Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon- 2015/ 5776
Choosing what to speak about on Erev Rosh Hashanah was relatively easy for me this year. After all, a few months ago we opened the front doors of the synagogue to accept what seemed like a hundred boxes full of our brand-new prayer books. Paging through these beautiful books has been inspiring and edifying. I was glad to see that there were so many options, and over the past several months, Cantor Sobel and I have spent hours upon hours pouring over and discussing the different prayers, melodies, and innovations that these books have made available to us. And so, with all of this prayer book preparation, when it came time to choose a topic for the first sermon of the High Holy Day season, I quickly decided to focus on the importance and power of prayers and prayer books.
Now, it probably won’t shock you to learn that I love prayer books. Even before I started rabbinical school, I was a huge prayer book fan. In fact, when it was time to choose a subject for my college thesis, I decided to spend my senior year researching and writing about the earliest American Jewish prayer books. It was thrilling to go to the library and pick up the one hundred and fifty year old prayer book that had been shipped from a small, far off synagogue. The experience of writing my thesis and working with these old texts solidified my love of all kinds of prayer books, and since then, I’ve been avidly working on my own prayer book collection. Old or new, mainstream or off the wall- I’ve never met a prayer book that I haven’t wanted to look through and then add to my library.
What fascinates me is that inside our prayer books, are words and texts that have the power to perfectly crystallize moments of our lives. In fact, each page of our prayer book has within it generations of moments, memories, and experiences. Stuck in between the pages of prayer books from the 1500’s are some experiences that are completely foreign to us and others that are actually relatively familiar. Some of the prayers are timeless and as relevant to one generation as the next, and some prayer books are unique to a particular moment in time and to the specific communities that created them. In my office, I have a copy of a 19th century prayer book for women which includes such gender-specific prayers as “A Daughter’s Prayer for Her Parents,” a prayer “For a Bride on Her Wedding Day,” and “A Mother’s Prayer for the Success of Her Children.” What is amazing to think about is that this book shares a shelf with a prayer book from San Francisco that includes prayers that have been creatively and beautifully rewritten in order to remove any gender-specific language. In my mind, seeing where these prayer books and others like them overlap and diverge feels like exploring the most magical aspects of the Jewish tradition.
If we pay close attention when we hold a prayer book, we can tell that it has a weight that goes beyond the paper and ink of the pages. If we open our hearts and eyes wide, we can tell that the book also contains the experiences of every person who has ever held it. I was reminded of this a few years ago, when, after a truly epic library book sale, I spread out my new purchases on my kitchen table and started leafing through them. I picked up the 19th century women’s prayer book that I mentioned earlier and smiled as I saw prayers for young maidens and prayers for old maidens and prayers for maidens at all times of their lives. I was enjoying the prayer book but was still detached from it and from the women who had used it. And then, I turned to page 42 and immediately burst into tears because pressed in between pages 42 and 43 was a small, perfect, four leaf clover. In that moment, it felt like I was directly linked to the woman who had slipped the clover between those two pages however many years ago. That four leaf clover was a physical representation of the otherwise abstract idea that a prayer book is more than the pages inside it. It is a repository for wishes, hopes, dreams, memories, and experiences.
Now, some of us here might not feel comfortable with the idea that God hears or answers prayers. But, even if we set this question aside, I think that most of us can agree that prayers are powerful. The words of our prayers, whether long familiar or newly encountered, have the ability to comfort us and inspire us. They can open up our hearts to new ideas and new possibilities, and they can help bandage our spiritual wounds. While there have always been creative interpretations of the established prayers, the Jewish people have relied on specific prayer language set in specific patterns for almost two thousand years- something that I was made hyper aware of in my first week of interfaith hospital chaplaincy training which was a required program in rabbinical school. You see, I had served as a volunteer chaplain in college, and was entirely comfortable carrying around a prayer book while visiting hospital patients. Unfortunately, this was not the way my instructor envisioned chaplaincy visits going in her hospital.
A little background information- a prayer that is crafted on the spot rather than read from a printed text is called a “spontaneous prayer.” The first time I heard this term, I thought it sounded lovely and started imagining situations where chaplains would be like actors in a musical who were so moved by what they were experiencing that they would just break into a perfectly choreographed and composed prayer that would both be both appropriate to the situation and comforting to the patient. You can’t blame me, I was naive- something which I found out soon enough. On the second or third day of chaplaincy training, my instructor announced that we would spend the next hour practicing creating spontaneous prayers. I tried to flash back to all of the prayers that my Christian friends had offered at the hundreds of St. Mary’s chapels that I had attended. But, alas, my brain was a complete blank. We started going around the table, each chaplain-in-training creating a spontaneous prayer for a hypothetical crisis situation. Eventually, it was my turn. I closed my eyes and tried to pretend that I wasn’t in a full conference room where everyone was sitting in silence and looking at me. I took a deep breath... and then I let it out again because the words that I hoped would magically spring to my mind had failed to appear. Instead of prayerful language that I could share, my inner monologue was full of defensive questions and nervous justifications that sounded a lot like this:
“What am I even supposed to say right now? Doesn’t it count for anything that I spend so much time exploring my beliefs and my faith? Why don’t I get credit for the fact that I pray silently all the time? Doesn’t it seem like we’re trying to page God over the hospital intercom? ‘God, paging God. You’re needed in the first floor chapel. Rachel Bearman, a brand new recruit who definitely isn’t a rabbi yet, needs to speak with you.”
My eyes were still closed, and I have no idea how much time had passed. I started to worry that I would have to announce to my fellow students that I had nothing to offer this hypothetical patient in need. But, thankfully, in that moment, when I was overwhelmed and scared and embarrassed, I was able gain just enough clarity to realize that I actually did have the right words. I took another deep breath and said quietly, “Oh God, God of our fathers and our mothers, God who is our strong shield and protector, we need you right now. This family needs you to be with them.”
That was my first spontaneous prayer, and while it was certainly not the most eloquent prayer offered that morning, I opened my eyes with a huge grin on my face. I looked across the conference table and saw that my friend from rabbinical school was smiling back at me. Our instructor asked him what he was thinking because chaplaincy training involves a lot of comments like, “Help me understand what you’re thinking right now.” He replied that he had liked how I had used the traditional words of the Avot V’Imahot to begin what then became a spur-of-the-moment prayer. From that moment on, this has been my go-to formula for spontaneous prayer- start with words that come from our prayer books, words that bring with them a sense of comfort and togetherness, words that carry the experiences and wisdom of other communities from this time and all times and then, for the spontaneous part of the prayer, try to imagine that you’re simply having an honest conversation with God. For the spontaneous portion of my prayers, I always try to sound like myself. When I speak normally, I don’t sound like a 19th century, German Reform rabbi who would roll his R’s and pronounce God as if it were spelled G-A-W-D. I also don’t sound like an Eastern European Orthodox Jew who would naturally and reverently replace Elohim with Elokim in order to further protect God’s name. I’m neither of those things because I am a modern rabbi whose deep love of traditional prayer is often expressed through twenty-first century social media outlets, and I’m comfortable enough with myself and my faith to feel that the God I’m praying to, the God I believe in, prefers authenticity over artiface.
Tonight, we have gathered together to celebrate the arrival of Rosh Hashanah and the new year that this holiday ushers in. I can’t help but feel like this year’s services are even more special than they normally are because this year, we are beginning our relationships with our new prayer books. That is truly how I see it. These books are not objects but partners. They will help us create new High Holy Day experiences and preserve the ones that we have brought with us. Each year, we’ll slip memories between their pages that will be discovered and cherished in future years. The prayers included within these books will be grafted onto our hearts and will remain there until we need their comfort and strength. They will be what launches us into honest and authentic conversations with God. These prayers will validate questions, prompt discussions, and inspire debates. And, these prayer books will become our spiritual scrapbooks and journals- filled to bursting with our individual and communal memories, hopes, doubts, and wishes. Tonight is only the beginning of our relationships with these books, and we’ve only just begun to see how much they will bring to our lives and to our worship. I pray that we will be inspired and uplifted by them for many years to come. Ken Yehe Ratzon. May it be God’s will. Amen.