Parsha Chayei Sarah 5778
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parsha Chayei Sarah 5778

Woody Allen once joked. For a long time, I was so depressed. I was going to kill myself, but I was in analysis with a strict Freudian analyst and if you kill yourself, they make for the sessions you missed…

Psychoanalysis is not in vogue as a healing modality as it once was. And for those of you who don’t really know what it was, it differed from counseling as we know it. The client lied on a couch and spoke his or her mind or heart out; often free associating. And always encouraged to say exactly what he or she felt.

And the therapist would sit to the side and a little behind the client out of direct eye sight. The therapist would not speak, or hardly speak at all.

So why did the client do so…often three to five times a week. What was the key to this free association? Talking, why did the client need to sit in a therapist’s office? Why not do it at home, alone.

There are a few answers and one seems to be that the client knew someone was listening. And all of us need an ear that will listen to us. Isn’t that something we all share?

There’s a lot we can say about this…but I think here, in the synagogue, we can think about it in relation to the prayers that we are saying. Who do you think is listening to your prayers?

And I would bet that there are essentially three answers to this question. The first is “the One” to whom many of your prayers are being offered. We’re praying to God; we’re expressing thanks, expressing hopes, yearning and desires. Some of us are confessing and looking for forgiveness. At times we are pouring out our hearts. And although God cannot be seen, like the analyst, we hope he is listening. And knowing there is a listener, we continue to pray.

But some of us are not so sure that there is a God that is listening. And so we may be here praying with a community, praying, as it were, to and with each other, sharing in the language and music of our people. We’re praying to each other. And that feels good. Together we are expressing a common language, values, attachment to a text, aspiration and hope. When we sing, Shema Yisrael, this is a prayer, to Israel, to the people of Israel. And this is our central prayer.

And for others, there may be something else. It may be that our prayers are really directed inward. Our praying time as it were, is used as a time for meditation, as a time for inward reflection and almost as if, we’re praying to ourselves…no, not in the sense of self worship, but in the sense of self reflection. We’re listening to our hearts. The word, “to pray” in Hebrew, is a reflexive verb; “lehitpallel.” It’s something that we do to ourselves… Part of prayer is meant for us, we judge ourselves, we give voice to deep concerns and worries and hopes. We are able to express our soulfulness and spiritual essence.

We come here with a thought that not much is expected of us, because we can sit here and not participate, watch what’s happening and be disengaged. And, if we are not here much, we certainly feel this as an alien experience…And yet, any prayer service can be a moment that calls on us and changes us. It can happen because of what we are witnessing around us or the sense that there is something profound in a community that prays together here for me. Deep and honest self-reflection can always change us. We have very few vehicles and moments for that in today’s life. Someone once said that there is one prerequisite for prayer and that is humility.

The humility is found in the sense that we are really small in relation to a grand universe. We’re a small part of something really large. And the humility can be impressed upon us by the realization of the need that each one of us is need of change; every one of us can consistently be in a process of growth.

Every once in a while I like to talk about prayer. I do it to remind myself of why we do this thing daily, weekly. I, personally, push back against the routine and the rote nature of this. And yet I also see that too has purpose. But, it is also the reason I love Cantor Davidoff’s davening, because the words are the same but often the melodies change!

When you think about it, prayer is the thing we do most here at the synagogue, but we speak about it least.

I taught a prayer class this week and I pointed out that in the places where prayer seems to be the most connected and intense, learning about prayer doesn’t really take place. It is something which is simply done, and in the doing one finds connection and meaning. When people come to me and say they feel disconnected from this, I understand because it is not in our regular consciousness, the language, even the English is foreign in relation to contemporary culture, but I also know that it is in the doing, a consistent appearance that we begin to connect. If you make this a regular practice, and if you open your heart, you will, in time feel connected. Mostly, people who are truly open to people are also open to the spiritual.

There was, as you know a great Jewish thinker and philosopher, associated with our Seminary and our Movement; Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel taught the world many important things. He made the message of Torah and the Prophets a message for his time and our time. He did so in ways which were poetic and often in ways that spoke deep truths about our being.

He wrote about these two concepts or categories in Jewish life. He referred to Kevah and Kavannah. They represent poles in the religious experience. Kevah is the stuff that is fixed and regular. It’s what you have to do, what you are supposed to say. It is seen in the fact that prayer is meant to be done with certain words at certain times. Many in our world resent this idea that there is a “supposed to” with prayer. They sense that it is something from the spirit, something that is done when you want it to be done. But Judaism, with all of its beauty and respect for the dignity of individuals is also a system that is communal and makes demands of us. Through those demands we can find a certain order in our lives and through those demands we can find certain meaning. But, the “fixed” can be rigid and boring and repetitive.

The opposite of this is referred to as Kavvanah. And that is the feeling that we gain from it, bring to it – the meaning, the spirit, the emotion. We all want prayer services filled with kavannah… with deep spirit and emotional connection. We want a great prayer experience to lift us up!

But, something I have learned over the years is that it can’t always be turned on and turned off. In fact, it may actually take a commitment to the regular and the routine and the obligated that allows for that sense of kavannah, the special moment. I know that is true in meditation. I remember studying T.M. in Jerusalem and the weeks it took before it brought me somewhere else.
The places where davening, praying is best, is with the groups that do it regularly.

I had a professor at the Hebrew University once who really helped me in this path. He said, I daven every day because, I have to. And somedays, and I don’t know why, I don’t know, but I feel deeply moved, spiritually uplifted totally connected…to the words, to the music and to the community…And, it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been doing it daily.

I said that every once in while I like to speak about prayer. I’d say it is because I need the reminders. I’d do so because I need them especially when I feel disconnected, and yes, even rabbis struggle with that. I do so because I’m so concerned, so deeply concerned about the following.

I believe that prayer is one of the foundations of our tradition and, frankly, life itself. It is not only an opportunity to connect to the self-divine, but also the centerpiece of community. And I also think it serves as the place we can go when we are at our most challenging times…there we can express fully our sadness at loss and sickness, angst and our fears and our hopes and celebrations.

This was a week where many said, after another horror, another massacre…what do we do?

And although there are things that can be done…it may include, first some serious reflection…

But I also need to speak about this because together we need to figure something out. And that’s how do we pass this on?

When I look around on a typical Shabbat, I recall that 24 years ago, I was one of the young ones here. Twenty-four years later, this remains true.
And this is a very deep concern. I may have inherited a connection from my parents and grandparents who were in shul. Like many, it is part of who we are, it defines our time or gives structure to our days and our weeks. But what about a generation who were not brought to synagogue and don’t have that. Who didn’t have intensive Jewish connections? Who live in a broader world, with lots of other things to do? Whose kids are involved in this sport or that lesson, whose week is overburdened with being here or being there? The language is not their language.

This is not a new conversation. It is not the first time I have brought my own angst about this to you. It may be that the language needs to evolve. It may be that the practices of meditation and yoga need to be incorporated. It may be that there should be instruments and different music. It may be that the sanctuary is stuffy and formal and we should go outside. Young adults with little kids don’t feel comfortable when their kids get noisy…

We can make a case that there are all different ways of being and expressing Judaism. For some it may be culture, food, music, family, learning…and that prayer, as we have it, like sacrifice before us, will no longer have a hold. This is an issue with all religious traditions…

But I think the following…
I believe that we do need time set apart for introspection and meditation; lehitpalel. I believe we need to find the space where we can remove ourselves from iPhones and technology. They are killing our spirits and our souls.
I believe that we need to sing.
I believe we need community and contact with people who share a past, values and a destiny.
I believe we need to speak to one who is listening.
I believe we need the context to sanctify those who have died.
I believe we need the place to hear and learn and keep alive a Torah that has unified us for thousands of years.
I believe in a world where everything is fast, we need slow.
I believe we need to know that it’s not all about “me” in this world.

Religion is to be about connection – to others, to ourselves and to God.
And I believe that prayer is one of the fundamental pillars of a religious community…more than that we have learned that it is one of the three pillars on which the world stands.

Didn’t the rabbis say: Al shlosha debarim haOlam omeid; al hatorah, al haavodah, v’al Gemilut Chasadim… On three things the world stands, on Torah, (and that means Torah and learning in the broadest sense), on worship, and on acts of kindness. Not a bad sentiment.

I don’t have the answer about our future. But I will not hide from the challenge and I know you are with me.

Our services here are as well attended as any in the country; perhaps the world. Our season, for those who are here, have upward of a thousand people.
But we need something meaningful to the next generation
So we will continue to try, learning services and family services, and renewal services and meditation, we will introduce new music, and try to always make our message meaningful to our times.

Meanwhile, like the client on the couch…I’m glad you’re listening. And, we will continue to join together, hopefully lifting up our own spirit and that of each other in a place of beauty and an environment of respect and reverence.

Now I’ll tell you a secret.
I thought to do this today because of a simple line in the Torah that describes Isaac, late in the afternoon, walking in the field. The rabbis interpreted to mean he was meditating; he was praying as he walked. And, it was there, while he was meditating that Rebekkah saw him. And a midrash says, she fell in love with him there. And she veiled her face. That line of Isaac walking in the field became the midrashic source of the minchah service.

So…maybe we can understand this as a model. An experience where we move in our prayers, physically, emotionally, spiritually; meditating and open to the universe and creation and the Creator…and the experience makes us humble and makes us each, the deserved recipient of love.

May your prayers be pleasing and acceptable to God and to humanity.

Shabbat Shalom