Why We Pray: Parshah Emor

Emor tells us how to be holy. It articulates rules for the kohanim and rules for the rest of us. Emor elucidates the pilgrimages and festivals, Shabbat, Pesach, the counting of the omer, shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah, and fasting on Yom Kippur. Plus lots of smaller forms of observance.

Why do we have these rituals? To honor HaShem. To learn about ourselves. To create community. To have an organizing paradigm for our lives and spiritual practice.

But what’s at the core of it all? Ways to get closer to our G-d. Ways to connect in deep and holy communion (no Catholic pun intended) with however you think about HaShem: as creator, as the eternal, as the life of all the worlds, as HaMakom: this moment and this place where the divine is always eternally here and now, accessible to each of us, in every holy moment, no matter what time or day of the year it is.

My shortcut word for this connection, or the possibility of it, at least for tonight, is prayer.

Prayer in the moment when it feels deepest. How you feel when you are most connected, whether that’s saying thank you in your garden or in the 25th hour of Yom Kippur. Saying thank you even if your stomach is growling, or you’ve just had a car accident but have damaged only metal, not flesh. Not when you’re praying to receive some thing, whether it’s true love or a new job. But the truest and deepest state, when it comes from reflexive gratitude.

We’re intuitively in that state when a child is born, or someone comes out of ICU. It’s why we cry at weddings, how we feel when we smell a rose, or when we greet our newly beloved.

One of my favorite poets is Rumi, who talks to and about G-d the way one does to a lover. With adoration, passion, and longing. The way the Song of Songs is written. With a deep and loving, wondrous sense of the ecstatic. A holiness filled with joy, with expectation and appreciation, with an open heart. And with the unconditional surrender we offer too rarely in our lives, but which we’re prompted to remember when we pray.

You know how you feel when you meet a person who’s going to become important in your life? There’s an almost electric moment of wow. Energetically it’s like what Legos do when you press them together. That satisfying little pop into place. Held. Loved. A HaMakom even of the seemingly inanimate.

That’s in contrast to a primary organizing image in Judaism: the image of shattering. Of remnants. The post tzimtzum scattering of the holy.

On the high end, a Diaspora of divine sparks, implanted into each of us. On the low end, the first set of tablets shattered. Their motes of dust still circulating in our atmosphere, part of our daily breath.

In his novel After, set in 1946, Melvin Bukiet writes how the air of Europe was filled with the ashes of the lost. Dead Jews breathed in and out daily by all who survived: by Nazis and Jews, allies and collaborators.

It’s been said prayer is breath. That each inhale and each exhale is unspoken gratitude to HaShem for creation. It’s hard to give gratitude for the Diaspora, or for the Holocaust, but it’s all part of a grand design of which we’re each a part, which we’re alive to help keep happening.

In return for life, we’ve been given work. Our job to collect and to gather. To mend and to heal. Tikkun olam in the most basic form: acknowledging every life, every spark, every ash, as an aspect of divinity. As in the Sanskrit greeting Namaste, I greet the holy within you.

I assure you, I’m not nearly that gracious if you cut me off in traffic. But I get it in theory. And think we all need to practice, literally practice, the grace that’s embedded in the idea of graciousness.

I think that’s why we have prayer and song. Why the words get into our bloodstream like a cosmic earworm, one that’s always dialed to the right channel.

It happens inside you when you find yourself humming Elohai neshemah shena tata bi, tehora hi while you’re browsing Trader Joe’s or doing chores. When you hear it under your breath or feel it in your corpuscles. That’s prayer pulling us towards the holy like a magnet. Like one Lego calling to another, reinforcing itself on a cellular level.

Keeping the mitzvot offers 613 ways to up your holiness quotient. But I deeply believe – even pray – that holiness is more than the do’s and don’ts of how and when you bless, dress, wash, and relate to HaShem.

It should also have to do with whom you feel you are, inside and out. With how you live and how you act. With whom you share that feeling. And in which situations you maintain your serenity, and in which you respond with profanity, fear, or doubt.

Not because you’ve turned into a zombie or a Stepford wife. But because you grok that you and the outer world is all one dance, one great big interactive dynamic. Sometimes it feels like free will and other times fate. Either way we have to own our choices, take responsibility for our actions, our lapses, our sins of omission and commission both.

We’re given the chance to elevate ourselves. To become the people we say we want to be. And to ask for help when it gets too hard.

You’re responsible for doing your part, with sincerity, integrity, and mindfulness. That’s also part of your job. Plus accepting that you don’t have to understand the universe for it all to work. You just have to go through your day doing the best you can. Filling your life with goodness, and living in ways that promote goodness and holiness in yourself and others.

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, just wrote a lovely little book called Help Thanks Wow, three essential prayers. Judaism’s got many more, and certainly more complex ones. But it’s a great distillation of when most folks pray, even those who don’t often walk into a temple, a mosque, or a church. And those prayers are often said with a profound sincerity that ritual obedience doesn’t always engender.

That’s part of we why have services, festivals, and holidays. Why we gather. Why we come to this place to pray together, whether it’s a couple times a year or every week. Because we get to feel that we belong to a tribe that’s all aimed in the same direction.

My Lego and yours, together. Rubbing our stuck places against one another. Hearing in our sometimes off-key singing and the occasional cough the complex friction of family. Learning how close we can come, and where our boundaries are. The chesed and the gevurah of our spiritual community.

Praying together teaches us and opens us. It also helps us know there’s more cleaning out to do. Helps us feel where we need to grind down our egos. Listening to the words that call to us, all the while our monkey minds chattering away.

Dolfy once taught me a phrase: ratzo v’shov.  It’s about being elevated enough to be touched by the divine, even for the briefest of instants. And then coming back to this plane. There’s this amazing mixture of joy and sadness. Energy and responsibility. Like good poetry, every sense open a little wider.

Prayer’s a great way to open that door. To invite in ratzo v’shov. Coming to services and singing is lots easier than going on a pilgrimage. More accessible than falling in love, and lots more pleasant than being dumped.

I’m always amazed when I’m reminded the heart’s a muscle. Like others it can get flaccid if you’re lazy, or schmutzadik with plaque if you don’t feed it well. It can soar with boundless joy. And it can ache with pain. Like in the prayer about the openings and closings of our various parts, we’ve been given this amazing barometer of how our soul is feeling.

Some northern languages have dozens of words for snow. We too have many diverse words for our emotions. They’re all part of why we pray.

We talk to HaShem when we’re full of love, and also when our hearts are hurting. We come as seekers. As petitioners. To receive. To bargain. To wrestle. And ultimately to accept.

I was thinking a few months ago about Elizabeth Kubler Ross and her five stages of grief. Not always exactly in this order, but she’s pretty perceptive and accurate: Anger. Denial. Bargaining. Depression. And, finally, acceptance. They have a lot to say about what we want from HaShem and how we treat that relationship.

Good times are easy. Hooray for dancing with the Torah. For blessings with bread and wine, apples and honey. But there’re other times when we’re asked to fast. To go without. To sacrifice. All to learn that life’s about boundaries and limits as much as access to the infinite and unconditional.

Life’s like that too. It’s not always whipped cream and chuppas. We deal with cancer and divorce, broken bones and times of doubt. The variety of life’s tragedies great and small, plus all the things we fear may happen, even if they never do.

And throughout them all we pray.

If we’re lucky, we do so with that lovely sense of peace, of being in holy and sacred space and time. We land in HaMakom, the place where prayer is ongoing, both intrinsic and all around us.

I once heard a great Sufi joke, where the fish are swimming around debating the existence of the ocean. That’s the opposite of prayer.

Because in true prayer you feel connected with your context — the worlds both seen and unseen, inner and outer — without doubts and without fear. You’re swimming through life in HaMakon.  Being bathed in that incredible light that prayer can open up in you and to you. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find solace, insights, and hope.

Shabbat shalom.

Delivered April 26, 2013 at TBI Eugene