Keva, Kavannah, and The Lady Who Walked into the Pharmacy – 21 March, 2014 – Shabbat Inspiration by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah. (Aadapted from Rabbi Michael Simon).  This Shabbat, our Torah portion, Sh’mini contains one of the most troubling passages in the Torah; the mysterious deaths of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu.  Why did they die?  The Torah tells us it was because they offered “strange fire” to God.  Although rabbinical interpretation over the years have offered many theories as to what it was that they did that was so bad, they all agree that they must have done something improper, something that was offensive to G-d, and so they were immediately struck dead.

What is our take away from this tragic episode?  Is it that there’s only one way to worship G-d, and if we don’t do it right, we’ll be zapped?  Well, that hardly seems to make sense, especially since we no longer worship G-d in the same way that our ancestors in Temple times did.

As the song of our youth constantly reminds us, “The times they are a-changin’.”  With the destruction of the Temple, our mode of worship changed, and in fact there have been subtle and not-so-subtle changes in worship mode throughout the ages.  There was an article in the New York Times last week about new and contemporary modes of Jewish worship called a Lab-Shul.  We have reprinted that article in our April newsletter, which will be available next week online, and when you read it, you’ll surely say that things change.   But you don’t even have to go that far.  Just look around.  You have both a woman chazzan and a woman rabbi.  That wasn’t possible until forty years ago!

So now the question becomes, should changing modes of worship be acceptable?!  There certainly have been those who have argued that we, who make changes, are, like Nadav and Avihu, offering strange fire to the Lord in the guise of different modes of worship and prayer that we have today.

So I’d like to offer you a story to put another perspective on this concern:  (Once again, I thank my colleague, Rabbi Michael Simon from Boynton Beach for sharing this.)  “One day a nice, calm and respectable lady went into the pharmacy, walked up to the pharmacist, looked straight into his eyes, and said, ‘I would like to buy some cyanide.’

“The pharmacist asked, ‘Why in the world do you need cyanide?’

The lady replied, “I need it to poison my husband.”

The pharmacist’s eyes got big and he exclaimed, ‘Lord have mercy! I can’t give you cyanide to kill your husband. That’s against the law! I’ll lose my license! They’ll throw both of us in jail! All kinds of bad things will happen. Absolutely not! You CANNOT have any cyanide!’ “

Now, one would surely agree that the pharmacist was acting righteously, correct?

But , what’s missing seems to be the woman’s rationale for wanting to kill her husband.  What seems to be missing is the reason behind her request—the intention behind the words, her “philosophy”, if you will.

So, let me continue the story:  The lady then reached into her purse and pulled out a picture of her husband in bed with the pharmacist’s wife.

The pharmacist looked at the picture and replied, “Well now, that’s different. You didn’t tell me you had a prescription!”


Now, the concept of how we worshipped in the times of the sacrificial cult and this story, in that it brings up the concept of intention or philosophy in what we do.  The anthropologist Mary Douglas describes the Levitical system of animal offerings as “philosophizing by sacrifice.”  What she means is that we can learn a lot about our worship of God today by looking at understanding the philosophy behind the notion of sacrifices.  And if we can apply that same philosophy to our prayers, the modern successor to sacrifices, then perhaps we can make our prayers, and our experience in shul, for that matter, that much more satisfying and meaningful.

What, then, was the philosophy behind the sacrificial system?

As outlined in VaYikra / Leviticus, the sacrifices were specific to each individual and his or her needs.  In Tabernacle and Temple times, we didn’t just bring an animal or a bird and that was that.  We would have to bring a certain type of animal for a specific reason.  There were offerings for sinning, but a different sacrifice if the sin was intentional or not, and depending on the status of the person who sinned, be they lay person, priest or ruler.  Or a different sacrifice, altogether, for thanksgiving for a happy occasion.

In other words, unlike our fixed liturgy where everyone comes together and says the same thing, no matter what their situation, the sacrificial system offered a personal way of connecting with God.  But, if we adapted that system to our contemporary life, would that mean that we would have a different liturgy depending on why we came to the synagogue?  If you sinned, you’d recite one prayer; if you’re guilty, you’d recite something specific to that.  If you experienced a simcha, just recite such and such.

The list could be endless.

In one sense, the sacrificial system enabled people, but, in another sense, it  forced them, required them, to confront the events in their lives and make the appropriate offering.  So, confronting the events in their lives was ultimately what the rationale for the sacrificial system!

Many Jews in Temple times were very poor but they still managed to bring an animal for the sacrifice, even if it was just a dove.  They’d  have to shlep up the hills to Jerusalem from their homes three times a year, no easy feat.

Today it seems to be much easier. Today we just offer a prayer or make a donation to Tzedakah.  But that really doesn’t compel us to confront the events in our lives and connect us more closely to God?

Now we understand the philosophy behind the sacrifices of old, so think about this:  In what way, does our contemporary worship in the synagogue direct our thinking?  What philosophy does our present mode of worship express?  In fact, do our services even speak to us at all?  Do we even know how to understand IF and HOW our services can speak to us?

Today we seem to pray with a pretty fixed liturgy.  One of the prayers which we recite in the Amidah, the Sh’moneh Esrei, is “S’lach Lanu”, forgive us.  Well, forgive us for what?  For what particular sin, if any?  We all recite this prayer whether we have sinned or not; whether we need forgiveness or not.  On Yom Kippur, we recite the confessional, the “Al Chet,” again asking God to forgive us for a whole host of personal and communal sins.  But we all say and do the same thing, whether it really applies to us or not.

The rabbis wanted it this way.  Their philosophy was that which they called “Keva.”  Keva means fixed worship.  It means that our liturgy is fixed as well as its nusach.  Why?  So that all Jews, everywhere would be doing the same thing.  That’s why we pray so much in Hebrew.  Think about it.  Even though we have some interpretive prayers in English in America but in Spanish in Mexico, a visitor gets a certain comfort from knowing that one can walk into any synagogue in Japan and hear “Shma Yisrael?”, that we can go into any synagogue in Italy and hear “Ashrei Yoshvei Beitecha?”  And that we can go into any synagogue in Israel and hear “Aleinu?”  These are familiar because we all, Jews everywhere, recite these same prayers in one language – Hebrew.  Yes, there are subtle differences in customs, but the basics are all familiar and are all the same.  Traditionally, when we listen to the Chazzan chanting the proper nusach, we know which service it is, whether its Shabbat or a weekday, High Holidays  or Yom Tov.

So that is one philosophy of prayer, Keva, fixed.  But it’s not the only one.  There’s another philosophy of prayer that was requested by the rabbis; it’s called “kavanah.”  Kavanah means intention.  It refers to the concentration, focus, and sincerity we should have in our approach to our prayers.  It is not enough to davven by rote, but one must put kavvanah in it.

And that concentration also leads to innovation.  It leads us to create our own prayers or our own melodies in order to increase our focus and make the worship experience meaningful.  It leads to understanding why I frequently give a framework for a prayer or a series of prayers, to why we include other modes of prayer….through body movement and dance to help elevate our intentions, direct our attention, and increase our connection at various points in the service.

And new melodies and innovations do the same.  They keep our attention and in so doing hopefully increase our connection to the service and to God.

But do you see that there is also a problem, a conflict between Keva and Kavvanah, between the fixed and the spontaneous?  Maybe that was the conflict Aaron’s sons had as well.  And maybe that is a conflict we are still wrestling with today: How to make our connection with G-d that much stronger and more meaningful, keeping traditional modes of worship yet being innovative and creative at the same time.

Whether your personal philosophy of prayer is one of Keva or one of Kavana, the important point is that you come to understand why you pray and what it is you’re praying for.  And it’s important to understand that God will not strike you dead, nor the sky will turn black, nor will our ancestors roll over in their graves, if we happen to do something different.

We know this is true.  We know that what we do, each time we get together, there is an element that is slightly different from what we did before.  Why?  Because that is also another way of making the worship of God, of connecting with God, and of connecting with one another that much more meaningful.

And by connecting more with God through meaningful prayer, we also use that experience to connect with God and with our Jewish community by becoming more involved in our synagogues and other Jewish organizations, by taking time to learn and study about our history and faith, by performing g’millut chassadim, acts of lovingkindness, helping others in need, or even just by being more cognizant that we are all G-d’s creatures, all have a spark of the divine within us.

B’chol dor v’dor, in each generation, we need to look at it as our opportunity to seek out proper and meaningful ways for that generation to maintain closer connection with G-d.

Ultimately, that’s the ticket….or shall I say “prescription!”

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah

21 March, 2014

(Aadapted from Rabbi Michael Simon)