My horse, Naapi, stepped gently through the trees, stopping now and then to munch on the grasses and wildflowers along the trail. I was supposed to pull his head up and give him a heel to the ribs. Of course, I did not have much heart to do that! He knew in an instant that he had a softie in his saddle. Naapi was named for the Old Man in the Blackfeet Indian origin story; he is the one who designs and shapes the world into being. He is also a trickster. (Maybe it was not only my compassion that kept me from steering him away from his mid-ride snacks – I took his name seriously!)
I asked our guide, Shane, what he thought about a Creator who is also a trickster. Shane laughed, and then turned our light banter immediately to a theological discussion. It turns out that not only is Shane a prize winning rodeo competitor, a high school teacher, and an entrepreneur, but he is also pastor of his church.
He told me about his sense of wonder at the birth of his first child just three days earlier, a funeral at which he had officiated the day before, and community healing he hopes to effect in his church. I told him about my synagogue, the social action and prayer in which we engage, and the serious work of preparation for the High Holy Days that begins (tonight!) with Rosh Hodesh Elul.
Shane was especially moved to learn about the Jewish idea of repentance. I explained that the Hebrew word teshuva does not mean punishment or forgiveness; but rather, return. When I told him about returning to our best selves and to God as the true work of repentance, he thought this would be a good lesson for the people in his church.
I joked that I would be teaching about his church on Saturday and he would be preaching about our synagogue on Sunday!
As our scheduled one hour horseback ride lengthened into two hours, we spoke about obligations to family, privileges of community and our connection to God through nature. Shane told me that he believes that there are more atheists in urban areas than in back country. I understood exactly what he meant. In our normal suburban/urban lives, we are surrounded by the accomplishments of humans: bridges and buildings, roadways and highways. We spend our days connected to electronics and social media. It makes sense that there is not much room for God in our busy, human-centered lives. How different it is in the back country where I was privileged to spend ten days of vacation. I spent my days on a bicycle or in hiking shoes. I rarely used my phone. The tallest things in every direction were the glorious mountains of Glacier National Park. When I considered the Rocky Mountains decorated on top by ever-changing cloud formations, glacial lakes, fast-running rivers, endless plains and deep forests, I felt deeply God‘s presence. Who else could have “invented all of this stuff”?!
It is time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah. We will be hearing the blast of the shofar for the first time on Sunday morning. How will we wake up? OJC is offering several opportunities to do the work of Heshbon haNefesh, taking an accounting of our souls.
Women of OJC are invited to a Saturday evening program on September 7 to Envision a New Year . #OJCSupportsU is hosting a workshop, Hope into the new year, at two different times: Monday, September 16 at 4 o’clock in the afternoon or Wednesday, September 18 at 7:30 pm. Hope into the New Year.
After my amazing experience at Glacier National Park, I have one more suggestion for Elul preparation. Consider preparing your soul by connecting to God in nature. Rockland County, New York and Bergen County, New Jersey have some of the most beautiful outdoor areas in our country. Unplug, disconnect, and find the green spaces to quiet your mind and listen to your soul. Bring with you a prayer book, a poetry collection, a journal or a book of Psalms. Close your eyes and breathe in as the trees breathe out. Listen to the sounds of the woods or the ocean. Be present to yourself in the majesty of God’s creation. On my vacation, every morning when I prayed, I could never figure out if I should read a Psalm about God’s creation or simply look up from the page at God’s creation. Ultimately, I chose to do both. I hope that you will do the same.
Whether on footpath or sandy beach, I wish you luck on your journey toward the High Holy Days. Perhaps you will be rewarded, as I was, with a rainbow. God keeps God’s promises. Do we keep ours?
That’s right, you read the title correctly. I am inviting you to not pray. Come to synagogue tomorrow morning, sit for an hour, or two, or three, and don’t pray. I am allowed to say that because, frankly, I have no idea what the English words “to pray” mean. The meaning of the words, I believe, will necessarily change depending on what is our definition of God. Implicit in the word “prayer” is some recognition that we are engaging in an effort to connect to something beyond ourselves, whether that something is above us, beyond us or within us. Are we asking for something, actually expecting a response? Are we seeking the granting of a wish? Are we hoping to gain a perspective that puts our lives into a context of something greater, thereby either maximizing or minimizing our significance, our achievements, or even our wrongdoings? Prayer is not necessarily an act of petition, supplication or thanksgiving. It may be all these things, it may be none of these things.
In our Siddur Lev Shalem, the new prayerbook published by the Rabbinical Assembly which we introduced to the congregation two weeks ago, the phrase Barukh Atah Adonai, commonly translated as “Praised are You, Lord,” is intentionally left untranslated. In the English text, the phrase appears simply as Barukh Atah Adonai. I love the affirmation of the idea that the words cannot be translated easily, if at all. How do we approach sacred purpose? How do we express shared values and shared search for meaning? How do we establish a space for safe vulnerability? How do we sing in gratitude for our freedom and in lament of those things that still enslave us? How do we find inspiration and comfort in the company of others who are as imperfect and broken as we are? That which we can’t translate into words is left to the service of the heart.
The beauty of our new siddur is found in its acknowledgment that there is no single way to pray. The book is an invitation to a dialogue with God, certainly, but it is also an invitation to meditation, to study, to quiet contemplation, to communal song. It is as modern, creative, and untraditional as we need our expression of faith to be. It is as ancient, as set and as traditional as we need our expression of faith to be. It is an invitation to explore our desire to connect emotionally, intellectually and socially to purpose, values, tradition, shared history and shared mission.
Jewish tefillah–self-examination–is time set aside from the mundane distractions in our lives. The siddur serves as the open doorway to that time–time for perspective, time for growth. Join us tomorrow morning for an hour or two or three. Join us for you. Join us to learn more about this new magnificent resource and our own personal searches for meaning. Join us to sing, learn, connect, and be. Join us, you know, to pray.
Rabbi Craig Scheff