Thursday, October 27, 2011

Guest Post: The Power of Praying Amid ‘Schnorers’

By: Yehoshua Looks (Originally Published in Haaretz 17:58 on October 19, 2011)

The kotel, the Western Wall, is one of our holiest sites. It is often visitors’ first destination upon arrival in Jerusalem, even before checking into a hotel. Since the destruction of our Temple by the Romans, almost 2000 years ago, the kotel is where we feel closest to the Divine Presence, pouring out our hearts in prayer.

Yet, at the most private of moments, we often find our concentration broken by a hand thrust in our faces, demanding money. How can one deal with such an interruption when immersed in prayer?

My wife, three children and I arrived in Israel fifteen years ago. After a year of visiting the kotel fairly regularly, my trips to the holy wall became increasingly infrequent until I was going less often than a tourist.

My Friday mornings were open, so I decided to start a weekly routine of davening neitz, a Talmudic tradition of Chasidim who would arrive an hour before sunrise to prepare themselves to pray the Amidah prayer as the sun came up.

I found a very special minyan (prayer group) that gathers in the front of the kotel next to the divide separating the men’s and women’s sections. The minyan is led by Rav Yohanan Weingarten. He took over the minyan from his father of blessed memory, Rav Yisrael Weingarten, whose recitation of the Shema was a transcendent experience I shall never forget.

My kotel prayers were imbued with an unprecedented level of concentration, inspired by the place and time. However, my focus was often broken by regular interruptions from local schnorers. Ignoring them wasn’t an option, and getting annoyed was certainly not befitting of the holy place.

I had no choice but to accommodate them, a decision that turned out to be more beneficial than I ever could have imagined.

Offering tzedaka, which is often mistranslated as meaning charity, is by definition, righteousness, a benefit more for the giver than the receiver. Maimonodes, in his “Laws of Tzedaka”, prescribes giving multiple small gifts instead of a single large one because it accustoms a person to giving, in emulation of the Creator.

I began collecting half shekel coins for Friday morning. Upon arrival at the kotel, I carefully lay out a stack of them on the table by my regular spot of prayer.

Week in, week out, the regular group comes to collect tzedaka. I now recognize each of them, and in the brief encounter of passing coin to palm we connect, grateful for that moment.

Some give me a blessing, while others give myrtle, mint and sage, my kotel spices that I use for the Havdala prayer after Shabbat.

Prayer is about relationship, and my small acts of tzedaka are a constant reminder of how fortunate I am and how much the Creator has provided me.

Tzedaka has become an essential part of my kotel experience; It is incorporated into my prayer and as I pass the coin over to a needy open palm, my concentration is enhanced by the act of giving
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is Managing Director of HaOhel Institutions in Jerusalem, now launching a new venture, Threshold, fostering Jewish Educational Entrepreneurship. This was republished with permission of the author.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hospital Spirituality

If you are looking to reapproach how you daven or want to count the blessings in your life, here is a personal suggestion: visit a hospital - specifically the children's ward. Recently I spent 12 days at a hospital with my son - overlapping Yom Kippur - and it really was an eye opening spiritual experience that has reinvigorated my personal tefilla.

I was amazed by the hospital staff who shared comments and personal stories to lift parents and patients above their day to day struggles. The volunteers who brought sandwiches, toys, balloons, and of course blessing for a speedy recovery where daily reminders that hidden angels walk among us. The most amazing story, in my humble opinion, was the woman we met who spent 3 days over Rosh Hashanah watching a newborn baby. She was not this baby's parent, family, nor guardian. Sadly the birth mother abandoned the baby (who suffers from a heart defect) and the grandmother subsequently took responsibility for this child and the older two siblings and was spending the holiday with the these two toddlers.

This anonymous woman who came to the hospital for 3 days, away from her own family and out of the comfort of her own synagogue, to sit a vigil by a newborn in distress (emotional and physical) is remarkable in her silent service to others. She sat by the baby whispering prayers and kind words - and gave me and my wife tremendous strength to know that there are strong, giving people in this world.

This experience was a giant perspective check for me - and I think this is one of the key's to opening up the powerful experience of prayer. After meeting this woman, I realized that my son, although injured and in pain, was the healthiest kid on the floor; I immediately added prayers for the other families who were in greater need than we. It was one of the most unconventional High Holidays for me - but perhaps our tefillot have become too conventional - and that's why students are so turned off.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Answering Prayers

On October 5th, 75 Jewish Schools from around the world participated in the Tefilla for Gilad program. A little more than a week later, Gilad Shalit walked into the embrace of his parents in Israel. Several educators that I bumped into the over the past week mentioned how their students felt as if their tefilla really made a difference.

While the adults I spoke to were happy with the overall result - Gilad's freedom - several had not considered in their prayers the costs associated to a negotiated deal with warring parties. Everyone, at least I think, has conceptually experimented with the tefilla for a snow day before a test in school or to win the lottery, usually with negative results. My friend's grandmother is known to dutifully pray for a certain political party to lose elections to prevent them from gaining power.

How often does one actually see tangible results to prayer? Again, for many of the educators that I spoke to (after the release) were excited for their students to see the follow up to this special prayer forum. Is tefilla just an abstract exercise, a philosophical statement, or something transformational?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How Long Must We Sing this Song?

I am endlessly fascinated about how people complain and/or brag about when their Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services ended. On the one hand, I sense a competition to see who got home earlier or had a longer break before coming back on Yom Kippur. Others share a sense of pride about how long they sat through the davening - either reflecting their ability to concentrate or high tolerance for pain.

I generally think that as an educator, it is important to teach that for tefilla, less is often more. The more that can be cut out of a service the easier some young people are going to have to focus on that specific experience. It is an incredibly good sign when people ask to daven longer or add more prayers to the dedicated time. Has this ever happened to you that you students have asked for more tefilla?

For morning services, I have cut out a lot of stuff for my students, which helped teach them the 'essential' prayers from ones that were added to prepare or set the mood. One byproduct of such an approach is that it helps students who may be in a rush but want to have a quick prayer experience without compromising tradition or their goal. Another benefit is that helps educate students how the entire tefilla was constructed and what meta-purpose it strives to do for the individual and community.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Is God Listening?

Although I may not always agree with him, I like to follow the writings of Chief Rabbi Lord Dr. Jonathan Sacks as he is one of the most eloquent Jewish philosophers of our day. He has tried an interesting approach to help people get prepared for the High Holy Days, sending out a daily email with some inspiration for tshuva.

I like this quick idea and points to ongoing search for the perfect tefilla:

Bilvavi mishkan evneh. A lovely poem about prayer itself, written by Rabbi Eliezer Azikri, one of the mystics in Tzefat in the late sixteenth century. "In my heart I will build a temple to God's glory. In it I'll built an altar, lit by the fire of Abraham's love, and as a sacrifice, I offer to God my one and only soul."

Prayer is the language of faith, and the prayer book is the map of the Jewish mind. The song we sing to God is the music of the Jewish soul, and somehow in time beyond time and space beyond space, our finitude meets God's infinity and we are brushed by the wings of the Divine presence, the Shekhinah.

Don't expect it to happen every time, or all at once. For there is no human understanding without time and study. Yet it is there in our prayers, written by our ancestors as they strove to find the words that would reach out toward the unsayable like a message transmitted to some distant star.

And there you will find the mystery of Jewish spirituality that turned our ancestors, a tiny and otherwise undistinguished people, into a nation that defied the laws of history and outlasted all the world's great empires. Prayer is the place where speaking meets God's listening, and in ways we will never understand, we are transformed