First Day Rosh Hashana 2011

  1. L’shana Tova – May you be inscribed for a good year.

  1. Turn to Page 125 in Machzor – Middle of the page, the prayer before we begin our Musaf Amidah.. Adonai S’fatai Tiftach U’fee Yagid T’hilatecha “God Open My Lips and My Mouth Will Declare Your Praise.” Before we pray, we pray that God will give us the right words. There is a melody for this line. (teach melody from Craig Taubman)

  1. There was a man who came to visit a beautiful garden. Overcome with emotion he cried out, “Take a look at all of God’s creation!” The gardener heard him and shook his head, “You should have seen what this place looked like when God cared for it by himself.” I don’t think that I would take away from God the beauty of a garden but I also know that without human help, the best garden can quickly go to weeds. I am thankful for the partnership between God and humanity that leads to beautiful gardens and a more beautiful world.

  1. As I stand here I also want to call out, “Take a Look at this wonderful congregation.” But if I do then I am sure I will hear a voice from the back in reply, “You should have seen this place at 8:30”. In case you came late to service today, at 8:30 this place looked like the last inning of a Marlins home game when they are behind 17-1.

  1. Why do we all come to services so late? When I had a congregation that had a Bar Mitzvah every week, I could rely on the fact that at the beginning of the service, the only people who were present when the service began was the non-Jewish guests of the Bar Mitzvah. They were never told that you are supposed to come to services about an hour or so after the posted start time. Only those most dedicated to prayer or those who are feeling really guilty about something they have done make it to services on time. Why is this? Why do we arrive late? Would we have to do a drawing for cash prizes between 8:30 and 9 in order to get people to arrive on time? Some of the most meaningful prayers are found at the beginning of our service and most of us have never heard them.

  1. And don’t think this is a modern problem. The Talmud records that the proper order of blessings during the Torah service SHOULD be the blessing before the reading is recited by the persn called for the first Aliyah, and the blessing after the Torah reading should be recited after the reading by the one called up for the last Aliyah. That is all that is necessary. But the Sages worried that those who arrived late would never know that there was a blessing before the Torah was read, and those leaving early might never know that there also was a blessing at the end. So they ruled that each person should recite the blessings both before and after each Aliyah, a repetition made necessary because people came late to shul.

  1. If you are laughing nervously about the answer to the question, don’t worry, I already know why Jews come late to services, on the High Holy Days and on Shabbat as well. There is no great secret here that anyone is keeping from the Rabbi. There are three reasons why we don’t arrive on time. First of all, we find the service boring. One of my colleagues, much senior to me, used to visit other synagogues and usually described them as “a beautiful sanctuary that sleeps 500.” There is a chance that the Rabbi could say something interesting, and there is a chance we could get an honor on the Bima, but you don’t have to arrive early to meet those goals. The rest of the service is just “stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down”.

  1. The second reason we arrive late for services is that services are way too long. The people on the TV show, CSI can solve an entire case in 60 minutes. Why does praying take so long? My favorite movie is only two and a half hours, or maybe three. But a three and a half hour Shabbat service and a service over five hours long on the High Holy Days? Nobody should have to sit that long? There is nothing in the world that is interesting for so long except maybe a football game that goes into overtime. This is not even nearly as exciting.

  1. The third reason we arrive late is because prayer is so hard. When we look at a page of the Machzor like Page 164-5, we have to wonder what this book is all about. Who can make any sense over a pages like these? Trying to understand a prayer book is like trying to read War and Peace in Russian. Even the English in this Machzor may as well be from Moscow. After a few minutes of trying to decipher the prayers in either English or Hebrew, we just get a headache and quit. Maybe we should pass out in the synagogue a book like “The Idiot’s Guide to Praying” In a multi-media world, we need a multi-media service, otherwise, we can’t wait to get out the door.

  1. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Gail Labovitz, sums up the entire problem when she writes, “One particularly memorable personal insight came several years ago, during a ‘debriefing’ session after a Protestant prayer service. Someone asked about the difference between “high church’ and ‘low church’ forms of worship in Protestant denominations. The student who fielded the question answered roughly as follows: ‘Imagine walking into a church. If there are high, soaring ceilings, fixed pews, stained-glass windows – the message is that God is transcendent and awesome, and that is high church. On the other hand, if the ceiling is low, the chairs aren’t fixed in place, perhaps the space isn’t even regularly or exclusively used as a prayer space – God is immanent, and your in a low church environment.’ A little light bulb went off in my head – bing! -I’m a ‘low church’ Jew.”

  1. Rabbi Labovitz understands that the same issues that our Christian colleagues face is the same one we face. We have ‘high church’ services for ‘low church’ Jews. When we come to shul we have all kinds of expectations that we have accumulated over the years and sure enough, we find them all in shul and it gives us another reason to be late next week, or to skip the program altogether. Somehow we never really get the chance to think about what could make our prayers more inviting and meaningful. We just put in our time and remember why we stopped coming in the first place. We are all ‘low church’ Jews attending a ‘high church’ service. We want our God to be close and personal and we find in our service that God is far away and unapproachable. We have become indifferent to what should be of crucial importance.

  1. So how am I doing? Did I describe what is happening out there? I am not angry that anyone came late, I certainly don’t keep track of who comes to shul at what time. It is a free country and we are free to spend as much time in prayer as we want. I only see a problem where people come to synagogue and want to pray, they want to have a close, personal and meaningful encounter with God and faith and we are not providing what they need. We are leading a service that was constructed for past generations and bygone days.

  1. I come to shul for the very beginning of the service. Not because I have to, but because I want to. Those of us who do come for the beginning are all friends and we share an understanding of what prayer means to us and why it is important in our lives. Just like you, we could be spending the extra time in bed, over breakfast or watching TV but we choose to attend early because of the spiritual fulfillment we get here. Everyone can feel that spiritual connection but we will have to work on our expectations.

  1. As you can imagine, Rabbis have been working on boring services for thousands of years. The reason that services have not improved over the centuries is because of one important factor. Rabbi Mike Comins, in his book “Making Prayer Real, Why Prayer is Difficult and What You Can Do About It.” writes in the introduction, “My prayer life changed when I took ownership of it and no longer left my heart’s expression in the hands of rabbis, cantors, the Siddur, the building architect, the community or whether a baby happens to be crying in the sanctuary today. … If I go to services expecting the rabbi to impress me with her words, and the cantor to move me with his musicianship, I am like a critic at a movie. When a good film touches me, I am spiritually enriched, if not, not. It mostly depends on the film. But if I pray like a painter about the draw on her canvas, I am responsible for finding my inspiration and engaging the practice. … the critical point: it depends mostly on me – my longing , my desire, my creativity, my talent, my sincerity, my devotion to the art. We have a choice: to consume art or to become an artist; to consume the synagogue product or to become a prayer-person, an artist of the soul whose sincere prayer serves the community as much as the community supports our prayer.”

  1. There is no reason for us to abdicate our role in prayer the minute we walk in the door. We can pick up this Machzor, or we can find a different one that we like and bring it with us, and pray however we feel like praying. We don’t all have to be on the same page. We don’t all have to rise and sit on command. If we find something that speaks to us we can linger on the page and let the rest of the congregation go on without us until we are good and ready to catch up. Mary J. Blige, the Grammy award winning singer has written, “The seeking of spiritual light is gained through having faith and trust in God. Prayer provides the path, leading to inner strength and pushing us toward greater honesty with ourselves. With honesty come clarity, as we come to see the truth of our condition. We can then change what we can and accept what we can’t. Whatever it is that you have, you must make it work for you. In this way, we keep moving toward the light. When we minimize our own talents, when we envy what other have, when we give in to despair, we choose darkness. When we do so, we should always remember this is a choice, it is not a destiny. The light is always there if we have the courage to seek it. And, with faith and trust in God, we need never seek it alone.”

  1. The length of services is another issue that Rabbis and congregations have struggled with for hundreds of years. The problem is that the term, “too long” is as subjective as you can get. Waiting five minutes in a grocery store line seems very long. The same time hugging our spouse or grandchildren is way too short. The issue is not the time we spend praying but how engaged we are when we take the time to pray.

  1. There are lots of ways that we can make prayer more engaging. We could do what most churches do and hire a band, something with an electric guitar, drums and maybe a bass, an electric organ is very versatile here. We could play modern pop music, klezmer music, there are also Jewish gospel songs that can really get a shul up and dancing. We could go the other way and have more time for spiritual reflection, silent personal prayer or meditation. We could add modern poetry and prayers, or create a learning environment where we explain what the prayers are about. Rabbi Jack Reimer told the local Rabbinical Association that anyone that does not explain the prayers as we go seriously is derelict in his or her duty as a rabbi.

  1. The reality of our service is that this is what Jews have been doing since the time of the Talmud. Most of what is in our Machzor are prayers and poetry that have stood the test of time. Maybe some of the metaphors don’t speak to us as they once did to our ancestors, but the needs and desires of human beings as one year closes and another begins have not changed that much over the years. We still worry about what the new year will bring. We do sincerely want to improve our lives, leaving our deficiencies in the past and we want to strengthen our resolve to do better in the future. We want to know that mistakes have been forgiven and we have a chance to start over in the new year. It is not easy to write the prayer and poetry that will speak to Jews in every age and time. So we put them all together in a Machzor and ask each of us to find something that we can relate to. One rabbi I know says he never reads all the sins in the confessional anymore. He picks one or two he wants to work on and stays with them. I try to translate our Machzor to recognize more gender neutral language. How would you rewrite the prayers? How could you translate them into more relevant language? This is certainly easier than spending $32,000 for the new Machzor that does all that work for us.

  1. Finally, Prayer is hard. Like going to the opera or the symphony, we have to do a bit of homework if we are to get the most out of our experience. If we can understand the structure of the service; where it gets personal and where it demands international actions. Where we turn to God and where we turn inward, then we discover that the Machzor is designed to get us not just to read a prayer, but to react to the prayer as well.

  1. Take the central prayer of this day, the one we will soon recite “Unetane Tokef” is there something in this prayer that bothers us? Do we believe in destiny? Do all our actions find their way into God’s book? We can sing and we can interpret the prayer but do we really mean what we say? Will our answers to these questions satisfy the questions of our children or grandchildren? How might they look at Unetane Tokef”? If refusing to say it is not an option, how should we reinterpret it for a modern congregation?

  1. If we don’t like “Avinu Malkaynu” would we like it better if it was “Imenu Achotaynu – our Mother our Sister”? What would this list of prayers look like if God were called a mother rather than a father? Would God be more merciful, more understanding of our faults if God were our mother and not our father and king?

  1. My friend, Dr. Lewis Newman, in his book “Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuva” writes, “And so we find so many prayers asking that we be freed from shame, which is the feeling that we are unworthy of redemption. We need some divine assurance that there is, indeed, a way forward, for we ourselves have lost touch with that reality. If we can come to believe that forgiveness is a possibility, that God will take us back despite our moral failings, the all is not lost after all. Therefore, we pray to have our hearts opened tho that message of hope that can come to us only from somewhere beyond our own experience. The psalmist cries out, ‘I said, Lord be gracious to me, heal me, for I have sinned against you.’ (Psalm 41). The individual journey of repentance recapitulates the national experience of liberation from slavery, for in fact, it is a version of the same struggle. Like the Israelites in Egypt, we need to be able to break free from complacency and awaken to the fact that we are in need of liberation. First, we have to believe that such liberation is more than an idealized goal; it is a genuine possibility. Then we need the courage to pursue that goal even when we revert to our former slave mentality.” This is not kid stuff. This is hard work.

  1. Now perhaps we can see why some of us come early and stay to the end. Why some of us prepare for Rosh Hashana not just for a day or two, or a week or two, but at least for a month and maybe, we are thinking about sin, forgiveness and liberation all year long and these days only guide us on our way. We who come early see this service as a ladder upon which we can climb our way to the level we wish to attain in the new year. But coming early and staying late is not the key to a meaningful prayer experience. It is only the result of a change of perspective and a change of heart. We need to open ourselves up to the possibility of prayer. We need to open our hearts to the spiritual needs we hide there. We need to open our souls to the healing that prayer can bring. But most of all, we need to open our mouths and find the words that God has placed there.

  1. Sing Adonai S’fatai Tiftach U’fee Yagid T’hilatecha “God Open My Lips and My Mouth Will Declare Your Praise.”

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