Congregation B’nai Israel
Rosh Hashanah Day 1
September 30, 2019
Summary/intention: CBI is our home. Here, together, through prayer and action we change the world for the better.
A year ago today I stood before you trembling. Last year, looking at a crowd of still mostly unfamiliar faces, I did not know how I would be received. Would the insights I shared between prayers be helpful or be ignored? Would my Torah lift you up or fall flat? Don’t worry, with several hundred people in the room, I heard your opinions! Change is hard. What I heard more than anything else was hope. People looked at me and saw the future. They did not know what the next decades would look like, but they knew that we could build our future together.
Standing here today, it feels like a new dawn. Now I know so many more of you. (I still have work to do AND I hope you will help me get to know you better.) CBI is my community. St. Petersburg is my home. My message of more joy and less oy continues to resonate. Most of all, I have worked to empower our kehillah. I want us all to discover our voices, to share our Torah, to dig deep within ourselves and better this broken world.
Are you familiar with sea turtles? Fewer than one in a thousand survive to adulthood. Those that beat those overwhelming odds swim thousands upon thousands of miles. After living 15-50 years they are mature enough to mate (sound familiar?). However, when they mate, they don’t just find a nice spot anywhere. Using the earth’s magnetic field, they travel to the exact spot where they were born to find their partners and lay their eggs. They come home.
Looking around this room, I see so many that have come home. I see families whose parents or children live around the world, come together for this time. We may not have the ability to naturally read the earth’s magnetic field, but we find our way regardless.
In our lives, there are places we go back to again and again. How many of us have driven out of our way to pass by a childhood home, an alma mater, or some other place significant to us? How many of us have places we go when we need a pick me up--a specific beach or natural area? I think back to my longest time in Israel, studying as a student at Machon Schechter during rabbinical school. This experience was challenging for me. I was lovesick, with Rebecca halfway around the world, in the states, knowing that when I returned we would be married. In my first semester I was an excellent student, but the second semester was quite challenging. I had pushed myself to take higher level classes, taught almost exclusively in Hebrew, sometimes beyond my comprehension. Outside of class, before I had an iphone and international data roaming, I spent a fair amount of time wandering the streets of Jerusalem without a map. Yet whichever way I went, in the times I was most down, I always ended up at the Kotel.
What is it about those ancient stones that draws our attention? Why should a bunch of big rocks give us strength? Those stones are a connection to our past, present and future.
This morning, we read the opening of the book of Samuel. There we see Hana being tormented by her sister-wife, Peninah. We feel Hana’s pain. Like so many of us, like so many of our ancestors, she desired to conceive, but had not been able to bear a child. Following our ancient traditions, she and her family observed Passover at Shiloh, at an early Jewish Temple, at an early sacred site, but something was missing. She had completed all the rites and rituals, the sacrifices, the communal aspects, but it was not enough. After the festive meal was complete, she went back to the sacred site: [read in English-Hebrew for reference-except verse 13]
10 In her wretchedness, she prayed to the Lord, weeping all the while. 11 And she made this vow: "O Lord of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head." 12 As she kept on praying before the Lord, Eli watched her mouth.
יג וְחַנָּה, הִיא מְדַבֶּרֶת עַל-לִבָּהּ--רַק שְׂפָתֶיהָ נָּעוֹת, וְקוֹלָהּ לֹא יִשָּׁמֵעַ; וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ עֵלִי, לְשִׁכֹּרָה.
13 Now Hannah was praying in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard. So Eli thought she was drunk. 14 Eli said to her, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!" 15 And Hannah replied, "Oh no, my lord! I am a very unhappy woman. I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. 16 Do not take your maidservant for a worthless woman; I have only been speaking all this time out of my great anguish and distress." 17 "Then go in peace," said Eli, "and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him."
For generations, we have read these verses on Rosh Hashanah. They teach us how to pray. They show us the power that prayer can have--when we put ourselves into it. From darkness to light, we come together and pray. We pray when it is a beautiful day at St. Pete Beach. We pray when we lose someone we love. We pray when we are excited for the future. We pray when we are terrified of what is to come. Hana showed the priest, Eli, that prayer is not simply the required sacrifice, but is an offering of the soul. Standing here, sitting here, standing here, bowing, sitting, standing again, we are not meant only to recite the words, but to feel them in our bones, in our soul.
What was Eli’s reaction to her prayer? He thought she was drunk. The way we talk and act in the 21st century is not exactly the same as it was 3000 years ago. In the ancient world, if you were reading, you read out loud. The idea of whispering prayers to oneself was not a familiar concept. From Hana, we learn how to pray. We learn that one can say the words silent, speak them from our hearts, and that Gd will hear every single word.
Looking at these verses, Rashi, our commentator and dear friend from 11th century France, focused on the prayer of Hana, considering her choice of names of Gd and discovers the essence of her prayer. His explanation is rooted in the Talmud. In Masechet Brachot, chapter five, Rashi found the deep yearning, the deep desire of Hana so clearly stated. Looking there, we can find a debate about the nature of prayer, the essentials of prayer. We discover extensive commentary on the proper mindset for prayer AND on the prayer of Hana.
MISHNA: One may only stand and begin to pray from an approach of gravity and submission. There is a tradition that the early generations of pious men would wait one hour, in order to reach the solemn frame of mind appropriate for prayer, and then pray, so that they would focus their hearts toward their Father in Heaven. Standing in prayer is standing before God and, as such, even if the king greets him, he should not respond to him; and even if a snake is wrapped on his heel, he should not interrupt his prayer.
The Mishnah teaches that to truly pray, we must first get into the right mindset. Once we are there, we strive not to be distracted. We may discern some exaggeration, we must certainly adjust our focus in life-threatening situations, but otherwise must strive to keep our minds on the task at hand.
The Talmud teaches us the source of this deep intention, this deep focus--Hannah!
Rabbi Elazar said: They are derived from the verses describing the prayer of Hannah, mother of Samuel, as the verse states: “And she felt bitterness of soul, and she prayed to the Lord and she wept and wept” (I Samuel 1:10).
The Gemara [argues] rejects this proof: From what does that conclusion ensue? Perhaps Hannah is different, as her heart was extremely depressed, her prayer was depressed as well. This does not prove that everyone must pray in that frame of mind.
The rabbis teach us that we need not be completely consumed with prayer, as Hannah was. At the same time, we all know how difficult it is to keep our focus in a world with incessant distractions, as any meditation expert reminds us, it takes extraordinary patience to keep one’s mind clear.
The Talmud says that when we pray, we should consider ourselves as entering the Holy Temple, with reverence and awe. Our space in this synagogue was designed to create an atmosphere of beauty and depth.The debate continues, saying that David would afflict himself because of his mistakes, but instead we should pray from a perspective of beauty--that we should even wear nice clothing. Finally it says we must pray with great joy--albeit also with trembling.
Back and forth the argument goes. Should we pray from an attitude of fear and trembling or from joy? Should we pray stoically or involve our whole selves? We should pray this way, no this way, no this way. Finally we discover that in some way, we must approach prayer from ALL these directions. We must approach prayer with our entire selves, with our entire hearts, with all of us. As the Shema says,
וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ
With all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might, with your body, your breath, your resources, with everything you have.
What would such a prayer look like? Would it be the mumbles and grumbles we hear today?
As Conservative Jews, we use a traditional liturgy. Yet these ancient words resonate to this day. In recent weeks, we have discussed the power of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedekah, oft translated as repentance, prayer and charity. Today we live them all.
Today we come together to unite our hearts and souls. We stand here with our inherent brokenness, our own problems, our own tsurris, and say that together we can do better. We ask the Holy One to forgive us our tresspasses and to help us make better choices. We recognize that the very fate of the universe is in our hands.
I’ll repeat that. The fate of the universe, of our planet, is in our hands.
We can look around this world and see the brokenness. We can cry out and vent on facebook or we can do something. The first step is showing up right here. Praying together, we connect ourselves with one another, with our deepest selves and with the Creator of All. Spending time here, meditating on these words, we discover what is holding us back, what is limiting us, what is preventing us from doing the right thing.
With this consciousness, we can then start to make changes. Hana looked at her world, looked at her situation and said, “I can’t live this way anymore.” She went to the Temple, cried out and made a plan.
Standing here today, I know that I am in the right place. I know that you are, too. Joining together in prayer, we open our hearts, we plan for the future, we build a world of love. We build together, #sidebysideatcbi.
Jewish texts are from www.sefaria.org