Open the Gates: The Spirit of Prayer

By Rabbi Jill Maderer, sermon delivered Kol Nidre evening 2011

If you enjoy cruise-ship vacations, you have likely come across a cruise-ship rabbi.   Often times when rabbis retire, they take a cruise-ship gig.  Unless you suffer from sea-sickness, it’s good deal.  The cruise can offer Shabbat services and the rabbi can enjoy an all—inclusive vacation.

One such cruise-ship rabbi told me the story of his first gig, which took place during the winter holiday season.  As the rabbi chatted with some passengers who had arrived early for the Shabbat service, he prepared to create a make-shift community.  He asked them if they had any favorite melodies or requests.   One woman said, “Rabbi, I would like to hear Kol Nidre.”  It was December.  And the woman requested Kol Nidre.

This woman’s request raises the question: What is the purpose of Jewish prayer?  There are many different reasons to pray.  For this cruise passenger, prayer offers a link to her past and perhaps to other Jews all over the world.  For many people, prayer offers inspiring music and poetry.  For others, prayer offers a connection to the others in the congregation.  For some, prayer offers a practice that binds one to the rhythm of Jewish time.  For some, prayer offers an opportunity to recite and absorb the ultimate messages of meaning and of living embedded in the liturgy.  And for still others, prayer offers the time and space to wrestle with an understanding of God or to have a conversation with God .

I find each of these different purposes for prayer to be meaningful.  However, tonight, I would like to focus on the spirit of prayer.  No matter our proficiency with Hebrew or transliteration, no matter our steadfastness in faith or in skepticism, no matter our experience or lack there-of with the worship service, every one of us can seek out the spirit of our heart and soul, and bring that spirit to Jewish prayer.  The 20th century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, challenged the Jewish community and chastised his rabbinic colleagues with his teachings about prayer.  Heschel taught that in order to discover the spirit of prayer, we must set aside religious bashfulness, open the mind and untie the heart.  Don’t credit or blame the voice of the clergy, the design of the sanctuary, or the pages of the prayerbook.  Words are not made of paper, Heschel insisted.  The spirit of serious Jewish prayer is expressed in an outpouring of the soul.

Tonight’s service began with Pitchu Li, from the Book of Psalms.  The verse reads: Pitchu li sha-arey tzedek, avo vam odeh yah, meaning, Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them and praise God.  Over the next 24 hours of Yom Kippur, the liturgy will speak of gates several times: open the gates of prayer, do not close the gates, the gates are closing, the gates never close.

As we pray to open the gates that we may enter, I would suggest a play on the verse. Rather than meaning “open for me, the gates” imagine we are saying, “open me, the gates.”  I can be the gate that closes off to prayer or I can be the gate that allows my soul to pour through.  Pitchu Li: Open me.

Open me, the gate, that I may enter.  We witnessed such an outpouring of the soul last week when, early Rosh Hashanah morning, for the first time, we invited congregants to ascend the bima and to stand before the open ark, for a moment of personal prayer.  I was overwhelmed to see so many of you seek out intense spirituality.  Like many of you, I felt uplifted to witness a community, eager for deeper intimacy in the prayer experience.

The power of the moment was not in the open doors of the ark; the power was in the open gates to your souls.  You opened your minds and untied your hearts; religious bashfulness fell by the wayside.  One by one, and family by family, and groups of friends, over 100 people chose to approach the ark.  As the whole congregation recited the words to the Amida, praising the God of our ancestors, we witnessed multiple generations step up and take prayer into their own hands.

For me, the power of the ritual extended far beyond my own turn at the ark.  As I watched fellow community members express personal prayers while we all continued to pray, I believed those private prayers were woven with shared experience.  Both as individuals and in the midst of community, this was serious prayer—an outpouring of the soul.

The ark is not reserved for prayer leaders; its intensity belongs to us all.  Each one of us enters prayer with our own personal words and passion and struggle and journey, even as we choose to take those individual journeys while praying the same words, in the same time and space.

To be clear, I do not believe that God is more present in the aron kodesh, the holy ark, than in any other room in this building.  I do not believe there is a God who hears us better when we pray in one place rather than another.  And I do not believe God is more likely to answer us on that exquisite bima than anywhere else in the world.  But, sometimes, I am more present at the ark.  I can hear my prayers more clearly as I am inspired before its glory and symbolism.  I might be more likely to discover answers when standing before the scrolls of the highest and holiest purpose of our people.

God’s answers? I did not hear God’s answers when I stood at that ark.  In fact, I don’t believe God really answers our prayers, at least, not in the literal sense.  I do not believe God is a puppeteer, or a magician, or a vending machine, or a slave serving human taskmasters.   And I do not believe such definitions are requisites for Jewish prayer.

A colleague of mine spoke with a congregant who had stopped attending Shabbat services.  “Why,” the rabbi asked him, “are you no longer participating?”  The man replied, “I feel like a hypocrite.  I don’t even think I really believe in God.  Who am I to pray, if I’m not even sure to whom it is I am praying?”  Don’t worry about it, the rabbi said.  Just don’t worry about it.  Don’t let God stop you from praying.  You don’t need a definition or understanding of God to pray.  Just pray.

Well, one might ask, how do I attempt to move God if I don’t know whether G exists? Don’t worry about moving God.  Move yourself.  The Talmud teaches: Your prayer is not accepted unless you put your heart in your hands.  Pray to move the divine within yourself—to shape the soul within you, or the heart, or the mind, or whatever name you have for the center of yourself that seeks to understand who you are, how you connect to the world around you, how you matter, and what matters to you.

The Hebrew word for the concept of prayer has nothing to do with God or request or certainty.  Tefillah, or in its infinitive form, L’hitpallel is a reflexive verb meaning: to turn into one’s self.  We join together according to Jewish time, we rejoice in the words, lessons and melodies of the Jewish world, we reach out to one another as a community.  At the same time, we turn into ourselves.  Through the spiritual practice of tefillah, we delve into our spiritual life, to perceive ourselves as a part of something greater than ourselves, to discover who we are and who we might become.

Professional dancer, Liz Lerman’s hallmark contribution to her profession is her approach to rehearsal and feedback.  Here is how Liz Lerman explains it: “Rehearsal is a period of time that is set aside for exploration, testing, learning and repetitive practice.  Rehearsals give us a place to make mistakes.   I imagine,” Lerman continues, “the experience of prayer in just this way.  I am rehearsing a set of ideas.  I allow myself to go into it with all my attention and knowledge, recognizing that I can step back, reflect, and rethink—and in the spirit of the best rehearsals, report to myself what I have learned.”

If prayer is a rehearsal for the dance of life, then this is our time to contemplate what

matters to us and to move ourselves to live in a way that reflects our highest ideals.  During prayer, we bring the burdens and struggles of our everyday lives and begin to work through them spiritually.  We weigh ethical dilemmas, we cultivate compassion, we confront our tempers, our transgressions and our potential downfalls.  We set priorities and we experiment with ideas.  We try and return, we rehearse, and then bring it into life.

In Hasidic thought, prayer is a time to work on the self.  Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk taught:  everyone receives only half a soul from heaven; the other half must be worked on here on earth.  Prayer is a time to heal and to grow, to shape our attitudes and intentions, to seek out wholeness in our souls.

Our worship services are crafted to evoke varied possibilities of emotion and spirit.  Sometimes, we are in sync with where the liturgy is guiding us, sometimes, not.  To bring the real, raw experiences of the heart— resentment, passion, joy, gratitude, dilemma, jealousy, confusion, gratitude, sadness, relationships, grief, goals, desperation, devotion, hope, brokenness, the search for wholeness—means there are many very different experiences taking place at once.  If the congregation is joining in celebratory Kabbalat Shabbat music, and it’s not where your heart is in that moment, there’s no need to wait for the silent prayer to express yourself.

Yet, perhaps sometimes, many of us in the congregation are drawn in to a common moment.  When we recite the blessing of healing, the Misheberach here, prayer seems to bind us more closely together.  Some people are crying out to God with pleas for healing, some are adding voice to the energy around sharing a concern, some are supporting their neighbor in a time of need.  As we listen to the names of those touched by illness, and we pray the words of the blessing, I suspect that despite differing theology and perspective, we share some things in common.  We care about each other’s hardship.  We yearn for meaning even in our moments of brokenness.  We are not alone in times of struggle.  And we all experience times of brokenness, the need for healing, and the journey of growth.

No matter our theology, we can each bring the cares, the burdens and the passions of our own souls, as, in the words of our congregation’s vision: we seek to awaken our human spirit to the possibilities within and between us.

To discover soul-stirring prayer, we must set aside religious bashfulness, open the mind and untie the heart.

This year, may the power of our prayer, be not only in the open doors of the ark, but also in the open gates to our souls.  Pitchu li sha-arey tzedek, avo vam odeh yah, Open me, the gate, that I may enter.


Material drawn from the writings of: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Liz Lerman.