understanding of that. We need to return to that purity of soul and to live from there. Yom Kippur teaches us that this is possible. God (or substitute your own noun here) will forgive us. Can we forgive ourselves? Can we recognize that the soul God breathed into us is pure and the way to retain that state is to identify where we have done wrong, where we have harmed others, admit it, feel genuine regret and change.
On Rosh Hashanah I talked about awareness of our mortality. In traditional Jewish thinking, we will live as long as the soul God gave us resides within us. When it departs from us, we die. Can we use the time we have to make the most of this pure soul.
I have certainly squandered a lot of my time and I don’t want to waste any more. What I am doing today and what I commit to doing tomorrow, and each day throughout this New Year is to remember, at the beginning of each day, that my soul is pure and then living from that place. So when my fear or anxiety comes up, as it inevitably will, or my feeling that I’m not really a good person, as it does with stunning repetitiveness, and I become paralyzed and stop taking a risk or doing the next right thing, I am going to pray these words, “ God, the soul which you have given me is pure.” I trust that they will give me the strength to change, to take that risk, to do the next, right thing. That’s my commitment for this New Year.
Rabbi Spodek concluded, “The tradition says, and I believe, the Holy One wants my heart, “I want to be able to open my heart fully to the holy one. I want to be able to open my heart fully, period.” That’s what I want too. It’s what I believe each of us wants. That’s what all these prayers, all the words, are here to help us do. If we are lucky, we can find one line among all these words that can help us do that. One line, one verse that touches our hearts, that puts us in touch with our deepest fears and helps us move through them, that helps us find the strength to change.
I always say this is not a performance, that we are praying together. There is no “right” way to pray. Just find something here, a line of prayer, a verse of poetry, a fragment of melody and bring it into your heart and, like a key, use it to transform yourself and reconnect with your pure essence, your pure spirit, your pure soul.