Everyone remembers how proud we were when, as children, we brought home a report card with the comment “Plays well with others.”  Recently I saw a bumper sticker that reminded me of that memory and left me exhaling an “allevai/it should only be” sigh.  The bumper sticker read was filled with the symbols of various religions and read:  “Prays Well With Others.”  (sigh)

Yesterday, I returned, from a glorious week, spent with Rabbis, Cantors, Rabbinic Pastors, and students of those callings, at the OHALAH Conference for clergy in Jewish Renewal.  The learning was delicious, but, sweeter still was the experience of davenning, praying, with this remarkable chevreh.  We experimented with various melodies, dove deeply in some sections and dispensed with others, and I wasn’t alone in wishing that you, our wonderful kahal, could have experienced it with me…or, better yet, that I could have packaged that group of 180 or so and brought them home to share Shabbat with us?

The singing was pulsated to our bones, the Hallel on Shabbat Rosh Chodesh morning lifted our souls and swelled our hearts.  It brought me to tears…and here again, I wasn’t alone.  It was as if we were totally engulfed in a spiritual dance with the Divine.  Memorable.  The real deal….and worth analyzing.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of my mentors…my rebbe…is the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.  A contemporary chassid and a modern prophet, Reb Zalman has written a wonderful book, entitled Davening:  A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer.  This week the book won the highest book award, in the category of religion.  So I went to the book which, although brand new, is already dog-eared and highlighted.  And he starts out:

“If you have ever tasted an apple plucked right off a New England tree, you will know the difference between a supermarket apple and a red apple.  A supermarket apple has been washed, waxed, refrigerated.  Vital parts of its chemistry have ebbed away.  But an apple plucked from the mother tree?  A mechayeh.  Tastes like a living apple.”

 

He compares it to prayer.  “Prayer is the same,” he says.  “True prayer is a bursting forth of the soul to G-d.  Like the experience I had last Shabbat, I know that there are moments when the reality of prayer is sublime.  Not all the time, mind you, but there are moments when the heart encounters something alive, immediate, and true.  That something is G-d; and G-d is not a concept, he posits, but an experience.

 

What I experienced and what Reb Zalman described are perhaps better defined as ecstatic prayer, and even he would not say that ecstatic prayer is sustainable…nor should it be; but there is a level of prayer that is soul-satisfying.  I think soul-satisfying praying is better labled, “davvening” or “davennen.”

Reb Zalman retells a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, who taught on a famous verse from Par’shat Noach:  “Make yourself an ark,” G-d tells Noach (Genesis 6:14).  Make it from gopher wood, cover it with pitch; make it so high, so wide, so long.  And,”as we studied around the Torah Study table this fall, G-d instructed Noach to make an opening for daylight in the ark, saying: ‘Tzohar ta’aseh la-teivah.’  The Baal Shem Tov, reading with the eyes of a mystic, saw a more esoteric meaning here.  Yes teivah means ark, but it also means word.  Give each word light, the Baal Shem Tov said, ‘For every letter contains worlds and souls and guidelines.’”

That’s the essence of deep davenning, when we utter the words of our prayers with focus and meaning.  Where words and even letters contain souls and, well, godliness.  It involves finding personal meanings for the prayers and that involves two more elements, I would suggest:  Memory and imagination.  As we say any particular prayer, let it remind us of something personal.  And then let us allow our imagination to insert us into that memory and pray, “k’ilu” as if the words of the liturgy were written just for us at that moment.

A colleague of mine, Rabbinic Pastor David Daniel Klipper beautifully defined liturgy as flash-frozen spontaneous utterings.  Someone said them once; they contained great meaning then.  The sages collected those that seemed to reach the hearts of the majority of the community and they became known as liturgy.  But it is up to us to take the words and letters of the liturgy and make them our own.

I highly suggest reading Reb Zalman’s book, in fact, I’d like to invite those of you who are interested to take in this book and meet with me, as a group, to discuss what resonated with you and what you’d like to see us do within CPT to raise the level of our davennen.

We will be using our imagination and memories as we participate in the “My Big Fat Jewish Wedding” experience this weekend, and while it can in no way be described as a davennen experience, it is something that we’re looking forward to.  We accept the premise that we will need to be ‘K’ilu’ as if we are at a real wedding, no matter how farcical this one will be.  We’ll be dressed in our finery, ready to wish the fictitious bride and groom a hearty “mazel tov,” and enjoy being with one another.

So let us also take the remainder of tonight’s service and try relate to the words of the liturgy with memory and imagination and reach for our moments of connection with G-d.  Be aware of the pulse and power of the prayers as we daven them together.  Let the chazzan’s voice transport you, and let us all strive to be able to earn the bumper sticker:  “Prays well with others.”

 

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah

18 January 2013/8 Shvat 5733