Prayer, our ancestors and our heart's desires

Delivered at Congregation B'nai Israel of St Petersburg on November 17, 2018

One of the greatest gifts of prayer is the gift of connection. Through prayer, we come to see that we are not floating alone in the vastness of space, but instead stand together. As Jews, we pray most often in community. Even when we recite our Amidah, our silent, personal prayer, we do it together--whether entirely or just through the Kedushah. In this way, we make the prayer our own AND find unity through the demand of minyan and the voice of Kedushah.

Where do our prayers come from? Why are they written the way they are? Our sacred texts give us hints.

Bereishit Rabbah 68:9 R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: The first fathers established three prayers. Avraham established the Shaharit prayer as it says, Avraham woke up early in the morning to go to the place where he had stood before God (Bereishit 19:27). And there is no standing, amidah, aside for prayer, as it says, Pinhas stood and prayed (Tehillim 106:30). Yitzhak established the Minhah prayer, as it says, Yitzhak went out to converse in the field (Bereishit 24:63) and there is no conversation aside for prayer, as it says, I will pour out my conversation in front of Him (Tehillim 142:3). Ya’akov established the Arvit prayer as it says, he encountered the Place (Bereishit 28:11) and there is no encounter aside for prayer, it says 3 do not lift [prayer] on their behalf and do not plead with Me… (Yirmiyahu 7:16). R. Shmuel bar Nahman said: [The three prayers] correspond to the three times of day that the day changes. At Arvit, a person needs to say, “May it be Your will HaShem my God that You take me out of darkness into light.” At Shaharit, a person needs to say, “Thank you HaShem my God who has taken me out of darkness into light.” At Minhah, a person needs to say, “May it be Your will, HaShem my God that just as I have seen the sun in its rising, so too will I see it in its setting.

Praying As You Are Dena Weiss - Parashat VaYeitzei 5779

(This week I was inspired by the teachings of Dena Weiss, the Rosh Beit Midrash and Director of Fellowship Programs at Hadar, where she teaches Talmud, Midrash and Hasidut. Her writing can be found:

In Talmud Berachot, the same ideas are expressed, but with different rabbis. There the beginning is the same, with Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, albeit taught by Rabbi Yosi b. Rabbi Hanina but R. Yehoshua B. Levi gives a different explanation.

It was taught in accordance with Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi: For what reason did they say that the morning prayer is until midday? Because the daily morning offering was offered until midday.

And for what reason did they say that the afternoon prayer is until the evening? Because the afternoon daily offering was offered until the evening. And for what reason did they say that the evening prayer has no fixed time? Because the limbs and and the fat that were not burned up by the evening were offered all night long.

And for what reason did they say that the additional prayer [Mussaf] can be said all day? Because the additional offering was offered all day.

Whether we see the origins of prayer as a sign of the time of day or a remembrance of the sacrifices, the idea that prayer can uplift us when done regularly is seen powerfully through the examples of our ancestors. In this week’s parsha, Vayetzei, we see Jacob encountering the Holy One. At first we think that he is merely going to sleep, but instead, he has a vision, a dream, a prophecy. He sees the angels and the ladder, knows that he is protected, and creates a new Brit, covenant, with Gd.

From Dena Weiss:
In Avraham’s first encounter with God he sees that God is present in the world. He sees that the estate, the place where he and God live, is illuminated, and he knows thereby that God is there. According to Rashi, the lights that Avraham sees are the sun and the moon. These are celestial spheres that don’t only exist in heaven, but shine down on us. When Avraham meets God, the state of the world is as it is in the morning; the lights are on. When Avraham sees that the world is illuminated, he knows that there is a manager, someone who is taking care of the world. God introduces Himself as not only the manager, מנהיג ,of the estate, but as the בעל, the owner. God does not only take care of the world as an administrator, but as someone who is quite fully invested in how the world functions and what it produces.

Avraham’s encounter is not one of equals. God is the creator, the connector, the manager, the leader, but Avraham approaches God with enthusiasm. He is excited. He is figuring things out. He is grateful. He is hopeful. He sees the blessing of the moment. In contrast, Ya’akov is in a much more difficult space. He is fleeing his stronger brother, from whom he has stolen his birthright. Ya’akov is trying to begin anew, to build a new life.

Dena Weiss teaches:
Ya’akov meets God at a time of profound difficulty and fear. When Ya’akov prays to God it is described as va-yifga, a chance encounter. Ya’akov stumbles, and is forced to stumble upon divinity. The darkness of Ya’akov’s introduction to God is in stark contrast with the brightness of God’s introducing Himself to Avraham. For Avraham, God lights the lights and is pleased when Avraham notices how well-managed the world appears. For Ya’akov, God extinguishes the lights, intensifying Ya’akov’s already tense and frightened state of mind. Yet the darkness of Ya’akov’s meeting has the privacy and intimacy that is engendered by vulnerability. God is able to forge a connection to Ya’akov by embracing and being present in his fear. And God builds upon Avraham’s sense of security by reassuring him that He is the owner of the world and its custodian. In the midrash about Avraham in the morning, God promises him a world with even more beauty and expects Avraham to worship Him through it. In the midrash about Ya’akov at night, we don’t hear that God promises Ya’akov anything or demands anything from him. When Ya’akov is feeling weak and helpless, God simply listens to him and promises to be with him.

Ya’akov is approaching God from a completely different perspective. It is essential to realize it is no less valid than Avraham’s. Last week, I spoke about the differences between Avraham and Yitzhak, between father and son. Today we see the differences between Avraham and Ya’akov, between grandfather and grandson.

Yet amidst the differences of the generations, we might also see these differences based on their place in their lives--or even the time of day. When we are children or teenagers, our priorities are quite different than when we are single, newly married, or parents. When our lives are consumed with work, our thoughts are different than when we celebrate Shabbat--or if we are fortunate enough to retire. I opened with Bershit Rabbah which showed another thought about the Amidah was its timing. As we go through our days, our view of the world sometimes shifts. Some of us are morning people. We wake up ready and excited to face the day. Others need their morning java or simply to start their days in the early afternoon. They are more prepared to work and live late into the night than the early birds. Our very nature affects our prayer. Who we are today, in this moment affects them.

I am very conscious of the inclusion of the matriarchs into our Amidah prayer. At this point in my prayer life, I cannot say the Amidah without them. If I neglect Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, I will start again, for I know that their experiences are just as relevant to my prayer as their husbands. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the men they were, the leaders they were, the teachers and parents they were, because of their relationships with God AND because of their relationships with their incredible spouses. As we pray, we bring their lived experiences and our own.

We bring our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our loves. I don’t think she knows this, but when I first met the woman who would become my wife, even saying her name in the Amidah brought focus and hope to my prayers. Opening the Amidah today, I hear her voice as much as my own. As a parent, I think about the chain of tradition, l’dor vador, as we chant the Kedushah. Seven years ago, I did not know how important those words would be. Thirteen years ago, the Imahot were simply our ancestors. Our intent, our experience matters.

As we say our daily, our weekly, our regular prayers, we must use our entire selves. We must pray bekol levavcha, bekol nafshecha, bekol meodecha, with all of our hearts, with all of our souls, with all of our might (all of our resources), as the Shema says. In this way, the Amidah is not simply the words of our ancestors, but it is our words. It is filled with our spirits, our souls, ourselves.

Coming together in prayer means that we use our individual talents, AND we rely on one another. We rely on our ancestors, the chain of tradition and those in this room. We rely on the cantor, the rabbi, those around us to help us when we just are not ready to pray, when we just do not have the energy, the spirit, the drive. Yet, standing together, I pray that we find inspiration. I pray that we see the blessings that we EACH bring. I pray that the love in this room will continue to inspire from generation to generation, from the last 100 years at CBI to the next 100 years. Shabbat Shalom.

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