The Prayer of Breath, the Breath of Prayer
There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services. Some come to remember loved ones who have passed away. Some come to take the opportunity to actively affirm their Jewish identity. Some come because they find Shabbat worship to be a meaningful way to start a weekend of leisure. Some come to connect with Jewish friends or with the Jewish community as a whole. Perhaps some come because they have nothing better to do on a Friday evening. There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services, but I suspect – indeed, I hope – that perhaps the most common reason is that in one way or another they wish to try to establish some sort of connection with God. At the least, they may view the very act of leaving their home on a Friday evening and making the physical effort to come to the synagogue for prayer as a means of showing God that they care.
To me, the saddest aspect of contemporary American Jewish life is that in most synagogues, like my own synagogue, many of the seats of our sanctuaries remain empty Shabbat after Shabbat after Shabbat. For the empty seats serve as a painful testimony to the fact that most of our people rarely or no longer feel the desire or need to connect with God. They are Jewish. They probably believe in God. But they have little interest in pursuing an active relationship with God, particularly through prayer and worship.
But be that as it may, we cannot force people to want to connect with God; to want to engage God in their lives through prayer. We can only try our best to provide them with the opportunities and the inspiration to do so. The rest is up to them. As the old adage says, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”
However, as for the people who do choose to come to Shabbat worship, to stretch that analogy a little further, they are the horses who have chosen to drink; to drink from the wells of spiritual refreshment and Divine connection which Shabbat worship can offer. It is precisely to these people that every synagogue has a responsibility; the responsibility to assist them – to work with them – in the search to find ways to make their prayers a more effective vehicle for connecting with God.
This past December, I traveled to Washington, D.C. in order to attend the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism. While at that convention, I had many wonderful and meaningful experiences. Among them was a workshop entitled “Making Prayer Real.” It is upon that workshop which I wish to reflect.
First off, I have to tell you that I found the title of that workshop to be odd. “Making Prayer Real” implies that our prayers are not real, and I do not believe that to be the case. I believe that the prayers of any person who takes the effort to come to synagogue on Shabbat are real. They may not be as effective as they could be, but they definitely are real.
That aside, I found the workshop – particularly one aspect of the workshop – to be enlightening. It was somewhat meditative, but it was more than mere meditation. I say “mere meditation” because I believe that while meditation techniques can assist us in prayer, they cannot replace prayer, especially in a Jewish setting. For Jewish prayer is predominantly, though not exclusively, communal, while meditation is almost exclusively, if not exclusively, personal. While there is a place for meditation in Jewish prayer, the greatest power of Jewish prayer is to be found in what we do together as a community of worshipers.
But back to the workshop. At this workshop, one of the presenters – Cantor Ellen Dreskin, with whom I used to serve on faculty at the NFTY National Camp in Warwick, New York – conducted an exercise involving God’s name and breath. As most, if not all of you know, we Jews are not permitted to pronounce the actual name of God. It is a four-letter name composed of the letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, and when we see it in the texts, we say “Adonai” in its stead.
Yet there are many Hebrew words and names that incorporate elements of this name in order to include some sort of connection with God. So, for example, the Hebrew name for Elijah is “Eliyahu.” “Yahu” comes from that four-letter name of God, and the name “Eliyahu” means “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey is my God.” There is also a very well known Hebrew word which also includes an element of God’s four-letter name. That word is “Halleluyah” with “Yah” being the God part. The word means “Let us praise Yah; Let us praise Adonai.”
Yet when you consider “Yah” it is a sound that is made up of nothing but breath – “Yah.” So Cantor Dreskin had us do an exercise. She asked us to take a deep breath and hold it. Hold it as long as we could. And when we finally let it out, we were to let it out with a “Yah.” Dear reader, try that now then do it again. “Yah” – God – is breath, and without the eventual “Yah” – without God – we cannot continue to breathe. When you think about it, God is present in our every breath. Every time we exhale, God is there. For as long as we breathe, God is an integral part of our every moment, both waking and sleeping.
Then she turned our attention to that word: “Halelu-yah – Let us praise Yah.” So we took a deep breath and held it, and then let it out saying “Halelu-yah.” Dear reader, try that then do it again: “Halelu-yah.” With our breath, we are praising God. Our every breath should praise God, for without God, we would have no breath.
There is probably nowhere in Jewish texts in which this is better expressed than in Psalm 150, which is included in the Shabbat morning worship service. For in verse 6 of that psalm it says, “Kol haneshama t’haleil Yah, halelu-Yah! – Every breath praises Yah, so let us praise Yah!” Of course Cantor Dreskin had us sing this verse, but if you cannot sing it, then at least say it: “Kol haneshama – t’haleil Yah, – halelu-Yah!”
This is not just a prayer nor is it just a meditative technique. What it is, is a life perspective; an important spiritual life perspective. For if we want to truly connect with God, we have to honestly come to the realization that God is just not present to us in the sanctuary, but is present to us every day, every hour, every minute of our lives, with every breath we take. God is our constant companion, and every breath – every moment of life – is yet another gift from God; a gift for which we should be grateful. It is only when we begin to view God in this way that we can begin to start to pry open those gates which seem to keep us from God and God from us. The Hasidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, once said, “Where is God? Wherever you let God in!” When we begin to recognize God’s presence in our every breath – that our every breath is a prayer – then we will have begun to let God into our lives.
So if our every breath is a prayer, why come to the synagogue? Why come to services? I once heard a dear friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Stephen Pinsky, give a sermon about prayer. It was back in my New York days. In that sermon he said, “People ask me, ‘Why do I have to come to the synagogue to pray? I can pray in the middle of Central Park.’ To this I respond, ‘If you find yourself in the middle of Central Park then you better pray!’” His point was telling. People say that they can pray anywhere but the fact of the matter is that unless the situation is such that it evokes prayer, they rarely if ever pray. The Shabbat worship service offers us the opportunity to set aside some time for the act of praying; for actively reaching out to God, and opening ourselves up to receive a God who is reaching out to us.
It is not unlike our love for our dear ones. We know we love them. We feel our love for them constantly, but we don’t always express it. We don’t always marry word and deed to intention. We don’t always say to them, “I love you,” nor do we always demonstrate through our deeds the love we hold for them. Yet there are times like birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, which provide us with the opportunities to express in word and deed that which is always in our hearts. So it is with Shabbat and worship. It offers us the opportunity to open our hearts and express to God that which is always there, and perhaps even open our souls and receive God’s reciprocating touch.
Sensing God in our every breath – praising God with our every breath – and praying to God on Shabbat are by no means alternatives but rather they exist in a symbiotic relationship. Our constant experiencing of God in our lives fuels and vitalizes our prayers. It makes them meaningful. It endows them with wings with which to fly to Heaven. And as for our prayers, they give voice – a clear and beautiful voice – to the connection we feel to God with our every breath. They enable us to announce to the world, and most importantly to God, those profound feelings we carry in our hearts. For in the end, prayer is not just a matter of reading words out of a book but rather attaching those words to that which is in our hearts, so that together they can rise to Heaven and draw Heaven to us.
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