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Examining Rituals Passed on Through the Generations

Posted on January 30, 2018

Here we are at the beginning of February, about to celebrate one of the most unique of American “holidays.” On February 2nd, we will look to the prognosticator of prognosticators to tell us whether or not there will be six more weeks of winter. Sitting here in Southern California, it might not be as important as in other parts of the country, but I remember growing up in Rochester, New York, watching with baited breath news of Punxsutawney Phil. Even though I knew the outcome of Groundhog Day didn’t matter, I’d say a silent prayer—not about whether a rodent saw a shadow, but that winter would be over soon. Although we don’t believe in rodent-prophets, we trot out this groundhog to perform a ritual. The exercise of Groundhog Day brings up an interesting question. What do we do with rituals that have been handed to us by previous generations?

When examining a ritual, we ask ourselves many questions. We ask questions that demand that we assess not only the ritual itself, but also our relationship to the ritual and to the past and perhaps, our personal feelings surrounding the ritual as well. How difficult is the ritual to perform? Is it a burden on my family and I or is it something we do easily?

For example, even if we don’t like the ritual of dipping our apple in honey on Rosh Hashanah (and outside of allergy reasons, I’ve never heard of anyone not liking it), we know it is not a big deal to perform this ritual, and many people enjoy it. At the same time, because it is an easy and somewhat quick ritual, the dipping of the apple into the honey does not necessarily fill us with a sense of spiritual ecstasy.

In contrast, we might find that certain rituals have the potential to affect us in many significant ways. For example, the ritual fast of Yom Kippur has a profound effect on many of us. For many of us, it is very difficult to go 25 hours without food and drink. It is precisely because of the physical and mental toll it takes on us that we are able to find such meaning in it.

Given the above criteria, let’s examine one of the most prevalent practices in the Jewish religion. By all accounts, prayer is at the center of our Jewish existence. We gather together throughout the year. We pray to rejoice in our happiness and we pray through our sorrow. We pray as a way of saying thank you to God. We pray as a way of beseeching God for help in some aspect of our lives and we pray to praise God.

The rabbis tell us in order to be able to even begin to pray, we must have two simultaneous feelings in our hearts, joy and trembling. When was the last time you were at a prayer service that inspired you to feel even one of those emotions?

The truth is, I struggle with prayer as much as anyone. There are times when prayer rolls off my tongue as water flows from a river. There are also times when my mouth is stopped up by concrete and words of prayer are impossible to utter.

Prayer is simultaneously one of the most instinctive and inaccessible rituals in Judaism. We all find ourselves in moments when we need to talk to God, when we look for someone outside of us to help guide us. We know the prayers we say before we take a test, and before our sports teams take the field. We also know how much we struggle to search for help when someone we love is struggling. At those times, prayer flows from our lips effortlessly. We know what we want to say, and we know what is in our hearts, even if we find ourselves unable to utter them aloud.

But for many, prayer is also inaccessible. Most of our prayers are written in the poetry of ancient or medieval Hebrew. Forgetting the theological questions of prayer, when you add the fact that we are dealing with an entirely different language, it makes it that much harder for us to really feel like the prayers express what we are feeling.

If I am not alone, if many of us struggle with our desire to pray being mitigated by our lack of inspiration, then we should struggle together. No one is going to come into our lives and magically change the way prayer is done. No one is going to wave a magic wand and break the dam of prayer. It is up to us, as a community, to find ways in which prayer and worship can work for us, ways in which we can grow spiritually together. Whether it is through our traditional Shabbat services, or one of our alternative offerings, I’d like to invite you to explore prayer and spirituality with me here at Temple Aliyah. Together, we can create an environment and a service that allows us to feel fulfilled and is inviting to those who are eager to join.

Have a great month,
Rabbi Goldstein  

 

 

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