There’s a famous Yiddish expression that loosely translates to “It’s tough to be a Jew.” You can expand that any way you like, depending on where you are, in history and in geography. For me, one of the toughest things to struggle with (besides the kosher thing and the Shabbat thing, and oh yeah Passover is coming) is the lack of physicality in our worship system. Millennia ago, we had a central place of worship, and serving God meant bringing the right kind of sacrifice. While we didn’t see God, we could watch the priest slaughter the animal, watch the smoke go up from the altar…we had a place to go to and something to see.
Today, not so much. The great gift we gave the world, the notion of one, invisible, unknowable God, sometimes works against us. We have to work harder to get into the prayer mode. We don’t have an image to focus on, or prayer beads to run through our fingers (although tzitzit often do the trick). We have to look inward, find the place inside that is seeking God, turn on our inner ear to hear God’s voice, all the while without having a visual focus. We do it, but it ain’t easy.
And the problem with believing what we can’t see isn’t new. It goes back to the dawn of our people, in the wilderness of Sinai, while Moses was on the mountain communing with God and the Israelites demanded that Aaron build them a god.
They would have been OK (I guess) with Moses there. Moses was the focal point, the place toward which they could turn. Yes, there was a pillar of smoke and fire, but the pillar didn’t talk. They needed their leader, and in his absence they felt rudderless and abandoned. They needed something to look at, so they commissioned a god.
The late Rabbi David S. Lieb of San Pedro, California, wrote about the calf and idolatry, and he expanded his thinking to include sacred space. Rabbi Lieb wrote: “If sacred space is indeed a response to our need to have a focus for our worship, we may need to have that place much closer at hand than the top of Mount Sinai or Friday night services at Temple Sinai. We may need to have sanctuary at home, in the office, in the car, at the all, or wherever…” The challenge, then, is to learn how to carve sacred space wherever you are. How do you do that?
It has been observed that since the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, and the subsequent wanderings of our people, we have had a portable religion. We pack up our books and our candle sticks and our tallit and tefilin and we move on. No bulky, unwieldy altars to shlep around. That’s the good news, I guess. If we have to be ready to move, we have managed to adapt to that reality of our history. But we still have no on-going focal point. How do we evoke the nearness of God? (I remember hearing an observation a while ago about the phenomenon of the cathedral synagogue – huge, with a ceiling that can barely be seen from the lowest seats. “Remember the shtiebl of the shtetl?” the person asked. “The ceiling was very low. Synagogues couldn’t be built higher than the churches around them. The rooms were small. And you felt God near you. Now you go into huge synagogues that accommodate lots of people, but the ceiling is far away. And so, too, often is the sense of God’s presence.” While I know there are many who find comfort in very large sanctuaries, more people, I would guess, who are looking for an intimate prayer experience, look for a smaller space.)
We need something to focus on. That’s why I’m a big believer in mental photographs. The next time you are somewhere where you are overwhelmed by the presence of God, remember where you are, what’s around you, how the air feels, how the vegetation smells or who the people are near you. Then bring up that photograph next time you have trouble preparing for prayer.
The Rabbis recount that the most pious of them often spent an hour preparing for prayer. How? Recitation of psalms, making a separation between the mundane outside the synagogue and the pursuit of the sacred inside its walls. The psalms were the mantras of our tradition. Today, it’s unreasonable to expect to spend a full hour preparing for a service. But how often do we stop and prepare ourselves? How often do we even set out expectations for the prayer experience beyond “It’s morning, I need to say shaharit”? Prayer isn’t for God, it’s for us. And meaningful prayer takes work. My next blog will consider mantras from the liturgy that can be used either to prepare for prayer or on their own. But for now, let’s consider mental photographs.
On my first visit to Israel, I was privileged to witness the ordination of the first graduates of the Conservative seminary in Israel. The ordination took place at the amphitheater at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. As I sat in the audience, I looked out over the city of Jerusalem, and as the sun set, the buildings turned from gold to pink, and the lights began going on, both in homes and in the sky as the stars came out, and I decided I’d never seen such a beautiful sight in my life. Today, when I turn to face Jerusalem as I begin to pray, if I’m having trouble concentrating, I think, essentially, “Where am I facing? What’s there?” And I see that city begin to glow as the darkness settled around her, and the words come freely.
Do you like to hike? Surf? Are there places you’ve been that have taken your breath away? Bring those memories out. We don’t need a location as long as we can access our memories. It even occurs to me that while I can say some parts of the services by rote, there’s a comfort to holding a siddur.
The Kotzker Rebbe asked once, “Where is God?” and answered “Where we let God in.” If that is true, and if Isaiah’s statement is true, that the whole world is filled with God’s glory, then we don’t need to come to a synagogue to worship. We don’t need to shop around to say shaharit. We come to a synagogue to find community. We can find God anywhere. We just need to know how to look.