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Express Yourself – Kol Nidrei

September 22, 2012

There have recently been a flurry of articles in The Jewish Exponent, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times about an increasing number of synagogues that have welcomed technology into their services in an effort to engage the younger generation. No longer are their rabbis asking worshippers to turn off their mobile devices, but instead the message is literally “Pray. Write. Text.” The focal point of the service is not the pulpit, but rather a large white screen to which people can text their responses to questions such as “What do you need to let go of?” – instant text responses showing up on screens this recent Rosh Hashanah were, “Past mistakes. Shyness, Anger. Fear of failure. Self-pity. Ego. Doubt. Failure,” and to the question “What is one thing you wish you had done differently?,” on-screen text messages read “Procrastinate less. Be a better listener. Worry less.” In The New York Times article “Please, Do Text During the Service,” this synagogue drive-to-connect is an effort to “use the language of the tech generation instead of the Torah to keep the crowd of 20-to-30-year-olds…connected to their Jewish roots” in worship services that are referred to as “an experience.” {Alvarez, Lizette. “Please, Do Text During the Service.” The New York Times September 18, 2012, A13}. Surely rabbis would prefer to edit the phrase “to use the language of the tech generation instead of the Torah” to read “to use the language of the tech generation to draw them toward Torah.” I would also suggest that we meld the phrases “worship service” and “an experience” into “worship experience” because this is really what I want to talk about: how we experience worship.

I have no doubt that the ability to text one’s thoughts to a communal screen during services has tremendous advantages, especially for a generation whose fingers fly over small keyboards or touch-screens to instantly communicate their thoughts. I applaud virtually anything – I need to give myself some “wiggle room” here – that will engage people in worship, but I worry about what we might be losing in the process. I’m intrigued by the thought of ‘visuals’ projected on screens that will show stunning panoramas of rainforests to bring the words of the Yotzer prayer to life, or people embracing each other as we read the V’ahavtah, but I am concerned about the ‘downside’ which is that we will become passive observers in ways that will distance us even more from worship experiences, which suggests that we are already remote from what liturgy and prayer offer us. We have, in essence, been lulled to sleep, and seeing wonderful images or thought-provoking words on screen, once the thrill is gone, will not likely awaken us from our slumber.

So I want to offer some thoughts that I have spoken about in different venues – in conversations and classes, as well as at Shabbat services – because I want to offer you a path that could lead to making your worship experiences much more meaningful than they have been in the past.

When I lived in Israel, I went to Shabbat services at a shul near my apartment in Jerusalem. I had never attended Orthodox services with any frequency prior to that in the United States, and on the rare occasion that I went, it was always more of a “look-see-and-leave” just to get a taste of what I wasn’t missing! I found some of the traditions strange to say the least. I’d be the first to admit that I arrived at those services with a bit of an attitude and a lot of resistance, and the image that struck me the most was the sight of men – the only gender I could see and with whom I could mingle – whose tallism were over their heads, making it look as if their faces were small tents, open in the front to allow for air and sight. It gave the appearance of private cocoons, or vertical kayaks, in which each man stood, his peripheral sight blocked by the fabric of the tallit around his head. It struck me as very strange – and though I had seen it in photographs and artistic renderings, there is nothing like seeing something in ‘real time’ – and why one would choose to ‘wall oneself off’ from others during worship remained an enigma to me for quite some time. Eventually, I came to realize that the purpose is not to shut out the world outside, but to open up worlds within. So the title of my sermon tonight is ‘The Beyond Within.’

Several months ago, at one of our Shabbat morning services, everyone was standing, facing the ark, as was I with my back to the congregation, and I said, “Our service continues on page 231 as we read together.” As I began reading, it became quite apparent that very few people were joining me. I should tell you that on Shabbat mornings we have very few people at our services, so very few of the very few were reading along with me, and it was noticeable. You might think that my first thought was, “Why aren’t more people reading?” but actually it was, “That’s great! Most of them are not reading!” I know it seems counter-intuitive, so let me put this in context.

Most of the people at our Shabbat morning services are familiar with the prayer book and they have a great feel for how it progresses, so it is rare that I refer to page numbers unless we are skipping pages, and even then they are turning to those pages instinctively. The fact that most of them were not reading with me at that point in the our morning service did not lead me to wonder if I had given them a wrong page number because I thought that they were on a previous page that captured their interest – a word or a phrase that suddenly, as it were, “jumped off the page at them” – and they were not ready to move on. It only occurred to me later that I had given them the wrong page number, and so they were trying to figure out where I was.

A few moments ago, I said “We were moving through the service” and I think that is the perfect phrase to ask some really important questions about prayer and worship. Essentially: “Why are we here?”; “What do we hope to gain from the experience?” and “What ‘moves’ us?”

We have come here tonight for many reasons. We are here to affirm our faith. We are here to measure the distance between what we say and what we do. We are here on the only holy day whose evening service is not defined by the name of its day of worship. One prayer – one – is enough to give this evening its name: Kol Nidrei. What is it about the Kol Nidrei that moves us? What makes its melody feel as if it is part of our DNA?

The reason that the Kol Nidrei moves us are not just its words, as evocative as they are, but also the fact that they are repeated three times. Repetition does not necessarily result in greater awareness or even emotion, but it does give you time to think about the words, or immerse yourself in the melody, or just close your eyes and let it all ’move’ through you.

So tonight, I want to give you a much different way of thinking about the potential of worship experiences than you might have considered, or the way that you thought about prayer as you were growing up. I would like you to recalibrate much of what you think about prayer and worship. Take all your thoughts about what usually deters you from coming here during the year – to be fair to you, you’re in a lot of good company because most Reform Jews are ‘event driven’ when it comes to the sanctuary, and that’s a shame because services are enhanced when more of us are here to share them – so toss out the reasons that you decide in advance that being here is unlikely to be inspiring or not the best use of your time. I hold out the potential for you to be surprised.

First, let’s define some key words that are applied to worship. There is a difference between liturgy – the building blocks of worship such as the Borchu and the Sh’ma, V’ahavtah, Avote v’Imahote, the Kiddush and Kaddish that are in the prayer book whether we open it or not – in contrast to prayer – the spontaneous, personal expression of feeling, need or desire – in contrast to meditation, a more free-form and some would say higher plane of awareness. But I am going to use the word “prayer” in the sense that it is most often used and understood: words on text.

There were no fixed prayers until the time of the Second Temple {515BCE-70CE}. Until that time, each individual prayed whenever he or she wanted, and the words of prayer were up to that person. The earliest known compilation of Jewish prayers did not occur until the 9th century, even though there are smatterings of prayerful sentiments in the Torah: Isaac, in a blessing meant for Esau, said to Jacob, “May God give you the dew of heaven and the richness of the earth” {Genesis 27:28}; Jacob blessed his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, with the words, “Through you shall the people of Israel give blessings, saying, ‘May God make you as Ephraim and Manasseh” {Genesis 48:20}; and one of the best known prayers is recited at the conclusion of all services and life-cycle events, with the exception of funerals, “May the Lord bless you and protect you…” {Numbers 6:24-26}.

In the early period of the Second Temple, the number of daily services was set in keeping with Torah text informing us that Abraham prayed in the morning {Genesis 19:27}, Isaac toward dusk {Genesis 24:63} and Jacob at night {Genesis 28:10}. As Jewish scholars pondered the content and purpose of prayer, a creative tension arose: spontaneous expression was applauded – anyone could do so anywhere at any time – but what was required were standardized communal prayers so that worship would be defined not as Jews who happened to be gathered in one place but saying different things, but rather a congregation of worshippers joined together through words and melody. The historic ‘tipping point’ occurred around the year 760. By then, Jewish intellectual leaders called Gaonim, the presidents of Talmudic academies in Babylonia, had collected a treasure-trove of letters from Jews in different countries asking about various customs and whether Jews in far-flung areas said the same prayers as they did when they worshipped. Was there a standardized format so that wherever you prayed you did so in a unified voice? In 857, Amram bar Sheshna, the leader of the Talmudic academy in Sura, Babylonia, wrote down the first compilation of Jewish liturgy, with instructions on how, when and where to recite them. It became our first siddur, our first prayer book.

Since then, we have had standardized prayers that are recited at different times during worship, meaning that you can be in Jerusalem or Rome, in Singapore or Melbourne, in Buenos Aires or Cape Town, and be comfortable enough with the structure of the service – the Borchu in proximity to the Ma’ariv Aravim or Yotzer; the Sh’ma and the V’ahavtah – to feel ‘at home.’ No matter the language of the country that you are in, the Hebrew will be familiar as will the path of the service.

There is tremendous comfort in that, and at the same time there is a risk. The risk is that ritual – any ritual: lighting the Shabbat candles, saying the Kiddush, or reading words on the pages of the prayer book – can become motion without meaning. Words that are very familiar {“You shall love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might…” or “Blessed are You…God of our fathers and mothers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah…”} can become the recitation of words absent much thought. You are carried along as if on a wave, deposited for a few moments into responsive reading, back into another wave of prayers, then into a pleasing melody, more prayers, and before you know it you have covered a fair amount of distance, and the land – which is to say the end of the service – hovers on the near horizon, a port at the end of your journey. “How long will the service last?” is a question that I am occasionally asked when a service is about to begin, as if the person is deciding whether to join me for a jog or opt out of a marathon.

But the point of being part of a worship experience is not to proceed from point A to Z – from the ‘call to worship’ through the Kaddish – it is to find a place along the way that has meaning, and to do so in the company of friends and fellow-congregants even if they are not on the same page as you!

I’d be the first to admit that it is not often that you have time during a worship service to really consider what you are reading or saying because you are constantly receiving information about what to do. We invite intelligent people to enter the sanctuary and then we bombard them with information that essentially says, “Stand up, sit down, turn to this page, read responsively, listen to me, go home” and we should not be surprised that they rarely come back!

Here, we change the pattern considerably. During our Shabbat morning services, we are in dialogue. We share thoughts and ideas about something in the Torah Portion or in life that strikes us as relevant, and the benefit is that different opinions are expressed and we get to know each other better. Wisdom arrives from various streams and we are all the better for it. Our Friday night erev Shabbat services are defined by music and by contemporary-topic mini-sermons of what I call “meaningful brevity” because I know that peoples’ attention span at the end of a long week is less than it might be at other times.

That still leaves us with the prayer book, the vehicle that drives every service from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ to point ‘C’ and so forth, except that the way you can approach it does not need to be linear. You can double back or jump ahead. This realization can make any worship service more personal and meaningful. The words on the pages, as on the parchment of Torah, stay the same, but we change! So every time that you come to a service – and the point is even more dramatic at the annual time of the High Holy Days – you bring a subtly or dramatically different “you” because you have recovered from a serious illness or have been diagnosed with one; you have celebrated the wedding of your child or the birth of your grandchild; or you have mourned the death of a loved one, and so it should not be surprising that you might ‘hear’ familiar words differently. You should give yourself permission to linger with a word or phrase on a page because at that moment it matters to you more than most other times.

One example might be the opening words in the V’ahavtah: “You shall love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your might.” The words are so well known that they are read with ease born of repetition, but every once in a while those words have the potential to leap off the page. For weeks or months, you recite the phrase “You shall love God with all your heart” and you do not think about it too much, but then a time arrives when you have had an experience with love fulfilled, denied, or lost, and all of a sudden the words “You shall love” have a force that you did not anticipate. The instinct is to keep reading, but I think the most important thing that you can do for yourself at that moment is to let the rest of us keep reading while you pause for a few moments, or a few minutes, to ponder what it is that spoke to you in a different voice than in the recent past. You’ll eventually catch up with the rest of us.

The reason I know that you’ll eventually rejoin us is because whenever your time of personal reflection is over – no matter how much time you need to acknowledge the moment – is because a familiar melody – the MiChamocha, the v’Shamru or the MiShehbeirach- will bring you back to us in the same way that a lighthouse beckons a boat moving toward port. You will seamlessly merge into the voices of the community.

The creative tension for me is that while I implore you to feel free to release from words on the pages, Rebecca and I are so involved with the path of the worship experience – what pages we need to be on to keep it moving along; what cues we need to be aware of as ‘hand offs’ leading to music, or from music to readings – that we cannot detach ourselves from text. In fact, the only time that we can do so is during silent meditation, and so it has become part of the service that I really treasure. The designated time for silent meditation is the only time that I can put the prayer book aside, and turn to my own thoughts. It is then, and only then, that I feel independent of time, allowing the silence to wash over me and move through me for two-to-three minutes without pause. I applaud your opportunity to do so at any point during the service.

I also want you to consider freeing yourself physically while you are here: tonight and at all times! If I were to join you at a concert – classical music or contemporary rock; from Brahms to Bruce {Springsteen} – I would very likely see you swaying to the music, or hands clapping, fingers snapping, feet and body in motion…but what happens when we’re here? The music moves us, but we don’t move. In this context, we are not Reform Jews but rigid Jews! We have been subdued by a sense of decorum that suggests that the expression of emotion during a worship experience is inappropriate. That suggestion does not come from me! Whenever Rebecca sings the v’Shamru during our erev Shabbat services, I am barely tethered to my chair. I sit there, eyes closed, but everything else is highly charged. I am totally into the song: its words and melody, and the feeling it creates in me. My fingers do drum rolls on my knees, my body bounces and sways, I make percussion sounds to emphasize musical beats, I sing along {not well, but I sing along} and my only regret is that I feel too inhibited to get up and move, dance, pantomime playing steel drums. But if you think that my gyrations while seated are a bit too much, I think that the number of people who show what they are feeling during some of the songs that Rebecca or our choir sing are far too little!

On erev Rosh Hashanah, I suggested words that come to mind when people think about Jewish people – smart, sensitive, hyper-sensitive, loyal, loud, paranoid, passionate, kind, and argumentative – but one word that I left off the list is “emotional.” In general, we are not reticent to show our feelings: we laugh, cry, hug, and shout…and I probably left a few out. But when we enter the sanctuary, we check our emotions at the door. This became very apparent to me this past February during our female-led Shir Shabbat service. It gave me the opportunity to sit with you during a service, and to enjoy seeing and hearing women in our congregation lead us in worship and song. I was really struck by the fact that during the upbeat singing led by the fulsome voices of our Adult Choir, there was hardly any motion in the congregation. I’m not suggesting that people lacked emotion, but there was no motion that I could detect that displayed it: no swaying, no foot tapping, no fingers rolls…nothing. So I want you to see the movie ‘Keeping the Faith’ {released in 2000} starring Ben Stiller and Ed Norton: the former is the rabbi of a very large and staid synagogue in Manhattan, and the latter is his friend who is a priest at a nearby Catholic Church. At one point in the service at his synagogue, Rabbi Shram momentarily stops the service in its tracks mid-way through the singing of Ein Keloheinu, and says, “Excuse me. I just have to do this again because it’s really been bugging me. Ein Keloheinu: it’s a joyous song, a prayer about praising God, telling God how much we love Him, or Her, but no matter what I do, I can’t seem to be able to get you folks to sing it with any feeling. I mean, I brought in the band. That didn’t work. I brought in my bongos last week. I think we can all agree that was a backwards step. So this morning, I’ve brought in a little outside help.” And with that, the rear doors of the sanctuary burst open to the accompaniment of joyful, upbeat singing by members of the gospel choir of a neighborhood Harlem church, their members arrayed in robes of purple and gold. The initial reaction in the congregation was shock and bewilderment, but it quickly gave way to foot stomping joy. It was as if the roof had opened, and with the fervent clapping of hands and swaying of bodies, their emotions soared heavenward. I have that feeling when our choir sings. Their voices, their joyful engagement with song and each other uplifts me, and I know that it does you as well…and all you need to do is show it!

So this year, whenever you come to join us in a worship experience – “service” sounds like what someone does for you, rather than what I am encouraging you to do for yourselves – arrive prepared to engage! Move away from the text from time to time, because you should claim personal time and space to let words that move you reach your mind and heart. And when you feel moved, move! A few years ago, as we were all singing at a certain point during Yom Kippur worship, a gentleman in the third row was moving to the melody, his body bending at the waist and then up, and then bending down again, and up. I was so happy to see it! Afterwards, as people were leaving the sanctuary, I went up to him to let him know how delighted I was to see someone finally responding so expressively to the music. He shook his head and told me that his back had stiffened and he was just trying to loosen it up.

That’s a great metaphor for what we need to do. We need to loosen up when we are here. The threefold repetition of the words and melody of the Kol Nidrei gives you time to do that: sway to the beat, be moved by the words. Subtly to be sure, given its message and cadence, but surely a hint at what awaits us if we allow ourselves to cut free from text and move to the music that is in us.

I wish you an easy fast, but store up some energy to go on journeys of the mind, heart and body when we are together tomorrow and throughout the New Year. The worship experience is exactly that: something to be experienced, felt and engaged. In other words, ‘The Beyond, Within.’

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin