We All Have Rivers to Cross: Learning Prayer from our Ancestors
This piece is from a summer sermon series at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, exploring Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform machzor.
When Roberta began to prepare for her Adult B’nei Mitzvah earlier this year, she felt especially draw to chanting Torah. It was then that her mother reminded her: Roberta’s great-grandfather was a hazzan–a traditional cantor. This powerful link to her roots — spanning time and space — deepened Roberta’s Torah experience all the more so.
This summer, as we encounter Mishkan HaNefesh, our new High Holy Day Machzor, we are posting a weekly question for your response. This week, we asked: From what person or event in Jewish history or in Jewish tradition do you draw inspiration? In other words, what are the lessons you learn from Jews of the past?
In Roberta’s case, a teacher of Jewish ritual who was a relative from her own family touched her. For many, teachers from Jewish history offer connection. We are not alone in our Jewish quest for meaning.
In several of your responses online this week, you reached far into Jewish textual history. One of you was inspired by Abraham and Sarah and the way they welcomed strangers into their home. One of you was moved by bold women in the Torah, such as Miriam, and by courageous women in modern history, such as Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel, and Hannah Senesh, who was killed saving Jews in the Holocaust. Responses included admiration for the Torah scholars of Jewish history such as Yochonon Ben Zakkai, Rashi,. And there was admiration for the people who have not made the history books, but have devoted themselves to Jewish identity and Jewish living.
Mindful of the question: “From whom in the Jewish past do we draw inspiration?” consider this text from our new High Holy Day prayerbook, Mishkan Hanefesh. This prayer introduces the Yom Kippur Amidah (p. 198):
In the depths of the night, by the edge of the river,
Jacob was left alone.
In heartfelt longing, in the temple of God,
Channah uttered her prayer alone.
In the barren wilderness, in doubt and despair,
Elijah found God alone.
On the holiest day, in the Holy of Holies,
the High Priest entered alone.
We are bound to one another in myriad ways,
but each soul needs time to itself.
In solitude we meet the solitary One;
silence makes space for the still small voice.
For the Psalmist says: “Deep calls unto deep.”
For the depths of our soul, we seek what is most profound.
“In the depths of the night, by the edge of the river, Jacob was left alone:” This scene recalls Genesis Chapter 32 when the night before Jacob is to meet his brother Esau, with whom he shares great conflict, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being–perhaps it was with God, with an angel, a man or himself. When we in our lives face conflict, or when we toss and turn with our demons, or when we have rivers to cross, we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from Jacob that struggle with the divine is sacred.
Next verse: “In heartfelt longing, in the temple of God, Channah uttered her prayer alone:” …In this scene, Channah, in deep despair because she has not been able to conceive a child, prays to God for a child. When the priest sees her lips quietly move, he is so unaccustomed to seeing a woman pray spontaneously, that he mistakes her for a drunk woman. When we in our lives feel devastated and long for a new way to arise from our desperation, we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from Channah that our cries to God are sacred.
Next verse: “In the barren wilderness, in doubt and despair, Elijah found God alone:” In a dramatic story in the Book of Kings, Elijah sees a powerful wind tear apart the mountain, but God is not in the wind. He sees an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, a fire, but God is not in the fire. And after the fire, there was a still small voice. Elijah encounters God in the still, small voice. When we in our lives feel overwhelmed by the noise, drama and pace of this world, we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from Elijah that stillness is sacred.
Next verse: “On the holiest day, in the Holy of Holies, the High Priest entered alone:” When the ancient Temple stood in Jerusalem, on Yom Kippur, only the High priest could enter the the secret and holy center of the sacred space. When we in our lives feel conflicted between the Jewish calendar and the rest of the world’s schedule — when there’s a school program on Rosh Hashanah or a Pope’s visit that creates obstacles for Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shabbat (for instance!), we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from the High Priest that sometimes it is lonely to be a Jew, but also, that our Jewish holy days cannot be rescheduled; they are sacred.
Final verse: “For the Psalmist says: ‘Deep calls unto deep.”: That term deep is the very same word used to describe the primordial depths over which God’s spirit hovered in the creation story. When we in our lives, struggling just to keep pace with the routine, aren’t sure we have the time to focus on the deepest truths of our soul, we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from the Psalmist that heeding the call from the depths, is sacred.
When this Mishkan HaNefesh passage turns to our ancestors for lessons about prayers, this particular teaching emphasizes moments of solitude. This passage introduces the Amidah, a series of blessings meant for quiet contemplation. Interesting then, even in such personal moments, to find deep connection to the Jewish people and the Jewish past.
Even with all of this emphasis on solitude, and at this time of solitude, we are not alone. We are a part of the Jewish people and the Jewish story; so we list those on whose shoulders we stand in our spiritual search.
Prayer is hard. We don’t always know the words on the page, if we believe what we are saying, or if the sounds are really just mantras after all. We might not be sure if anyone is listening, or if prayer makes an impact. Yet, we can learn from the spiritual seekers who came before us. We can learn from their uncertainty, their loss for words, their doubts. We learn that there are some things that we share in common:
We have rivers to cross. We have longings for which there are no words. We seek to discover truth in the quiet. We discover the sacred when we interrupt our lives for holy time. We are connected; even when we are alone.
Even with all of this emphasis on solitude, we recall all of those from history who keep us company. Our tradition’s roots span time and space. In our quest for Jewish meaning and prayer, when we seek to connect to that which is greater than ourselves, may we never be alone.
Rabbi Jill Maderer serves Congregation Rodeph Shalom, in Philadelphia, PA.