Categories
Books

Gratitude and Tears: Finding Hope During COVID-19

These days, witnessing and receiving acts of kindness makes me cry. In this strange time of coronavirus, most of those tears come from witnessing something online. They are gentle tears. Only a few tears at a time. Almost imperceptible to others.

I know these tears. They are the tears that weave joy and suffering with the holiness of witnessing. The kind of tears that, until now, I’ve experienced only during Kabbalat Shabbat when the shaliach tzibbur – the prayer leader – captures the essence of the Sabbath in the song. To me, the tears themselves are a prayer.

A few days ago, in one of those moments of holy tears, I understood that getting through the COVID-19 isolation will be easier for me if I seek out moments of gratitude. (Here’s my CCAR One Minute of Wonder on gratitude.) But how? I already write a gratitude list every day. Perhaps by sharing my gratitude with others, and reading about the gratitude of others. The idea jumped out as a way to strengthen my own practice of gratitude while simultaneously helping others.

As a result, I launched a new Facebook group, Grateful Heart, Joyous Soul, Precious Life, which offers the opportunity for members to post about gratitude in our daily lives. Within a day, more than four hundred people were on the page posting and reading about each other’s moments of gratitude. To help her congregants cope, Rabbi Lea Muhlstein of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Congregation in London invited her members to join and to share their gratitude in the Facebook group.

I’m posting a daily “gratitude prompt” to help us all see different ways to be grateful. Gratitude prompts will be wide-ranging—words, music, and images. For example, there will be a song gratitude day in which people are encouraged to post links to their favorite songs. We’ve already had a flower gratitude day, in which people can post photos of beautiful flowers to create an online bouquet. There will be prompts for gratitude for safety, security, family, friends, favorite appliances, favorite memories, and many more.

The name of the page was a blinding flash of the obvious for me. It’s the combination of the titles of my two current CCAR Press books—This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings—as well as the working title of my next CCAR Press book, This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer. Gratitude leads to joy. Joy and gratitude lead to a deeper understanding of the preciousness of each moment of our lives. Grateful Heart. Joyous Soul. Precious Life.

You are invited to join. And you are invited to share the link with your congregation, as Rabbi Mulstein did.

In the spirit of joy, gratitude, and the preciousness of life, here’s “Prayer of Gratitude” from This Joyous Soul:

Prayer of Gratitude

Today is a gift,
O my God,
To know Your world,
To receive Your blessings.

Rock of Ages,
Your works surround us,
Daily signs of awe and wonder,
Daily guides to joy and service.
Bless me with hands of strength,
A heart of courage,
A mind of understanding.
Bless me with a voice of praises,
A life of gratitude,
Days filled with hope and love.

“Prayer of Gratitude” by Alden Solovy, © 2019 CCAR Press. All rights reserved.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist and poet who has written five books including This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, both from CCAR Press. He is currently the Liturgist-in-Residence at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

Categories
News

Finding a Finkelstein: The Art of Learning to Pray

Isadore Finkelstein z”l taught me how to pray. I was a youth. He was ancient and timeless. My very best Shabbat mornings in synagogue as a teen as occurred when I sat near him. 

Mr. Finkelstein didn’t teach me the words of the prayers. He didn’t teach me the halachot – the legal structure – of prayer. He didn’t teach me the stories of the siddur, our prayer book. In fact, he never once instructed me in t’fillah. I learned how to pray by watching him, by listening to him, by feeling his prayer.

Born in 1894 in Bogoria, Poland, Mr. Finkelstein brought to his prayers an old-world yearning for God and a deep passion for the Jewish people. From Mr. Finkelstein I learned how prayer sounds, both in the ear and in the heart. From him I learned how to move in prayer, both the physical motions and the spiritual choreography. From him I learned how prayer connects heaven to earth, how prayer connects God to humanity.

Here’s the secret to learning how to pray: sit next to someone whose heart is filled with the love of God. Then listen. Your prayers will never be the same. Listen to how that voice shines, listen to the sparkling moments of love, the harmonies of hope, the undertones of grief, the hints of shofar resonant in that voice ready to pierce the highest heavens, and the yearning for a better world. You are climbing the mountain to Sinai. You are are carrying the Ark of the Covenant. You are witnessing miracles.

All you need to do is to find an Isadore Finkelstein. Sit nearby and listen with your inner, most vulnerable, open, heart-centered being. Then, go to a classroom, to a book or to a beit midrash to learn the details. There, the deep indescribable experience of prayer will meet the fountain of wisdom that is our siddur.

This is a paradox. The inner life of prayer – the indescribable, ineffable essence of prayer – is strengthened by our knowledge of the words themselves, their history, the intention behind them, the classic understandings, the new interpretations, the seasonal rhythms, and the thinking that called these prayers into being. That knowledge, however, gets prayer exactly nowhere without a heart, without a soul, without the deepest desire to do God’s will. Not one bit of prayer ‘book learning’ has, by itself, ascended to the gates of mercy.

The problem for Jewish educators is that no classroom learning – no matter how it is presented or disguised – will substitute for the experience of hearing and praying next to an Isadore Finkelstein. If the experience in the synagogue is flat and uninspiring, no amount of study will make up for it. The Beit Kenesset must pulse with love and the worship of God.

Traditional worship is often long on technique and short of God. The prayers exquisitely follow the Siddur and the rules, but there isn’t enough ‘Finkelstein.’ Liberal worship is often long on spirit and short of God. The prayers are beautifully sung and enjoyed, but there isn’t enough ‘Finkelstein.’ A technically perfect service is not necessarily prayer. Neither is a joyously sung nor a wondrously inspired service.

The ongoing conversation about how to teach and inspire prayer will simply vanish when enough people aspire to become Finkelsteins, masters of t’fillah, fountains of devotion in articulating prayer.

We don’t have enough masters of prayer to station one strategically at every synagogue, temple, shul, Hebrew school, day school and beit midrash. We don’t have enough Finkelsteins to go around. My hunch is that the Jewish centers that are thriving in robust prayer are attracting – or were created by – modern-day Finkelsteins, davening masters, lovers of the art and the act of yearning for heaven through prayer.

Jewish prayer masters pray from the most secret, sacred place within themselves. They pray a uniquely personal combination of prayers of the heart and traditional liturgy, in community with others, with the desire to be in conversation with God. They bring a deep understanding of the Siddur, and the desire to deepen that understanding. They are unconventional traditionalists, speaking the inner voice of prayer. This is not as daunting a task as it sounds. All it takes is a willingness to learn and a commitment to pray.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012),L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments(CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017, and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearningsnow available!

Categories
Books spirituality

Psalm 27: My ‘Go To’ Spiritual Walkabout Song

Author’s Note: This essay is dedicated to the memory of Angela Gold, z”l, whose neshama and harmonies blessed everyone she met.

I sing to myself. Not the “singing-in-the-shower” variety. Not the “sing-along-with-my-playlist-while-I-clean-the-apartment” variety. It’s the moment of “this-is-the-song-in-my-heart.” A song too big to hold in.

The song is always the same. Over and over. Usually under my breath, but if I think I’m alone in a staircase – which almost exclusively happens as I head to classes at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies – I might belt it out, just to hear the echo. I sing:

Here in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, I suspect that anyone who overhears knows what I’m singing: “One thing have I asked of Adonai, how I long for it, that I may dwell in the house of the Adonai all the days of my life, to behold the graciousness of Adonai, and to dwell in the palace.” It’s the fourth verse of Psalm 27, the essence of the Psalm. I sing the Paul Schoenfield rendition.

This spontaneous a cappella vibrates with my faith, a paradoxical faith, at that. On one hand, I believe with a perfect faith that – at any moment, perhaps the very next one – the glory of God’s presence might just appear. Perhaps right there in the stairway, on the next landing. On the other hand, regardless of whether I see it or feel it in the moment, God is right here, right now. Yes, God is here, and I’m still seeking God’s house, knocking at the gates of mercy, seeking the throne of holiness.

This contradiction is the essence of my yearning as I sing the line: knowing that I’m already in God’s presence, and yet knowing that I only can remain there by continually seeking God.

In her forthcoming book from CCAR Press, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27, Rabbi Debra J. Robbins writes: “Sit in the house of God. It’s the one thing that I really want. But now that I’m here, what do I do?”

Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 is a guide to using Psalm 27 to prepare for the high holidays. Every day from the second day of Elul, through Shemini Atzeret – including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot – traditional Ashkenazi prayer includes the recitation of this psalm.

With this book, Rabbi Robbins has created a guide to prepare spiritually for the Days of Awe by examining phrases from each line of the psalm each of the 50-plus-day period. Nine of the phrases she uses in this intentional spiritual practice, nearly one of every five days, come from 27:4, my walking tune.

Of the words “achat sha’alti” – “one thing I’ve asked” of God – she wonders: “If I can ask only one thing of God, what would it be?” Of the word “u’le’vaker” – “and to dwell” – she notices the connection to the word “boker,” or morning. Am I ready, aware and eager, each morning, to witness God’s presence? About the words “b’veit Adonai” – the house of God – she asks: “This is God’s house. But is God home?” We are invited to explore each phrase with a series of steps, including prayer, meditation, journaling and blessing.

Fifty days of reciting Psalm 27 as part of the High Holiday season is a practice that’s relatively new in the history of Jewish liturgy, beginning about 200 to 300 years ago. Rabbi Robbins has turned that daily recitation into an opportunity for spiritual growth before, during and just after the Days of Awe, the entire holy season from Elul to Shemi Atzeret.

For me, Rabbi Robbins has added new ways to think about – and to sing – my ‘go to’ spiritual walkabout song.

Click here for a guitar rendition of the Schoenfield setting for this verse. Here are settings by Chava Mirel, and Beth Hamon.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012),L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments(CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017, and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, now available!

Categories
Chanukah Healing

Blackboards in Pittsburgh

For two weeks before Shabbat Chanukah, four black boards with a question at the top and multi-colored chalk in the chalk trays were placed in the entrance commons of Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh. The question: “Chanukah means Dedication. What do you (re-) dedicate yourself to this year?” All who visited the congregation had the opportunity to write on the boards their answers to the question.

On Thursday before Shabbat, I took those answers and created “Rededication, A Hanukah Prayer from Pittsburgh,” which Rabbi Sharyn Henry and I edited together. At Friday night services, I read the prayer at a joint service of Rodef Shalom and Tree of Life / Or L’Simcha. The goal: add a bit of healing by using the hopes and ideals of the community as the core of a new piece of liturgy.

The week before, the Pittsburgh community marked the shloshim — the thirtieth day of the post-burial mourning process – following the October 27 attack that left 11 dead and seven injured as congregants of Tree of Life were gathering for Shabbat morning services.

This is our second collaboration using black boards. In 2015, we used the same blackboards for an “Elul Memory Project.” The goal: gather memories from the community to use as the basis of customized Yizkor prayer.

Rabbi Henry was inspired to conceive these black board projects by the work of artist Candy Chang’s international public art project “Before I Die.” In that project, artist Chang created large outdoor public blackboards with a series of blank lines inviting passers-by to fill in the end of the sentence: “Before I die I want to _______.”

For both of our projects at Rodef Shalom, I wrote the initial draft of the liturgical combination of the responses, then we edited the pieces together. I also read both pieces from the bima. In both cases, after services, people approached us both to share how they felt hearing their contributions included in the prayer.

Part of the success is a thoughtful approach to the formulation of the question. For the Elul Memory Project, Rabbi Henry and I tested two different formulations of the question with staff, asking how the structure of the question might change the answer.

The blackboards have proven to be a useful means of capturing both community memories and congregational hopes and dreams. It is a project that can be easily adapted to a variety of holidays or community experiences.

Here is the prayer we created for Shabbat Hanukkah:

Rededication, A Hanukah Prayer from Pittsburgh

The oil,
That one cruse of pure oil,
Made holy for the dedication of the Temple,
That should have lasted only one day,
Lasted for eight days
Until new, pure oil for the Eternal Lamp
Was prepared.
We rededicated holy space
To God and the people of Israel.

That light shines now in Pittsburgh.
The ancient light, 2,000 years old,
Shimmering across millennia from the dedication of our ancient home,
Mingles with the glow of the lamps we light tonight,
Our rededication to:

Family and friends,
Patience, Empathy, Sympathy.
Health and sobriety.
Meeting neighbors.
Learning from each other.
Petting more animals.
Hugging.
Listening.
Breathing.

We rededicate ourselves to kindness,
Building a more peaceful world,
Combating hate,
Acts of compassion to one another.
Tikkun olam, repairing the world.
Tzedakah, giving charity.
Taking risks and being vulnerable.
Being the action of love.
Simply… being.

This is not easy
With broken hearts.
Yet this is who we are.
Inspired by the past,
Inspired by our faith,
We rededicate ourselves,
In this new generation,
To holiness and sacred convocation.

We will be vigilant in support of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish education.
We will be vigilant in advancing the dignity and the rights of all people.
Positive thinking and openness to new ideas,
Considering other points of view,
Trusting the mystery of life.
Paying forward these gifts.

To speak gently, with fewer words,
Criticizing less and helping more.
Simply doing the right things,
With dedication to truth.
With dedication to understanding.
With Peace –
Saalam, Shalom –
Udo, Paz, Vrede, Mиp, Paix, Friede –
In every language,
In every land,
Peace.

The flame from that oil,
That one cruse of pure oil,
Still shines upon us,
Within us,
From those days
To this season.

By Alden Solovy and Rabbi Sharyn H. Henry
© 2018 Alden Solovy and Rodef Shalom, Pittsburgh

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012),L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016).He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017, and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings,now available!

Categories
Books Prayer

A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings

As wildfires burned in California, hundreds of missiles rained down on Israel from Gaza. Fire on the ground and fire from the air, with people I know and love in both places. Just a week before, 12 people were murdered in a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California. A week before that, the largest-ever U.S. antisemitic massacre was perpetrated at Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation, Pittsburgh. All this occurred against a backdrop of growing anti-Semitism world-wide and contentious U.S. mid-term elections.

My pen has been grieving, the ink pouring out prayers with titles like these: “Missiles from Gaza,” “As Fires Rage” and “Taharot in Pittsburgh.” In those 2.5 weeks, I wrote a baker’s dozen of ‘responsa prayers,’ dealing with immediate concerns in the wake of news events. Writing ‘responsa prayer’ is one of the roles of a modern liturgist, to give our shared experiences a voice of prayer.

There’s a reason why these pieces resonate. Our prayer book, the siddur, has tuned our ears to the many voices of prayer. We know the voice of grief and the voice of yearning. We know the voice of joy and the voice of hope. We have been praying some of these prayers for more than 1,000 years. The prayers call out to us, as they did to our fathers and mothers.

There can also be a disconnect. While the siddur gives us the spiritual foundation to connect to our inner hearts of blessing, at times the language doesn’t fit.  Another role of a modern Jewish liturgist is to bridge that gap, opening doorways back into the prayer book. The goal is to capture the familiar cadences and themes – and at times the familiar idiom – in a way that is true our current sensibilities and language.

The Reform siddur, Mishkan T’fillah, addresses these opposite forces with a faithful, contemporary translation of Hebrew texts, as well as a broad set of alternative readings on the left-hand page of two-page spreads.

This is the goal of my new book, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings. Structured to reflect the morning service found in Mishkan T’filah, this collection provides a new set of ‘left-hand pages’ to enliven our worship. The prayers in This Joyous Soul invite a deeply personal prayer experience that strengthens our connection to Jewish tradition. It’s written to inspire each of us to make the traditional daily liturgy our own. So, my hope is that it will be used both by individuals as part of their personal prayers and will be adopted for use in congregations throughout the Movement.

For generations, the siddur has given voice to our deepest desires. Every generation has left a mark on this great book that spans centuries, continents and cultures. This Joyous Soul is one contribution to that great endeavor: keeping the prayers of our ancestors vital and alive, with a new voice for these ancient yearnings.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017, and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearningsnow available for pre-order from CCAR Press and available by Thanksgiving 2018!

Categories
High Holy Days Prayer

“Gates” as an Enduring Metaphor

At Neilah, the closing service at the end of Yom Kippur, we imagine ourselves standing at the gates of heaven, urgently pleading for forgiveness until the final second of the day expires and the gates close.

The moment is one of great solemnity. We cry out: “Open a gate for us when the gates are being closed, for the day is about to fade” (Mishkan HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, p640). This is it. A last chance to plead our case.

Each year, surrounded by hundreds of congregants, in the urgency of prayer, I imagine myself standing alone at an ancient stone wall. There are two large wooden gates with iron adornments. One of the gates is already closed, the other slowly closing by an unseen force. They look more like the outer gates of a city than the gates of a castle. My prayer enters through these gates. The day fades. The shofar blows. I haven’t passed through the gates, but I haven’t walked away, either.

In this visualization of the metaphor, there’s a gate for each of us. Each gate is different. It’s the gate created by our own triumphs and our own challenges, our own misdeeds and our own acts of tikkun olam. In this version of the metaphor, each year the gate is different, shaped by our lives over the past 12 months.

We are, in truth, always standing at the gates of heaven. In each moment, we have the chance to build or destroy, to love or to withhold love, to bless or to curse, to be brave or to live in fear. Each moment is both a barrier and a portal.

This is what makes “gates” an enduring metaphor. The metaphor is potent with possibility. It’s a reminder of the challenges ahead.

As the sun fades, as darkness sets in, we pray one final viduii, one last confessional before that closing blast of the shofar. Then it is time to go back into the world, renewed and refreshed with the blessing of forgiveness.

Repentance Inside
This I confess:
I have taken my transgressions with me,
Carrying them year by year into my hours and days,
My lapses of conscience
And indiscretion with words,
My petty judgments
And my vanity,
Clinging to grief and fear, anger and shame,
Clinging to excuses and to old habits.
I’ve felt the light of heaven,
Signs and wonders in my own life,
And still will not surrender to holiness and light.

God of redemption,
With Your loving and guiding hand
Repentance in prayer is easy.
Repentance inside,
Leaving my faults and offenses behind,
Is a struggle.
In Your wisdom You have given me this choice:
To live today as I lived yesterday,
Or to set my life free to love You,
To love Your people,
And to love myself.

God of forgiveness, help me to leave my transgressions behind,
To hear Your voice,
To accept Your guidance,
And to see the miracles in each new day.

Blessed are You,
God of justice and mercy,
You who sets Your people on the road to t’shuvah.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher.  His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day  (CCAR Press, 2017) and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Repentance Inside is reprinted with permission from This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day © 2017 CCAR Press

Categories
Books Prayer spirituality

Modern Voice, Ancient Yearning

Contemporary liturgy is a response to the call of the siddur and the call of our hearts.

The siddur carries the weight of history, the wisdom of our ancestors, the yearnings of humanity, the fears and the glories of our existence, and the resounding call of the shofar still beckoning from Sinai. The voices of the bereaved, the exalted, the confused, and the faithful, the voice of exile, the voice of redemption, and the voices of our parents, blend in the siddur’s unshakeable faith in God and the Jewish people.

So, too, our hearts desire modern language to capture our yearnings, ancient yearnings as old as humanity. Instinctively, we seek to pray with a contemporary voice, while understanding that our hearts’ desires are as old as life itself. In our time, some question both faith and history. Many struggle with concepts of God.

The call of the siddur begs for a response. Classic t’filah – the prayers written and redacted by rabbis and scholars in our time and for centuries before – require present-day voices to unpack new meaning from the old verses and to give them renewed power. Jewish prayer is reaffirmed and reestablished in each generation with a dialogue between our siddur and our hearts.

This is one of the goals of Mishkan T’filah, with ‘left-hand’ pages offering alternative readings and interpretations to the classic prayers that appear on the right. Essentially, the prayers in Mishkan T’filah  are in dialogue with themselves, inviting each of us into the conversation. The words of contemporary liturgy sing with the ancient words of prayer.

My forthcoming book – This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings – is the latest addition to that conversation. It is, essentially, a new set of left-hand pages for our siddur.

This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings,now available for pre-order.

This Joyous Soul provides a modern expression to classic prayers: from Birkot Hashachar to the Shema, from Amidah to Aleinu. It’s organized around the weekday morning service. Although it can be used with any prayer book, it’s structured to fit Mishkan T’filah, with many of the section heads matching that volume.

Many of the themes of the weekday morning service recur in the afternoon and evening services, as well as Shabbat and holiday services. So, this volume provides a versatile tool for daily, Shabbat and holiday prayer. Prayers specific to Shabbat and the holy days can also be found in the previously-published companion volume, This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day.

This Joyous Soul is a natural follow-up to This Grateful Heart. This Grateful Heart focused on days, times and seasons. Essentially, This Grateful Heart, is about the prayer needs of individuals in their daily lives. While many of the prayers in This Grateful Heart have been incorporated into communal worship by synagogues across North America and the U.K., the focus is on our individual prayer lives.

This Joyous Soul is about the prayer needs of individuals in our communal Jewish lives; in particular, in our worship services. Of course, many of the prayers in This Joyous Soul can be used by individuals in their daily lives, as well.

My hope is that congregations will place copies of This Joyous Soul alongside their regular siddur—in the pews or on the rack of prayer books—either as a supplement to communal worship or for congregants to use in moments of silent contemplation.

Deeper still, I hope that it serves as an invitation for each of us to explore the siddur with fresh eyes, that it opens curiosity – of both clergy and congregant – about the themes and intentions handed down for generations.

Even deeper, I hope that This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings becomes a source of inspiration for you to write your own prayers, for you to actively enter the dialogue between our hearts and our prayers, between our souls and the soul of the siddur, between our voices and the voices of ancient yearnings.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day (CCAR Press, 2017) and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearningsnow available for pre-order from CCAR Press. 

Categories
Books Healing News Prayer spirituality

A Prayer of Gratitude from URJ Biennial 2017

Take a moment to be fully grateful for just one thing in your life. That little pause may be enough to change your outlook and your attitude for the day.

At the URJ Biennial, CCAR Press offered that opportunity with a set of stickers and a poster board featuring the book, This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day. Each of the stickers read ‘I’m grateful for…’ and folks who came by the booth could complete that line and add the sticker to the poster. Adults and kids, rabbis and cantors, educators, congregants, and lay leaders joined in. By the end of the convention, the board was covered with individual prayers of gratitude.

Gratitude for family and the Biennial appeared most often. One of my favorites came from a little girl who dictated her gratitude to her mother: “being fancy.” I got a chuckle reading “my puppy (woof).”

This is a prayer based on those stickers. I added the language in italics – as well as the punctuation and a few of my own gratitudes – and arranged the order. The words of the prayer are taken from the stickers written by Biennial attendees.

Biennial Sticker Prayer of Gratitude

We are grateful for so much,
All the gifts this world offers.
We celebrate:
The URJ, the CCAR and our congregations,
Biennial, the people, the music and the ruach,
The chance to learn and share,
Being a college ambassador
And singing in the Biennial choir.

I give thanks for:
My family,
My wonderful husband, my wonderful wife,
My children, my grandchildren,
My sons, my daughters,
Nephews and nieces,
Mom and dad,
Sisters and brothers,
My amazing boyfriend,
My fantastic girlfriend,
Thoughtful work friends,
My dog, my puppy (woof) and my cat,
My house, bed and toys,
Best friends and conversations,
Being who I am,
My camp, my nanny and my students,
Jewish music and my guitar,
You.

We marvel at the gifts of:
Dreams, spirit and creativity,
Opportunities, expected and unexpected,
Personal passions,
Good health and sleep,
The ability to grateful,
The ability to forgive,
Second chances and
Guardian angels,
Good food and better company,
Water, hugs and coffee,
Doctors, medicines and helping hands,
America,
Torah and Israel,
Books, puns, words and being fancy.

Today, Source of love and light,
We are grateful for
Every. Single. Thing.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher. His teaching spans from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem to Limmud, UK, and synagogues throughout the U.S. Solovy is a three-time winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism. He made aliyah to Israel in 2012, where he hikes, writes, teaches, and learns. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017.

Categories
Books Gun Control Prayer Social Justice

The Relevance of Prayer in the Face of Tragedy

The morning after the Las Vegas Massacre, several identical posts appeared on Facebook, many from rabbis, declaring that ‘Prayer is not enough.’ As I was reading them, I received a note in my message box from a long-time anti-gun activist. She asked: “Do you have a prayer to help give us energy and hope as we fight this battle?”

The contrast was stark. Faith leaders were deriding the importance of prayer while an anti-gun activist – crushed with the enormity of the work ahead – turned to prayer for hope and inspiration.

Clergy said it after the Las Vegas massacre. Clergy said it after the Pulse Massacre. Clergy said it after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. After each horrific tragedy – natural or not – a handful of Jewish clergy said: “Prayer is not enough.”

Yes, prayer must be accompanied by action. Tikun olam comes from our involvement in bettering the world. Yet as a liturgist and pray-er, someone who works every day to help people connect to prayer, I worry that stating that ‘prayer is not enough’ minimizes the importance and the impact of prayer. It perpetuates a simplistic understanding of prayer.

What I want to say to my beloved rabbis is this: Be brave in demanding action. Be direct. Tell your congregants this: Get up out of your seats, do something that will make a difference. But in the process, don’t intimate that prayer is irrelevant.

Prayer can give strength to activists. Prayer can remind us of our best selves, helping to galvanize action. It can comfort the wounded and the newly bereaved. Prayer can remind us – when the moment of tragedy has passed – to continue our work. Prayer can unite faith leaders and political leaders with one voice.

Prayer helps us bury the dead and provide solace to their kin. Prayer gives our grief a voice and that voice should be a call to engage in bettering the world.

It’s true that our prayers will not stop a bullet. They won’t keep automatic weapons off the streets. Prayers will not clean up in the aftermath of a natural disaster. They will not build homes. They will not pass legislation. But we have no business believing that about prayer in the first place.

I’m concerned about the conflicting message that we may send by  one day declaring that ‘prayer is not enough,’ the next day leading worship services in synagogue and the next representing the Jewish people in interfaith prayer gatherings. It’s strange to think that one can minimize prayer one day and the next day expect a congregation of worshipers to arrive at your synagogue ready to pray. The question is not when we need prayer and when do we not, but rather, how can we enable prayer to go hand in hand with meaningful action.

Prayer can be a potent and important part of the solution. We shouldn’t expect more of prayer. But we shouldn’t expect less, either.

This is the prayer I sent my friend, the anti-gun advocate: Against Gun Violence

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher. He has written more than 600 pieces of new liturgy, offering a fresh new Jewish voice, challenging the boundaries between poetry, meditation, personal growth, and prayer. Solovy is a three-time winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism. He made aliyah to Israel in 2012, where he hikes, writes, teaches, and learns. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, from CCAR Press, now available as an eBook.

CCAR Press has created unique programs for you to host at your congregations, schools, libraries, and Jewish Community Centers. Want to host a Grateful Heart Event? Click for details. Contact us with questions at info@ccarpress.org or (212) 972-3636 x243.

 

Categories
Books Prayer spirituality Torah

A New Amen

The Talmud asks, what is the meaning of the word ‘amen’? Rabbi Ḥanina responds: “It is an acronym of the words: “God, faithful King.”[i] In fact, the first letters of the Hebrew phrase El Melekh ne’eman spell out ‘amen.’[ii]

Perhaps it is time for a new ‘amen,’ an amen of action.

The Talmud asks: Which is preferable, saying a blessing or answering amen? According to Rabbi Yosei, “the reward of the one who answers amen is greater than the reward of the one who recites the blessing.” But a few lines later, the Gemara notes that Rabbi Yosei’s view is disputed by another teaching. Here, the Talmud leaves the question unresolved. Clearly, however, saying ‘amen’ is a critical part of prayer.[iii]

Another section of the Talmud also discusses the importance of saying amen. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that answering a prayer with a deep and heartfelt ‘amen’ has the power to annul punishment, even traces of idolatry. Reish Lakish says: “One who answers amen with all his strength, opens the gates of the Garden of Eden.”[iv]

Hearing a prayer, it seems, requires a response. Yet we must ask: After major natural disasters, after gun massacres, vehicular slayings and the general rise of hatred, is saying ‘amen’ to a prayer for peace enough to open the gates of Eden?

We are a people of deeds, a people who value the nitty-gritty work of tikkun olam. Our forbearers said ‘Heineini’ – ‘here I am’ – when God called their names. In these times, we need a new ‘amen, an amen of action.

We can start with a new acronym for amen. In Hebrew, amen is spelled ‘aleph,’ ‘mem,’ ‘nun.’ Taking the ‘aleph’ from the first letter of the first word – and the ‘mem’ and ‘nun’ from the first and last letters of the second word – I propose that Ani Muchan, ‘I am ready,’ as the amen that will open the gates of Eden.[v]

We are expected to be God’s partner in perfecting creation. We are expected to use our individual actions and financial blessings to improve the world.

Perhaps our prayers are, in part, a set of questions. Will you work for peace? Will you feed the hungry and cloth the naked? Will you fight injustice and pursue peace?

Ani muchan. I am ready. Thus, ‘amen’ becomes a commitment to take our prayers out of our synagogues and out of our hearts and move them onto the streets and into the world with dedication and love. To answer a prayer with ‘ani muchan’ is to make a pledge that can only be fulfilled when we’re done praying.

Click here to read “To the Streets” by Alden Solovy.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher. He has written more than 600 pieces of new liturgy, offering a fresh new Jewish voice, challenging the boundaries between poetry, meditation, personal growth, and prayer. Solovy is a three-time winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism. He made aliyah to Israel in 2012, where he hikes, writes, teaches, and learns. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, from CCAR Press, now available as an eBook.

CCAR Press has created unique programs for you to host at your congregations, schools, libraries, and Jewish Community Centers. Want to host a Grateful Heart Event? Click for details. Contact us with questions at info@ccarpress.org or (212) 972-3636 x243.

 

[i] Shabbat 119b; Sanhedrin 111a

[ii] The Nehalel Siddurim translates El Melekh ne’eman as ‘God, Loyal Sovereign.”

[iii] Brachot 53b

[iv] Shabbat 119b

[v] Thanks to Asher Arbit for his help with the acronym.