A few years ago a woman said to me after Shabbat services, "I wish I could connect better with the words and deeper meanings of the prayer book. But my Hebrew isn't so good and I find some of the English translations a bit cold."
Does that ever happen for you? Have you ever been sitting in a Shabbat service and specific words of the prayer book seemed formal, distant, or alienating?
Or do you know someone who has had trouble opening up to the passionate prayers and songs that are one of the key Jewish ways for connecting with the ever-flowing mysterious Presence that is beyond human words and concepts?
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Fortunately, there are several ways to make progress on this lifelong opportunity for experiencing more moments of transcendence and joy. One way to look at the Shabbat services is to envision that each week (or each time you are at a prayer service) is a chance to use specific phrases and melodies to connect your individual soul with the hard-to-describe creative Soul of the universe. Each Shabbat service is a chance to shift our narrow human awareness into a more expansive awareness in order to notice more of the blessings and goodness that are easy to overlook or take for granted during the hectic pace of 21st century living.
Here are a few options for you (or the person in your life who struggles with prayer and ritual) to go deeper into the many layers of richness that can be found in the Shabbat prayer service:
--OPTION ONE: PICK A SPECIFIC PHRASE OR WORD THAT MOVES YOU ON THIS PARTICULAR WEEK AND THEN SPEND A FEW MOMENTS EXPLORING WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU. Quite often at Shabbat services at Ahavat Torah Congregation, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell asks all who are in attendance to pick one or a few words that have an extra dose of meaning and significance on this particular day. It might be a phrase in the prayer book that you've always raced through habitually, but today it comes alive with new meaning and emotion because of Rabbi Miriam's invitation to go deeper. Or it might be a word or phrase that never touched your soul previously, but today it brings up memories, discoveries, aspirations, or a sense of curiosity that sets you on an inspiring string of positive thoughts and actions. Suddenly the prayer service begins to connect with your kishkas and your heart.
--OPTION TWO: SELECT A WORD OR PHRASE THAT BAFFLES YOU, OFFENDS YOU, OR LEAVES YOU FEELING DISTANT. You can also begin to explore the deeper meanings and possible re-visioning of those particular words that formerly frustrated you. If a word or phrase in the prayer service is problematic for you, you can talk with Rabbi Miriam, or with Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus, or with another person in the congregation who also takes these words to heart and connects with them deeply. From your conversations at the oneg lunch, or during the week, you might then be able to understand a formerly-baffling phrase in a new light and with a strong sense of inspiring meaning that it never had for you previously.
For example, many times when I was younger and had hair on my head, I would read during services a prayer that spoke of "God's majesty" and the only interpretation that came to mind was an anthropomorphic image of a king who was harsh and arbitrary in his decrees. I would recoil a bit because I felt this image of a human-like king was a bit old-fashioned.
Then several years ago I was intrigued by a workshop I took about Hebrew prayer meanings and interpretations. I learned that one of the many ways to hear the traditional words describing "God's majesty" is to envision the beauty of creation that is unfolding daily, or the majestic order and brilliance of the earth, lunar, and star formations, or the amazing compassion and love that comes from a mysterious Source and spreads through the acts of kindness by human beings near and far.
Now when I am in a prayer service and I come upon one of the many phrases that praise God's majesty, I usually feel an immediate connection to either the smells of night-blooming jasmine in the Springtime, or the color of the leaves falling in Autumn, or the smile on a loved one's face, or the creative flow that is continually expressing itself in humans, plants, animals, and the ever-changing winds and tides. Suddenly the prayer service is no longer about a king issuing decrees, but rather about giving thanks and praise to a creative Source that surrounds us with blessings constantly and that we can remember to stop and notice these awe-inspiring gifts from an ultimate Source.
--OPTION THREE: JOIN A NEW CLASS BEING OFFERED TO BOOST YOUR FLUENCY WITH PRAYER BOOK HEBREW OR TO HELP YOU DISCOVER MORE OF THE SPIRITUAL MEANINGS OF THE TRADITIONAL PRAYERS OF OUR PEOPLE. Right now Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Rena Jaffe are leading a new very-accessible and enjoyable weekly study session on Tuesday mornings from 10-12:15 at Rena's home in Santa Monica entitled, "The Ahavat Torah All In One Class." The first portion of each week's class will explore "Decoding the Spiritual Meaning of Shabbat Prayer" with Rabbi Miriam. The second portion of each week's study session will include "Learning to Read Hebrew" with Rena Jaffe. The third portion of each week's gathering will explain how to learn and review Torah trope. Some people attend all three portions and others focus just on one or two of the topics. In addition, those who are interested in having an Adult B'nei Mitzvah celebration in June 2011 will get a good portion of their training at these study sessions. For information about the class and the low-cost suggested fees for members and non-members, please see the weekly newsletter or call Rena at 310 450-5225.
(Please note that if enough people express an interest in this much-requested class on going deeper into the words of prayer, Torah, and blessings, Rabbi Miriam and Rena might add a second class at a different time of the week. Please let them know if you are interested).
--OPTION FOUR: DON'T BE SHY ABOUT ASKING FOR DIVERSE WAYS TO CONNECT WITH THE HOLY WORDS OF OUR PEOPLE. Remember, the word "Yisra-El" means to wrestle or strive with the One that is beyond human description. If you ever feel distant or alienated from a particular word or phrase of prayer or Torah, we Jews are supposed to wrestle with it and dig deeper rather than shutting down your heart or mind. In Judaism, it's perfectly appropriate to discuss and explore your doubts, your uncertainties, and your concerns about how to connect with HaShem, the mysterious One that we humans are seeking to emulate.
In the 1990's book "Stalking Elijah" by Rodger Kamenetz (who earlier wrote "The Jew in the Lotus" about the Dalai Lama learning from several Jewish rabbis how to keep a spiritual tradition alive even when many of one's people are in exile from their homeland), the author came to Los Angeles several times to study with various rabbis about how to open up his heart. As described in the book, Kamenetz had felt somewhat shut down emotionally and cut off spiritually from Jewish prayer and ritual ever since he and his wife lost an infant child and they felt their prayers were unanswered.
In "Stalking Elijah," Kamenetz describes a specific prayer suggested to him by Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man for reconnecting with the One whom Kamenetz had longed for but felt had not responded. Omer-Man said essentially that the best way to reconnect with Jewish spirituality is to say as strongly and sincerely as possible, "Please God, open my heart." Even if you have doubts about God and prayer, this calling out from a deep wounded place of profound longing in order to re-experience the flow of blessings and love that had felt out of reach is a key Jewish method for reawakening your spiritual life. Kamenetz tried this out for several months before he finally experienced the prayers of Judaism in a new light.
As described by Jonathan Omer-Man and many other Jewish teachers, when we offer up prayers of longing, thanks and awe for the blessings that surround us daily, we begin to heal some of the scar tissue that surrounds our hearts from all of our losses and disappointments. When we say with sincerity and passion, "Please God, open my heart," we begin to connect with an ultimate Creative Source that is beyond words and concepts.
May your hearts be opened substantially by the classes you take and the questions you ask about how to continually deepen your connection to prayer and Jewish teachings. And may it lead toward the healing of whatever wounds and longings that you carry on your heart.
(Please feel free to forward this blog article to anyone in your life who might find it useful or thought-provoking).
--For more information about Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Ahavat Torah Congregation: One Torah, Many Teachers, One Community, please log onto www.ahavattorahcongregation.org or call 310 362-1111. Be sure to request the weekly newsletter that has numerous creative options for celebration, study, and connection.