Category Archives: Prayer

Rosh HaShanah Sermon: What Do I Stand For?: “Some Nights,” “Psalm 27,” and the Metaphors of Conquest or Connection

“What Do I Stand For?”: Some Nights, Psalm 27,
and the Metaphors of Conquest or Connection

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5773
Rabbi Rick Brody

We are at war. The awful violence last week in Libya reminded us all too well of this sobering fact. Even here in our own country, fanaticism of all kinds and an ugly lust for violence has made our world, wherever we are, a very dangerous place. But there’s another war raging even closer to home—within each of us—a war of confusion, of conflicting feelings of purpose, of remorse, of struggle to be better people. It’s a war in which we try to manage the onslaught of responsibilities, concerns, and challenges that threaten our emotional security or a sense of stability in this life. And it is, in many ways, what the coming days are all about.

In the current popular song “Some Nights,” by the band Fun [on p. 2 of the linked lyric page: please click here], the singer cries out in the third stanza, “This is it boys, this is war,” words that I have put in bold-face. But if you notice in the stanza immediately above and below, the essence of the war he’s fighting is the asking of deep questions—which I have also bold-faced. “What do I stand for?” “Who am I?” These are the fundamental questions that lie before us in our own personal war of purpose and meaning.

The military metaphor—army versus army—is one approach to making some sense of the drama of these Days of Awe. But what’s its end point? First of all, we need to remember that it’s a metaphor—that mostly we’re not talking about real violence or real, physical enemies. Yes, we want to vanquish evil, yes we want to stop those who wish to harm us, yes we want to rid the land of vicious beasts—or, more in the spirit of repentance, to tame those beasts, to bring evildoers out of their darkness into the light of righteous living. But we also contend with existential obstacles that are more difficult– less concrete and more pervasive forces in our lives that prevent us from achieving the fulfillment we seek. We concretize them in the metaphor of a military enemy so that we can see them and face them. 

But even inside this metaphor there are limitations. What can we gain from the face-off? I would suggest that seeing ourselves at war can lead us towards goals of—at least—a feeling of victory that comes with vanquishing an enemy, but perhaps also a sense of security or maybe even a new era of peace—though usually real peace requires some radically different action in order to break out of a cycle of violence. Because when we focus on the vanquishing, the defeating of the enemy—as real as the threats might be from the destructive challenges all around us, physical and symbolic—what we’re still left with is the proverbial “zero-sum game.” We stay stuck in a place in which there’s a winner and a loser. And if we’re trying to be the winner, we need to recognize the grave possibility that we can wind up being the loser. The singer in “Some Nights” seems to suggest that his options are that he can “cash in” his bad luck, somehow get something out of his suffering and not give in to complete defeat; or he can call it a draw—no one wins; or, some nights, as he says, “I always win. I always win.” I can’t help but feel that he repeats this proclamation ironically, realizing that this win-lose-or-draw mentality is a sham. He’s stuck, feeling like he’s lost his soul, traded it in for false promises of fleeting satisfaction.

This view of win-lose-or-draw is not only scary or, to use the language of the season, awe-inducing. It’s also potentially toxic. We need to find alternatives to this black-and-white thinking. As the speaker in our song is suggesting, we need to get beyond “the hype,” “break the rules” that keep us stuck in a conflict-addicted mentality, a thinking that pervades our newspapers and other media—the literal “black-and-white” of twitter-style sound-bytes that trade in stark winner-loser modes of seeing the world.

So, the need for an alternative leads into the other metaphor I want to explore, one that also captures a sense of tension and conflict, but that also offers a greater promise than what we get from the military image. The image is one of intimate, personal relationships—between parents and children, between friends, and of course, between romantic lovers. On one level, these relationships aren’t metaphors at all—they’re very real parts of our lives that define so much of our existence, even more than the military model. But they also point to deeper activity that goes on inside each one of us and in our relationship to the Divine.

While any of these deep, personal relationships will necessarily involve disagreement, frustration, anger, and conflict, each one also offers profoundly rich feelings of connection that give our lives meaning. So, sometimes we find ourselves in conflict that feels like a military face-off of global proportions. But—even as we contend with all kinds of manifestations of real enemies that seek to undermine us, be they other people or just the vagaries of life—we also know that the prospect lies before us for not just protecting ourselves but for entering into warm, tender interactions. These interactions enable us to be more fully human and to discover the beauty within our fellow human beings and with the rest of Creation.

Our tradition celebrates both of these approaches to the Days of Awe. Over the course of my sermons this season, I want to look at various images and expressions of these metaphors—in our own sacred texts, in popular songs, and in the wisdom we discover in our own lives. My hope is that we can feel more fully engaged in the drama of the High Holidays in ways that can be relevant to us and that can connect us—not only back to our living heritage but also more deeply to ourselves, to those around us, and to God.

There’s an extremely popular teaching that connects the name for the Hebrew month that we’ve just completed, Elul, to a beautiful and very famous verse from Song of Songs. The verse is “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li”—“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”—and we can make an acronym from those 4 words to spell the word Elul—Aleph Lamed Vav Lamed.

The message is that the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah, to today, is one of courtship and bonding between God and God’s beloved—us. But this isn’t a new relationship—we have some history with God. So the rekindling of connection requires the work of reconciliation, of coming back, of return—which in Hebrew is t’shuvah, the same word we use for repentance and which is one of the main buzz words for the season. Rosh HaShanah begins Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, culminating of course in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—which is a great English word that comes from the idea of “at one”-ment, meaning that’s when the reconciliation is complete, when we’ve fully arrived back into the relationship that we’ve—ideally—been actively seeking throughout the past month and that becomes more and more real to us over the coming days.

Yet, alongside this romantic metaphor—even with the recognition that it’s not all lovey-dovey but rather contains very difficult challenges—we also find much more violent imagery.

The Rabbis of long ago established that starting at the beginning of Elul—through this new month of Tishrei until the end of Sukkot—we would recite, each morning and evening, Psalm 27. [You’ll find the text to this psalm on p. 3 here.] Notice the first few verses, which immediately mention the fear the Psalmist might have in the midst of attack by wicked enemies who mount a war against him, seeking to destroy him, to devour his flesh. The really startling element here is that despite these grave threats, the speaker clings to a faith in God’s protection. Of course, the underlying emotional truth for him could be more a case of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”—that he is so concerned about being alone and vulnerable and forsaken that all he feels he can do is express faith, even without any evidence to support it—an exercise in wishful thinking. How very human. We have no guarantees, but we can adopt an attitude of strength as a matter of choice.

And with this faith in Divine protection, we can develop images of contentment—images that are the polar opposite of the war we feel raging upon us and of the abandonment of loved ones that can add insult to injury: This contentment is captured in the image of dwelling in the presence of Divine shelter, of seeing goodness, of being moved to offer celebratory song as a sacred gift, of shofar blasts that express our unbounded joy.

In fact, I’d like to suggest that in verse 6, where the Psalmist begins imagining these reactions, that he’s describing a shift in his own consciousness. He is very deliberately and concretely moving his focus away from the military threats to a disposition of gratitude. He says, “my head rises over my enemies all around me,” meaning, in my interpretation, “I’ve gotten over them”—my consciousness has transcended a cycle of fear and has entered Divine space, God’s tent, where it now is overcome with joy. Even the shofar, which just as easily could be invoked as a clarion call on the battle field or an alarm of impending doom, is instead introduced as an instrument of expressing gratitude. Our minds and the tools all around us can all be transformed as we step out of harm’s way and into the shelter of the Divine.

But even that confidence is fleeting, because in the very next verse he returns to petitioning God and asking for assurance that he will be safe. His faith, like ours, is a precarious one, subject to the realities of living in a complex world where one wish or request does not magically dispel all fear. It’s an ongoing battle.

And it seems pretty clear as we move towards the end of the Psalm that just as the speaker might fear for his physical life or wellbeing, so too he struggles with a sense of being recognized, accepted, welcome. “Don’t forsake me, don’t abandon me like my parents did…” Like the singer in “Some nights,” he’s scared of being forgotten again, of being “half as liked” despite trying “twice as hard,” of being without friends, of not being understood, of his song being a “swan song”—a dying shofar blast, perhaps—of dying “alone, all dried up in the desert sun.”

I believe the Psalmist and the singer in our pop song both want to be in the presence of love, even though neither of them uses that word. They want not just protection but comfort and connection. These are basic human needs, and when we feel that they’re not being met, we can feel terribly vulnerable, like we’re being attacked by an army.

So, how do we achieve this sense of connection, this feeling of dwelling with the Divine? Obviously, there are no easy answers, and the struggle takes a life-time. But the great wisdom of our tradition, especially as it relates to this time of year, is to ask the big questions of ourselves. To engage in the process of cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of our souls. The Psalmist asks God to point him on the right path, but it’s up to each one of us to use our own faculties to see and hear God’s instruction, to figure out where we’re going, to make sense of the questions “Who am I? What do I stand for?” In the song “Some Nights,” beginning with its introduction [on p. 1 here]—the singer says, “I never look inward, try not to look upward, But some nights I pray a sign is gonna come to me.” The suggestion, as I hear it, is that the hard work is one of inner reflection or of developing an actual relationship with God.

But if you think you do that by literally looking upward or even of thinking and praying for some sign to come, you’re likely to be disappointed. In the Psalm, the request is “Horaini darkecha” show me your path. The root for “Horaini,” show or instruct, is the same one we find in the word Torah, the sum total of all our sacred instruction. There is a path we need to walk in order to get to God’s tent and it takes discipline and commitment. It’s not going to come as a flash from the sky to solve all our problems overnight.

Nor do we have to “stare at the calendar, waiting for catastrophes.” Fear of the worst isn’t the only shofar blast available to us to wake us up out of slumber and remind us to live more meaningful lives. It’s not just that we’re being pursued by our enemies or that we realize we might drown or burn in the coming year—“Who by fire? Who by water?” we ask as a way to scare us into change.

There’s probably a place for that approach in the grand palette of options for jumpstarting renewal and transformation, and we’ll dramatically engage that approach tomorrow morning and on Yom Kippur with “Un’taneh Tokef.” But “Some Nights” and Psalm 27 seem to be suggesting that it might not be the best way, and the psalm definitely presents an alternative of not living in fear but rising above it.

The singer in “Some Nights” is also struggling to find something more than what he currently has. And in some respects he’s gotten more specific than the Psalmist in introducing the big questions about his own place in the world. Of course, he’s still trying to avoid asking these questions, relying on some martyr to take away his worries, but I believe he’s being ironic, that he sees that this isn’t a solution. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” After all, the words that follow are “But I still wake up.” It’s as if he’s saying, “I can’t sleep in blissful contentment—life is not so simple. I do hear the shofar call that stirs me from complacency and I do see ‘your ghost.'”

Is the ghost himself, an image of what he could have been and still could be, the soul he has lost? Is it the fleeting, intangible “You” with a capital Y, the Divine presence that continues to haunt us into asking the essential questions, that draws our attention to what we still don’t know: “What do I stand for?” The key awareness on this first night of the new year is that we are standing, and we’re actively engaged in the search to figure out why.

The Psalmist suggests our search is about walking the Divine path and that the walk will ultimately lead us to God’s presence, where we can live in contentment. But even then, there’s an uneasiness: He wishes to dwell in God’s house all the days of his life but then also wants to visit in the palace of the Eternal. He knows that as much as he’d like to be completely with God always, he’ll need to step out and step back in, making regular return visits that can keep the relationship fresh and renewed.

The singer in “Some Nights” has a similar feeling of a push-and-pull in his relationship. In the Intro, he says, “there are some nights I hold you close, pushing you to hold me.” Pushing someone in a relationship doesn’t usually get the other person to hold you, to pull you back in. We struggle for our own space—“it’s for the best we get our distance” is the sad way “Some Nights” ends. “It’s for the best you didn’t listen. It’s for the best we get our distance.” But we know he wants to be heard and wants to be held. Even as he pushes, he yearns for the loving pull—for presence, for connection. The Psalmist wants the “You” he’s addressing to listen—“Hear my voice!” he calls. He knows he won’t always be in the safety of God’s space, but he wants to be able to keep coming back, wants to have a clear path of return that he can walk.

Perhaps we’ve spent a lot of energy pushing away our loved ones and pushing away the Divine presence in our lives. Perhaps we’re afraid no one will listen, or that those who listen won’t understand us, and that we’ll be left all alone. These are important fears for us to recognize. The beauty of Rosh HaShanah is that, through the holiness of time, we have entered Divine space. We are on a sacred path that can lead us deeper and deeper into the pleasant chambers of God’s presence, into the assurance that we will be heard, we will be understood, we will be held close. Perhaps walking that path begins with the welcoming calls of the shofar that we’ll hear tomorrow, God’s answer that we are free to enter—or perhaps even God’s cry of wishing for our presence. It’s an invitation to arise, to figure out what we stand for—and maybe to just start walking even before we have it all figured out, but to not stop asking the question, as long as asking it doesn’t paralyze us.

Many nights we can feel confused and stuck. “Most nights I don’t know,” the singer laments. This night, our tradition says, on Rosh HaShanah, we can rise—we can stand with the confidence, or at the least the hope, that we are on a journey back towards a loving embrace, a holding, a connection, back to our own soul and into the shelter of an even greater Soul that not only keeps us safe, but that leads us to joyful, shofar-blasting jubilation.

Advertisements

Is Prayer Selfish?

Response to “Is Prayer Selfish?” | Alternet

by Rabbi Rick Brody

Prayer is an exercise in both humility and in strengthening our own capacity to achieve fulfillment.

I dislike the title of this article from Alternet (we can also ask, “Is Breathing Selfish?” no?), and it’s helpful to note that the author, Valerie Tarico, penned the book, “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” because it seems a lot of her own baggage is seeping out in her critique.

I wish Ms. Tarico didn’t spend so much time inveighing against intercessory, “bad prayer” and presenting ridiculous straw-man examples of religious extremists faking the efficacy of such prayer to gullible children. In the middle of the article, she states that “The answer [to why we pray, given the apparent inefficacy of petitionary prayer] is that there is more than one kind of prayer.” But it is not until her 3rd-to-last paragraph where she offers any constructive comments about the importance and possibility of such different prayer as a fundamental part to living fully and deeply:

There is an alternative, another kind of prayer that isn’t about requesting or celebrating special treatment at the hands of an interventionist deity. Instead it is about something within us, about our struggle to live in alignment with our deepest values. In fact it is about resisting the self-serving impulses that drive so many bowed head moments.

I fully affirm the idea that prayer is about articulating — and attempting to live in alignment with — our deepest values. For many of us, that articulation is connected to our yearning for connection with something beyond ourselves. I think there’s a big difference between yearning for the benevolence of a Divine benefactor and falling into the childish, magical thinking that assures us that whatever we want and ask for, we will get. When our articulations take the form of traditional petitions and invoke the imagery of the benefactor, we can and should take the liberty of reminding ourselves that we’re not expecting “direct responses.” Rather, it is the act of asking, of recognizing a degree of our own powerlessness in the face of the enormity of existence — and the act of actively hoping to harness some strength to achieve the alignment we seek — that is the ikar, the essential component to this ancient human activity. It troubles me to no end when those who so cavalierly dismiss religious language out of a humanist impulse seem to lack any faith in our amazing species to be able to think with a degree of sophistication such that we can continue to employ symbolic language, to use words that say much more than their literal meaning.

And even in this endorsement of “good prayer,” I am troubled by Ms. Tarico’s rejection of the centrality of gratitude. She herself, as I quote below, seems to appreciate the way we can joyfully and humbly drink of the gifts of being alive — and I agree with her that much of the bowed-head prayer that proclaims “there but for the grace of God go I” fails to take note of the problematic messages embedded within such statements. But she seems to argue that in general, prayers of gratitude (as well as the petitions that precede the presumed Divine benevolence that yields such gratitude) almost necessarily spiral down into the absurd pettiness of a zero-sum game, whereby because God helped my team win, that means God made your team lose, or because God diverted the hurricane from me, God sent it to you. Our gratitude doesn’t have to include a perfectly rational explanation for “how God works” (if God wanted me to survive my car crash, does that mean God didnwant your friend to survive hers?). If you’re trying to articulate such a coherent theology at a moment of genuine gratitude, you’ve completely missed the point — and are suffering from a much deeper psychic problem of emotional paralysis that, presumably, prayer seeks to address. A lovely counter-example of the purity of gratefulness comes from Adam Frank, at NPR’s “Cosmos and Culture” blog, who states simply and poignantly, as a self-proclaimed atheist, in an entry before Thanksgiving:

I will feel the mystery and be thankful to it, to [my family] and to the world entire.

What else, after all, is there to do?

Ms. Tarico herself goes on, in her final paragraph, to offer a similarly inspiring perspective on a relevant form of prayer:

A prayer may be nothing more than a deep, centering breath; a moment of silence; a thrill of delight; or a surge of love that brings tears to our eyes, reminding us beautifully, painfully, quietly of our small place in the greater whole. In a world with gods or without, in our world today or even a world beyond belief, that is a kind of prayer worth praying.

I just wish she could have arrived at this approach earlier in her article, devoting less energy to railing against the bad forms of prayer.

In addition, while perhaps all prayer needs to include an element of selflessness, it is — as I sarcastically suggested above in my parenthetical comparison to breathing — a crucial aspect of our self-care. Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” To express poetically or passionately our fervent desire to live in good health and to fulfill our potential, with the intention that naming such desires will bring us closer to realizing them — and to offer prayers of gratitude for achieving those realizations — are steps that, while not sufficient to living fully (Hillel’s next question, of course, is “But if I am only for myself, what am I?”), almost necessary come early in the process of building our relationship to the Divine. The author herself suggests breathing — a very selfish act! — as a form of prayer. (But isn’t that taking away oxygen from others who might need it more? Isn’t a zero-sum game?!)

I also wish the author didn’t present (Jewish) Biblical theology in such a reductionistic fashion and without any comment on the evolution of ideas within religious communities. She misses a golden opportunity to describe how the Jewish and Biblical tradition does tell the story, essentially, of “a nubile 17-year-old” being wooed and chosen by a powerful and handsome man — we see this imagery throughout the Prophets and especially in Song of Songs. She also inappropriately conflates Jewish and Christian ideas by introducing promises of immortality into the same sentence that begins by discussing the choosing of a “tribe of wandering herdsmen” (which is, itself, both inaccurate — we can say the Torah depicts the choosing of “one wandering herdsman” or a “tribe of redeemed slaves” — and also possibly a bit demeaning to Jews with its emphasis on a “wanderer” status, which was not the case at all during the First Commonwealth, when much of the Biblical material was likely written).

In Ms. Tarico’s all-too-easy dismissal of the chauvinism inherent in the traditional Jewish morning blessings that thank God “for not making me a gentile, a slave, or a woman,” she neglects to note the almost universal modifying of these blessings in non-Orthodox prayerbooks into positive statements, thanking the Source for “making me a Jew, a free person, and with the Divine imprint.” Also noteworthy is vocal criticism from those within the Orthodox community, particularly an article by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Los Angeles (it appears the original piece that set off the firestorm is no longer online) and other posts that followed.

As the above example should make clear, I don’t believe that all traditional prayers are salvageable. And I recognize that for some people, petitionary prayer is simply not the manner in which they interact with the Divine. For me, such prayers are quite likely very different than what they were to people of long ago. But the basic human need to express our needs and the desire to connect with a Power that can help us meet them are not aspects of the human condition that necessarily hold us back. I believe we ought to own them. Yes, we ought to respond to these human qualities responsibly and intelligently. But they will not go away, so the challenge lies before us to make our prayer life as rich, exciting, and relevant as possible.