I am here. I am here. I stand before the open Ark and the eternal scrolls of our people dressed in white light. I stand ready to enter into the Holy Days, to offer prayers that urge me to live better, kinder, ever present to the pain of others, to become a compassionate vessel, trustworthy holding hope in the midst of despair.
Hin’ni I am here, I am here. I stand on the edge between earth and heaven, between what I know and what I can never understand, between life and life everlasting. Mortality hovers, a rippling presence, always there, lingering, waiting, holding. I am here.
Hin’ni I am here I stand resilient, determined, though I have been taken down, forced to live a different way. The rhythm of life has been altered. Time unfolds and morphs, expands and stands still. I have been called to be present, to pay attention. What have I learned? What have I done with the time I have been given, glorious time of never-ending possibility? Have I squandered the beauty, the radiance of life, an offering to my inner being?
Who am I? Where have I gone astray? Am I worthy to pray with my people? May I be worthy to pray with my people.
Hear my plea, grant me the faith, courage and wisdom to enter into cheshbon hanefesh: the fragility and humility of self-examination.
Hin’ni, I am here, I am here. May this fractured heart, softened and hold love and compassion, in a way it never has before.
Hin’ni, I am here.
Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation BJBE in the Chicago area and is renown for her creative liturgy. Her work explores the need for meaning and purpose in our busy lives, creating an intentional life, spiritual awakening, forgiveness, as well as inspirational leadership and creating the synagogue for the twenty-first century. Her latest work includes Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice, available for purchase through the CCAR Press.
As we watch with heavy hearts the events of late May and early June and witness innocent Americans exercising their right to protest fall victim to police violence, we pray for an end to racial injustice and power structures designed to silence, suppress, and kill people of color.We pray for healing, and we remain aligned with Black and Brown communities in the fight to end injustice. In the words of Rabbi Paul Kipnes, who shares a psalm here, “It’s time for action; we’re way past time of debate.”
Encouraged by the teachings of Pirke Avot, which teach us that “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” we remain committed to social justice, and we remain committed to teaching and promoting anti-racism.We encourage you to read the CCAR’s statement on racist killings.
Here, we share a poem, written by Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, and a psalm, written by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, in reaction to these tragic events.
I Can’t Breathe —By Rabbi Lance J. Sussman
I can’t breathe, The knee of oppression Is on my neck.
I can’t breathe, The air of my city Is filled with tear gas.
I can’t breathe, I am filled with rage And the smoke of burning buildings.
I can’t breathe Because the air is filled with contempt for people of different colors.
I can’t breathe Because my country is suffocating And the air of democracy is getting thinner and thinner.
I can’t breathe Because I am grieving for America And praying its dreams aren’t dying In the streets of our nation tonight.
A Psalm for Our Cities on Fire —By Rabbi Paul Kipnes
A Psalm for our cities on fire Aflame with the fires of fear With anger burning ‘bout brazen brutality: From a kneed neck Floyd’s breath snuffed out over there
A Psalm for our cities on fire Veering vigorously toward violence and hate Preventing protests that promote another vision: Of justice that we all must create
A Psalm for our brothers and sisters Who fear for their lives, black and brown When they jog, shop, go to church, or go bird watching With their hands held up high, or when lying down
A Psalm to remind us ‘bout justice And the debasement that threatens their lives Because our silence can no longer silence The real pain of widowed husbands and wives
So Pray for our cities on fire And sing out songs of protest ‘gainst hate But since lives, they are holy and matter It’s time for action; we’re way past time of debate
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Rabbi Paul Kipnes is leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.
He looked at me as if he heard only soft sounds, vowels and breath. The sun seemed stuck on its way down beyond the horizon. There was an early evening afterglow. “Don’t close the door,” I said, “I like the sound of the rain, and the color of the trees and the thickness in the air. Just leave it ajar.”
The rain was falling fast and constant, straight down. It made the sound of the nighttime pitter patter that comforts the restless soul which is unwilling to settle down. The trees were bright green, defiant, and proud to line the lane in beauty.
It had been raining all day. I followed the loud alerts from my phone and television warning of flooding. The Des Plaines River was already swollen, each day certain trails were impassable. This was going to make things worse. For sure.
Why does every word sound like a metaphor, every thought symbolic for a greater truth? The river escapes beyond the banks, the path impassable. The sound of rain, the bloom of trees. The beauty. The out of control nature of things.
This morning I got dressed. White leggings and flats with a bow that no one will see. I put on a moss green tunic I bought several years ago in Jerusalem from a young woman. She was skinny and artsy with a tattoo and a nose ring and curls that had a mind of their own falling this way and that way. Her tattoo said “Jerusalem” in Hebrew. She told me how much she loved the city and though all her twenty-something friends were all moving to Tel Aviv, she would never would leave this beautiful city and how amazing this tunic looks on me and I could wear it this way or that. But I never do. I barely wear it at all.
This morning the rain has stopped but I am still speaking in vowels which must be why Ezra keeps saying, huh or what? The fog settles and the morning abounds with dampness and all paths are flooded.
The one thing I know for sure. Living takes faith, courage, and wisdom.
I know this with every fiber and sinew of my body. I know this with my broken heart and with my unbreakable spirit and with every vowel-ladened breath. FCW is the great truth of the resilient soul, it always has been, and it always will be.
We are living a ricochet of emotions: a wild bouncing between fear and hope and denial and confusion and peace and blessing and guilt and anger and secret joy and despair and existential astonishment. And mortality. And impermanence. And the perpetual question of the soul that asks why, and how, and huh?!
FCW. Living takes Faith. Courage. Wisdom. Because that is the one thing I know for sure.
Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, Illinois.
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.
How fair are your tents, O Jacob, When we stand together, In unity and love, In the the name of hope and harmony.
How fragile are our tents When our fears divide us When we allow outside winds To blow within.
Who but You, Ruach Elohim, Can define who we are? What keeps us strong. What keeps us whole.
Who but us, Klal Yisroael, Can shield us, Carrying each other As one against the storm?
How fair are our tents, O Israel, When we stand together, In the name of unity, In compassion, in strength, For our children, And for our children’s children.
Ken yihi ratzon.
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. Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh is the rabbi at Congregation Shir Shalom in Woodstock, Vermont and has been the recipient of the Bonnie and Daniel Tisch Leadership Fellowship, the Michael Chernick Prize in Rabbinic Literature, and the Weisman Memorial Prize in Homiletics, among others.
I suppose that the archaeologist delights in brokenness. Shards are proof of life. Though a vessel, whole, but dusty and rare, is also good.
I suppose that the archaeologist does not agonize over the charred lines of destruction signifying a war, a conquest, a loss, a fire, or a complete collapse. The blackened layer seared upon the balk is discovery.
So why do I mourn, and shiver, and resist? Why do I weep as I dig deeper and deeper still? Dust, dirt, buckets of rubble, brokenness, a fire or two, shattered layers of a life that rebuilds upon the discarded, the destroyed, and then the reconstructed, only to break again, and deeper still, shards upon shards, layers upon layers.
If you look carefully, the earth reveals its secrets. So does the soul, and the cell, and the sinew, and the thought, and the wisp of memory, and the laugh, and the cry, and the heart, that seeks its deepest truth, digging down, down to bedrock.
Rock bottom they call it, and in Hebrew, the Mother Rock.
God of grace, teach me that the layers of brokenness create a whole.
Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation BJBE in the Chicago area. Her previously published books include God Whispers, The Dance of the Dolphin (Our Dance with God), The Bridge to Forgiveness, and Omer: A Counting. She is published in numerous anthologies and is renowned for her creative liturgy. Rabbi Kedar teaches courses and leads retreats that explore the need for meaning and purpose in our busy lives, creating an intentional life, spiritual awakening, forgiveness, as well as inspirational leadership and creating the synagogue for the twenty-first century. Her latest work has culminated in the newly released Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
CCAR Press has created unique programs for you to host at your congregations, schools, libraries, and Jewish Community Centers. Want to host a Grateful HeartEvent? Click for details. Contact us with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or (212) 972-3636 x243.