My top rival was this arrogant girl (or so I thought so at the time) from the Windsor Prep School, who was used to getting whatever she wanted. She and I went to the same summer tennis program and always ended up competing for everything. Liz usually won. 14 years later, I still remember how inadequate she made me feel, comparing grades, dates, tennis scores and college acceptances. One afternoon, Liz and I met again on the tennis court but something was different. I felt differently. And as we began to play, I lost myself in the match. I wasn’t thinking about Liz or the people watching, instead I focused completely on the game. My racquet became an extension of my arm. I served every ball the way a ball should be served and felt every backhand hit the sweet spot. Even my net play, which was usually horrible, seemed to fall into place. In what seemed like an instant the match was over; although I wanted it to continue. It was my finest tennis hour- still to this day. I had been in the mythical zone, lost in the game. Unaware of anything but a little green fuzzy ball. And just for a moment, before reality came flooding back, I did think about going pro. I felt invincible.
We all possess this incredible power to loose ourselves in the moment. While doing something seemingly meaningless, something that we do daily and don’t think about, we become aware of the mystery of it all. And for a short time we feel deeply alive, aware yet unaware of self- innately knowing what it must have felt like to be at Sinai. Its like being pricked with a pin and focusing on the sharpness of the pain, expecting to see a bloom of blood that never comes, a meaningless moment soaked with meaning because it makes us aware that we are alive. That blood rushes through our veins with the speed of a raging rapid, that our fingers move and our eyes contract and somehow we exist as part of it all. I know the science of it all, and still I am awed- that my heart beats, that my fingertips can trace a pattern, that I am a part of this world.
In our parashah for this week, there are two phrases which are inexorably linked in my mind: Exodus 24: 3 and Exodus 24: 12. Exodus 24:3 is a verse that we all know: Moses shares with the people Israel all the laws and commandments required of them. In response, the people, with one voice utter N’aseh V’nishma- we will do and we will understand. Exodus 24:12 is a little less known but just as important: God asks Moses to come up to God on the mountain and to be there. In explaining this verse the Kotzker Rebbe asks, “If Moses was coming up to the mountain wouldn’t he already be there? Why does God specify and “be there”? In response to his own question the Kotzker indicates that “being there” is more than a geographical indicator- it’s a spiritual indicator. Go up to the mountain and be present in the moment.
So the two verses together can be understood as: Do, comprehend, and then you will be present. The lesson of Parashah Mishpatim, the lesson of spiritual existence. True understanding comes from action. Practice mindfulness. Just do it. Whatever the phrase- the idea is one that we have applied to almost everything in our lives. We don’t expect a team to make it to the superbowl without going over many plays and daily workouts on the field. We don’t expect to take a test without studying or visit the dentist without brushing our teeth- although my father the dentist tells me that many kids don’t brush their teeth before the dentist, or even sit at a piano and automatically play a Bach concerto; and yet, we expect to experience holy moments just by entering this sanctuary to pray. But entering holy space does not always insure a feeling of holiness, of connectedness. Like anything else it takes work- preparation, participation and practice. We need to make Judaism a part of our lives for us to feel comfortable in the synagogue. We don’t practice Judaism to make things perfect or to do things perfectly. Rather, we practice to grasp and realize that things are already perfect the way they are.
Na’aseh V’nishma, Vi’yihi Sham….Those three phrases from our parashah teach us how to begin the process of entering the “prayer zone” of getting to “be there”.
N’aseh- and we will do. It’s unrealistic to expect to enter the synagogue from the parking lot and experience a religious epiphany by reading prayers in a strange language with tunes we don’t know. It does happen occasionally, but we increase the likelihood of connection when we are participants, engaged in the process. For prayer to be meaningful, it cannot be a spectator sport. More than four years ago at the Biennial, Rabbi Eric Yoffie called for a reformation of the prayer service in order to make it more meaningful for us as participants. Part of what came from this initiative is Mishkan Tefillah, the prayer book which many communities use. Prayer works here are Ner Tamid. Partly because of Cantor Greenberg and Rabbi Kushner. Partly because of the space, but mostly because of you.
One of the ways that we can continue to increase our spiritual connection to prayer is through increasing our prayer knowledge; by learning the history, development and order of our current service, by educating ourselves to read Hebrew, by studying what the individual prayers mean, and familiarizing ourselves with the different melodies- the classes that Cantor Greenberg are teaching. Just one of the above can enrich our sanctuary experience manifold. There is a wonderful guide written by Rabbi Reuven Hammer called “Entering Jewish Prayer” for weekdays and for the holidays which helps tremendously. We, at Ner Tamid are on a spiritual journey.When we know, we can do.
N’shma- and we will understand. Once we are comfortable with the doing, we free ourselves to enter another level of being. When we come into this place on Friday nights, most often, we are not in the right state of mind to pray. Our heads are in a different place. We are back at work, thinking about the dishes in the sink or worrying about our kids at home. And we need to find a way to slowly enter Shabbat space and feel comfortable there, able to open ourselves to whatever may come. To connect as a community, and experience personal moments of reflection. The Hebrew verb to pray is L’hitpallel- which also means to examine oneself- a process which cannot be done quickly. As the Hasidic masters teach, “Enter into prayer slowly, do not exhaust your strength but proceed step by step. Even if you are not aroused as your prayer begins, give close attention to the words you speak. As you grow in strength and God helps you to draw near, you can even say the words more quickly and remain in God’s presence.”
There are several moments built into our worship experience that allow us to enter into private space. For instance, tradition tells us that when reciting the Shema, our declaration of faith, we need to be completely focused on the words. From this comes the custom of closing our eyes, or covering our eyes so that we can “Shema” hear the words which we are speaking.
When I was a teenager, this big- bear of a man in my congregation would cover his head with his tallit during the Shema. When he was covered, I always felt exposed, unsure of what to do myself and embarrassed by his very obvious piety. He felt my discomfort and suggested that I simply close my eyes to fell the shema. At first, I would open them often to see if anyone was looking at me. But soon it became comfortable and helped me to really hear the words of the Shema- to feel them from someplace deep inside of my being. Although the act of shutting our eyes during the Shema, and even during silent prayer may at first cause discomfort, keep trying, it may become a ritual which enhances your prayer. Another aid for concentration is rhythmic swaying. When we think of swaying, we think of shekkling as our grandparents and great-grandparents did- intense movement back and forth. But even a small barely perceptible movement helps us to get to a higher place. Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz explained the importance of movement in prayer in his volume Nofit Tzufim: The world is filled with God’s light, but at times there are clouds which prevent us from seeing God. And during prayer, our words and our movements cause the clouds to shift, allowing the light of God to penetrate our souls.”
Try to close your eyes, try to move slightly even if it feels uncomfortable. No one is watching to see how you communicate with God, or with yourself. Prayer styles are purely personal. To engage our N’shama- our soul we need to n’shma- to listen to our hearts.
When N’Aseh and N’shma- doing and understanding come together we make room to v’yahi sham- to be present in the moment. A moment that the scholar Or Ha-Emet describes as: “being no longer aware of self…”
A moment that we would describe as being there. As in all things, reaching that place does not happen just by willing it. Even when all the factors are there- when we know a bit about the service and can sing the tunes and are ready for the Shabbat bride to come towards us, sometimes she eludes us and we are unable to be present. But with practice and participation our chances for connection with the community, with God and with ourselves are increased and before we know it, we have experienced a moment of revelation. And for a short time we feel deeply alive, aware yet unaware of self- innately knowing what it must have felt like to be at Sinai.
May Sinai not be too far from