1. Shabbat Shalom
2. If we were to examine the life of Isaac, we would be hard pressed to find incidents in his life that are his alone. More often than not, Isaac is part of the story of his father Abraham or part of the story of his son Jacob. It is really hard to find something that is unique to the life of Isaac.
3. The one story that is Isaac’s alone; is the story of Isaac and the digging of the wells. In Genesis Chapter 26, we find Isaac and his family locked in a struggle with the people of Gerar over water rights in the area around the city. At first, the people of Gerar try to drive Isaac and his family away by stopping up the wells he needs to water his flocks. When Isaac moves away and discovers new wells, the people of Gerar drive him away from those wells also. Finally, as he moves closer to the desert and Beer Sheva, he finally finds the water that he needs for his family and his flocks without having to fight for them. He is then able to make a treaty with the King of Gerar that will insure that there will no longer be trouble between Isaac and Gerar.
4. Isaac is so good at finding water because he is retracing the steps of his father Abraham. Each time he re-digs a well that was once his father’s, he does not rename the well, but calls it by the same name Abraham gave it. This is how he stays connected to the memory of his father. Later biblical commentators draw connections between the water that Isaac finds and the “water” that is Torah. In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva teaches that just as a fish cannot live without water, so too a Jew cannot live without the life-giving words of Torah. Just as Isaac knows where to find the water because of the work of his father, so too do we know where to find Torah, by following the example of our parents, grandparents and great grand parents.
5. Our patriarchs were models of prayer. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are given credit for creating the Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv services. Living a nomadic life, worrying about where the next watering hole will be, and if there will be enough food for the flocks and if there will be enough food and water for the family, all of these can help make a person very spiritual. Living out in nature, surrounded by trees, grass, mountains, animals and the wide open sky, it is not hard to feel connected to God. But for those of us who do not live out in nature, those of us who live in cities, with lots of people, lots of traffic, lots of noise and lots of urban congestion, it is much harder to find God.
6. There are some who say, that the last place they would look for God is in the synagogue. They might go to the beach, to the forest, out under the stars or in some other beautiful place in nature and there they would feel God’s presence. In synagogue there are too many people, too much talking, a lot of speed reading and too many distractions. How could Jews even think to find God in a synagogue? And yet, for me and for many others, a synagogue is a natural place to draw closer to God, as long as we don’t let the distractions hamper our search.
7. What does it really mean to pray? Is it just reading the words? Is prayer reciting a Hebrew text that we don’t understand? Is it prayer to read the English text even if that does not seem too traditional? Is prayer being on the right page? Or is prayer something altogether different? Rabbi Sharon Braus, one of my colleagues in Los Angeles has written, “A few months after I had become a rabbi, a terrible tragedy occurred in my congregation in New York. An active member of the synagogue, a junior in college, was crossing the street in her university after finishing a final exam when she was struck by a car and left in critical condition for a week, with little chance of survival. The whole community was paralyzed and devastated. “What can we do?” I asked my Rabbi. “Pray,” he said, “Pray with all our heart, pray as if there is no such thing as a medical certainty. Pray as if anything is possible. Pray without ambivalence, Pray without doubt in God’s capacity to heal. Pray as if the whole world depends on your prayers.” That Shabbat, I closed my eyes and sang out with all of my heart. Halfway through Kabbalat Sabbat I realized that I was no longer singing – I was praying. I was soaring. That experience changed my life. It is when I realized that prayer can be a moment in which we suspend doubt and disbelief, in which we allow ourselves to hope and to believe that anything is possible. Since then, I don’t sing, I pray.”
8. Temple Emeth can provide many ways for us to find prayer. We have a wonderful cantor, we have a congregation that loves to sing. We have many people who know the prayers and have prayed on Shabbat almost all of their lives. But in the end, nothing we can do will make prayer possible. In the end, the final boundary has to be crossed in our own hearts and souls.
9. I think that one of the barriers to prayer is the way we conduct the service. Maybe because I was a fidgety little boy, my mother and father were always trying to get me focused on the prayers. They asked me multiple times, “What page are we on?” trying to get me to keep up with the rest of the congregation. But I have discovered that being on the right page is not a good way to pray at all. When I am really praying, I may stay on one page long after everyone else has moved on. Something on that page has inspired me and I don’t want to leave it until the feeling is gone. I have responsibilities during the service to help the congregation find their way to their own prayers. This means that I have moments of deep prayer between long stretches of trying to catch up. But I have to try very hard not to get in the way of other people here who are trying to pray.
10. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, from Massachusetts and now living in California, writes, “I’m always struck when the leader of the service says, ‘We now rise for the Shema’. Why are you telling me that? I’ve been coming to services here for thirty years. I know we stand up for the Shema. Only Jews tell one another when to stand. People in every other religion assume you know what to do, and if you don’t, you’re smart enough to watch and see what everyone else is doing?”
11. Just think about what Rabbi Kushner is saying. Do we really need to be told when to stand and when to sit? Some of you have been coming to shul longer than I have been alive. Does it really help when the Rabbi tells everyone to stand? This is supposed to be our spiritual home but when we are home do we need someone to tell us when we should stand and when we should sit? Or take a different example. I know that we are new to this prayer book, but do we really need anyone to tell us what page we are on? We know the basic order of the service. Borchu, Eyl Adon, Shema, Mi Chamocha, Amida, Kedusha, Kaddish Shalem, Torah Servcie, Sermon, Musaf and closing. If someone puts a different Ashkenazi siddur into our hands, how long would it really take us to figure out where the service is and to sing along with the rest of the congregation?
12. I often find myself agreeing with Rabbi Kushner. We are dumbing down our service. Making our congregations feel as if they are infants who need guidance to know how to pray. The fact is; our ability to pray is tied closely to our sense of spirituality, the needs that weigh heavily in our hearts and the sense of gratitude for all of God’s gifts in our lives. It is not so much about the words, but about how we feel in our hearts. At this week’s Sisterhood meeting I talked about the partnership between humanity and God to provide food for the world. As I walked around the room, a woman said to me, “After all these years, I never saw the Hamotzi that way. You are right; we lose sight of the human and divine elements in the food we eat.” She will never pray in the same way again.
13. Another Rabbi I know was told that his services were not very spiritual. He had to remind the person that a synagogue cannot make a person spiritual. We have to do that work ourselves. Every time I call out a page number, it is as if I am forcing everyone to be on the same page I am on. That is not how you find your way closer to God. If you are on a different page, then there must be a reason to be on that page. Being on my page will not help connect you to God. If it does anything, it moves us away from finding that religious space in our hearts. In our attempt to make things uniform, we have lost our spiritual way.
14. This is also the same dance that we do with the Torah Service. People tell me every week that they NEED me to tell them the page in the Humash where the Torah reading begins. And they tell me all kinds of reasons why I have to tell them. They tell me they don’t know Roman numerals. They tell me they don’t understand chapter and verse. Rabbis have so trained our congregations that we cannot even do what any Christian or Muslim can do, find their place in scripture by chapter and verse. I can also point out that there is another clue as to where the Torah reading will begin… The page number is printed in your Shabbat announcement sheet. Why do we have to break up our study of Torah to give a page number that everyone knows anyway?
15. In my daughter’s shul, everyone does not use the same siddur. They provide a guide, given out by the usher at the door, of the different books they use and on what page important prayers can be found. These are young Jews, not all of whom have had strong Jewish backgrounds, but they are smart enough to figure out, when they need to, where the congregation singing is in the Siddur.
16. So, as of today, I give everyone permission to be on a different page if it will help you in your search for God on Shabbat. If your heart is heavy with pain, worry or trouble, then you don’t need any page or prayer to pour your heart out to God. Don’t be on the same page. Find a word, a sentence, an idea, in Hebrew or in English, and examine it deeply as to why, at this moment, these are the most important words in your life. Close your eyes and see the words dancing inside your mind. Send the letters soaring to God, either above you or inside you.
17. The Siddur is not a cookbook. You can say all the words and still not have a cake to show for it when you are done. The siddur is a road map, a guide, an inspiration. Just as it inspired generations of Jews to reach higher and higher toward God, our liturgy can do the same for us if we only free the words from the burden of being correct, and instead see them as calling us to consider the deeper implications of what they have to say.
18. You don’t need me to tell you what page we are on. You probably, right now, have your finger in the place in the Siddur that you know we are going to turn to when this sermon is over. And you know that you will have to stand for the next prayer. What is the next prayer?
What page is it on?
Why in the world do you need me to tell you? How about we do without the page numbers and the interruptions, and let’s you and I, with all our heart, soul and might, stand up and pray together the Musaf service. And I mean REALLY pray it.