To Pray Means to Expand God’s Presenceby Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.
Most of you have often sung and probably memorized the Talmudic quote from Mishnah Avot, chapter one, paragraph two, that begins "al sh'losha devarim." It appears on page 437 of "Shaarei Tefilah"--"Gates of Prayer." And it appears, in part, on the atarah, the neckpiece of my tallit. Now I am going to do something that may be a first in the entire history of Judaism. I, as the rabbi, am going to plead with the cantor for help in delivering a Holy Day sermon. That alone makes this presentation memorable. Chazan Dr. Tasat, would you please kindly engage the congregation in song? (Sing Al Sh'losha Devarim.)
The Mishnah attributes the words in al sh'losha devarim to Rabbi Shimon. I would be eternally grateful to you, eternally grateful, if you would bring these words to mind often; begin to organize your lives around them; and also remember now and in years to come that this Mishnah of Rabbi Shimon is intrinsically bound up with the definition, the vision of my rabbinic service to you.
However inadequately, however inconsistently I set the example; I served in your midst with but one goal in mind, just one. Please know that each word in the statement of this goal matters enormously to me, each and every word.
My goal has been to help, to help you as individuals and as a congregation move Jewishly toward well-being, toward wholeness of being through Torah, Avodah and Gmilut Chasadim. Torah: the probing of our sacred writ; avodah: prayer and worship, and gmilut chasadim: deeds of loving-kindness. That is the absolute essence of what I have attempted to do here over the years, that is how I would define my rabbinate. I thank you for the privilege of having the opportunity to make such an effort in your midst. And no, this sermon is not over.
As I consider the Temple Shalom familys involvement with the three pillars of Jewish living--Torah, avodah, gmilut chasadim--I am more at ease about our path toward Torah and gmilut chasadim than I am about our travels along the path of avodah, the spiritual side of Judaism.
I think a very large majority of you is readily convinced of the centrality of Torah in Jewish life. Almost everyone would favor knowing more Torah, having a stronger tie to it. Most of you would like to be able, with relative ease, to open a page of sacred text, discern the wisdom on the page and use it to enhance your decision-making, your insight into relationships and into the human condition.
It has been said that Torah "is the whole of history, containing the pattern of a constitution of a united humanity as well as guidance toward establishing such a union. It shows the way to nations as well as to individuals. It continues to scatter seeds of justice and compassion, to echo Gods cry to the world and to pierce mans armor of callousness." (I Asked For Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, p. 75. This quote originates in his book: God in Search of Man, p. 239.)
I believe you perceive the greatness of Torah and feel urges to build your loving intimacy with it. Does this not happen whenever you consider the ten commandment of Exodus 20, or when you read how Leviticus 19 so rightly explains what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, or when Micah calls us to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God or when you encounter Isaiahs trumpeting call for us to "remove lawlessness from your midst, to address the needs of the afflicted, to let your light shine in the darkness, to make the night bright as noon"?
Here, and in thousands of other places in holy writ, we encounter compelling, inspired words in the midst of which we find the divine building blocks for constructing our path to well-being and wholeness. And we shall do so if we will but continue together to increase our exploration of Torah and introduce the wisdom found there into our lives.
And when it comes to this congregation, to that which touches you most powerfully, there is do doubt that it is your concern for your fellow human beings. Your warmth and love for one another is known far and wide and held in the highest regard. Your preparedness to provide support to vulnerable members of our community-at-large is legendary in Greater Washington. This is a caring, responsive congregational family in which the mitzvot of making life better for others receive the greatest attention of all. I revel that it is so, and of course, being a rabbi, I always worry about continuing this noble record and strengthening it.
We can always strengthen it. We do so through the Mitzvah Corps, the Tsedek committee and the religious school and through youth group, Brotherhood and the WRJ, Women of Reform Judaism. We do so through your individual acts of gmilut chasadim and adherence to mitzvot of justice and mercy. Welcoming the stranger, helping to heal the sick, easing the way for mourners, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, honoring the aged, creating peace where there is strife, educating the ignorant, reducing violence, working hard for handgun control and safety to protect the nations children most of all and a host of other thoroughly Jewish commitments resonate within you so strongly, it is most humbling and emotional for me to mention all that you do.
Torah and Gmilut Chasadim are two pillars on which we seem ready to ground our existence, more and more each year. As we become better adept at learning their message and carrying it with us into our everyday lives our presence on this earth and in our own hearts grows in value and purpose and sanctity. Through our growing awareness of Torah and commitment to gmilut chasadim we can literally feel ourselves improving, we find happiness and peace and worth that no amount of money could buy. And if some of you have not connected as yet with the advances in Torah study and Torah living and the deeds of loving kindness that derive therefrom, now is a grand time to make a change and get in on the joy of it all!
I want to share with you today yet another thought having to do with the al Sh'losha devarim message. It seems to me that while many of you are increasingly more at ease with handling Torah and acting lovingly toward your fellow human beings, you are significantly less at ease with avodah, with prayer and worship. Tradition teaches that for prayer to have merit, we must be sure we model the right behavior toward others, especially the suffering and oppressed. That is the message of the prophets of Judaism. Let us never forget it! But I also know the beauty and other benefits one may derive from prayer, and it is my fond wish that no one here who wishes to know these gifts for oneself should go without.
Before I conclude my tenure as senior rabbi, I want everyone who seeks the blessings that prayer brings to feel comfortable and excited and delighted about receiving them, and to be in awe of them. I want to try to persuade you to get close to God, to pray more as individuals and to come together as family and with friends to gain from the greatness of communal worship as well. There exists no other book like our prayer book, and we do well to use it. I want to be so convincing with you about the benefits of prayer, that you just cannot wait to get started; to become thoroughly comfortable with the ins and outs of prayer, to also become thoroughly at ease with private prayer too.
I want you to know something about me that I hold to be absolutely true. I pray a lot. It is effective. It has enabled me to handle my responsibilities and the physical, spiritual and emotional toll they take. Prayer has saved my life.
However much I might ordinarily appreciate the wonders of life, you must know that it is through God, through prayer that I come to appreciate them vastly more. However much I might ordinarily do well in relationships and in critically important events; it is through Gods help and prayers help I do vastly better. I want this to be the case for you too.
When I open pages of the prayer book and connect with the words on the page, I know that doing so will enhance the experiences of everyday life. I know that it is God and prayer that bring home to me the most salient messages of Torah whenever I probe that text. No matter how much scholarship one possesses, it cannot be maximized in purpose without inviting God in to show you the way.
Now I know well that the world is an imperfect place. We get sick. We die. We live with colossal disappointments and grief. Horrible things do happen to absolutely wonderful and fundamentally innocent people. This world was set up to be imperfect. That provides us humans with a point to our existence. Were life perfect we would have no purpose, none at all. Our task is to address these imperfections and then move others and ourselves toward wholeness. That is what we are created and placed here to do.
But we are not here alone. God is with us, close by, with an abundance of precious gifts pouring over us and poised to enter us, sometimes correct us and help us and often delight us as no other gifts can do. Sometimes these gifts get through even when we are not open to receiving them. But how much more would reach us if we would just let them in.
I dont want to leave my post as senior rabbi without affirming to you again here that the greatness of God in my life is equally available for you to experience. When August comes I dont want to slide into my new and less visible and much quieter position as rabbi emeritus without having invited you to the party that prayer and worship make possible.
You know what it means to be delirious with joy. I certainly know as well. Why, I have even been to the Baltimore Orioles Fantasy Camp. (I just wanted to see if you were still with me.) I have received more than my share of joy through my marriage, our children and so many of the experiences I have shared with you.
I tell you now and please know that it is so; these experiences are all made better, incalculably better through prayer, through seeing Gods sublime presence in them. I am open to this awareness and so it happens. It is not much more complicated or difficult than that. And the more you extend the invitation to God, the more readily it is accepted.
I know you are tired on Friday nights and that you have a world of things you want to do on Saturday, including getting some time for rest. Do you think it is different for me? I could not begin to count the number of times I have turned to Toby and said, "I dont know how I am going to get through what I have to do tonight. I can hardly stand up." The whole experience of the service infuses me with such vigor and excitement and joy and awe, real awe and appreciation for the things that matter the very most in life, that, I leave this place in an exalted state of mind, spiritually pumped up and often feeling a thousand times better than when I walked in.
The traditions, the values in the prayer book, the rituals of the service, the music, the spirit, being in the presence of Torah scrolls, especially these scrolls, exploring their content, applying the meaning to ones life, permitting the prayers to hit me in just the way that is needed; and that means permitting God to reach me in just the way I need; and doing all of this in community with you is nothing less than transforming. It is not magic. It is prayer and worship and God. It is Judaism. It is spending time in a sanctuary. Sanctuary is the right name for this room. This is the place called the sanctuary and the place in which one receives sanctuary.
If I could somehow find the words to break down the barriers and free you to reach God, I would feel as though I had been part of delivering to you the best present of all! How happy that would make me.
Yes, I pray a lot. I pray formal prayers, some in Hebrew, some in English. I pray out loud. I pray silently. I pray in snippets, just a quick prayerful thought, a phrase, often just a prayerful feeling.
Let me offer a simple example of how often I pray. The other day a teenager doing about 90 miles per hour on 495 passed me on the road. As he raced past me, I felt myself emitting a laser-like gaze locked on him and his sports car. I remember a very powerful feeling coming over me as I softly but intensely cried out, "please, SLOW down, please!" The words were not in the form of a prayer but inside I knew that it was in fact a prayer and that I was calling on God for help.
Now whether this young driver had a sudden pang of conscience, or realized he was wasting fuel, or his engine made some strange noise that got his attention or whether prayer played a role, he suddenly slowed down to that usual level of excessive speed with which we are all so familiar on 495. Whatever the cause, I am just sharing with you one of those many instances of prayer that might not immediately come to mind when we discuss this topic at a Holy Day service. Yes, I pray a lot.
But you know one can spend too much time praying. One can violate God with too much prayer. That happens when all we do is pray as opposed to also taking the actions incumbent upon us to help God help us. We have to do our part. If we pray too much, we might not get going with those actions through which God enables us to participate in making our prayers real in the world. We are partners. As many a Jewish theologian has commented, we need God, but God needs us too.
I tell you today that my concern is not that our Temple family prays too much, but that too many of us may be praying too little. Yes, we have a Wednesday morning minyan. Everyone who attends it does love it. That is a magnificent advance. Yes, we have added a service before beginning Shabbat morning Torah study. Yes, we offer a blessing before we take some time to explore Torah at board and committee meetings. Yes, we have more and more members going on special retreats and taking courses dealing with prayer, and yes, we are making the programmatic theme of this year at Temple Shalom, avodah, prayer and worship. All of that and more places us on the right road. It is all exciting. It is not enough.
I still have a sense that for a great many of you, you are just not comfortable yet with the idea of prayer; not quite plugged into the blessing of communal worship; not very sure of what you mean by God and our ties to God and how the relationship works. I am bursting to get you to give God a try, to give prayer a chance, to let loose and go for it. Will you?
In Martin Bubers Tales of the Chasidim Rabbi Hanokh said: "The real exile of Israel in Egypt was that they had learned to endure it."(p. 315). And I say that the real exile of Israel from God is that we have learned to endure it. Exile from God became sort of the standard. But we are not better off in such exile. We are not better off.
Last year, as was reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine (Vol. 159 No. 19, October 25, 1999), a very large double blind study was done to test the efficacy of intercessory prayer. More than a thousand cardiac patients were involved. Around five hundred were prayed for and around 500 were not. The patients did not know this intercessory prayer was going on. The staff did not know. The people providing the prayers did not know the patients. The results were astounding, with the folks for whom the prayers were offered fairing far better than the other group. The authors of the study, who had expected very different results, concluded from their double blind study that intercessory prayer is an effective part of treatment for the ill. These scientists were also quick to add that while such prayer was valuable; they were not prepared to conclude that this conclusion "proved the existence of God." Too many of us are in exile from God this day. The exile is self-imposed and it is unnecessary.
How many among us have lost the inclination to tell our secrets to God? With God we can be completely truthful, no shades of expression are required that paint us in a more favorable light. That is what we are to do during these High Holy Days. Let it out. It is such an important step to take, cleansing, purifying, freeing, renewing. It opens doors that should not stay closed.
In the book Teaching Your Children about God we read: "to ask a child a question is to open a door. If we dont ask, the door remains closed."(p. 49) "As children we possess a natural instinct for prayer." (p. 144) What happened to that instinct? When did we stop asking questions about God and prayer? How and when was the door closed?
What doors to prayer, to communion with the Most High remain closed to us? Now, here in this sanctuary, for how many do the doors remain shut? Are we pulling the door against us, instead of pushing it open? I tell you that if you will just give it a little push, you will see Gods light as one sees a beacon.
These High Holy Days make all that is good in our lives better, much better. We should dwell on that fact. And these High Holy Days are also a beacon for those in exile from God, a lighthouse casting its brightness upon the dark and daunting seas, guiding us to safety where in calmer waters we might celebrate our joys even as we unload our cargo of secrets and suffering and pain. In this safe harbor, with God, you get to say it all with no disguises, no rationalizations, no excuses, no blame games.
You get to unburden your souls, atone for your wrongs, receive direction again, and attain pardon. You receive Gods healing love, you move toward peace and wholeness. Just do it, as the ad goes, just do it. Start praying and talking and releasing and receiving. Just do it on these High Holy Days and after.
I would like you to remember something very special from these comments today. Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: "To pray is to expand Gods presence." (I Asked For Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, p. 23. Original quote from Heschels The Insecurity of Freedom p. 258. ) Will you remember that line and consider its worth? Will you expand Gods presence in your life and in the world around you through your study of Torah, through your acts of loving kindness and through prayer, a lot of prayer? "To pray is to expand Gods presence."
I would like it if you were to remember that I was concerned about your moving toward well-being and wholeness through more commitment to Torah study as well as to more acts of gmilut chasadim and through prayer, an abundance of prayer. Rabbi Shimon was right: "Al sh'losha devarim ha-olam omeid..." He was right. Amen.