Sunday, December 30, 2012

Hocus Pocas, Shortcuts, & Davening

The following in an anonymous submission from a davener:

The nature of prayer is a complicated one, because there is lots of bunk.  For me the philosophy of prayer is quite simple:

Prayer is for us not for God, it impacts our outlook and framework.  By virtue of the change we make on ourselves we can influence how we are cosmically treated.  This is perfectly rational, good prayer is good as an end, not a means.

Therefore, hocus pocus does not work. Iyun Tefilah does not work. Kishuf  (magic) does not work. Prayer on behalf of others does not work. (Although if they ask for prayer on their behalf it may.  The concept of tzadik ben tzadik is that you associate with someone ask for their advice, it too is an end in and of itself.)

There are no shortcuts.  It also explains certain halachot, like necessity for thoughtfulness before wearing tefillin and certain rishonim who argue one should not pray in the improper frame of mind.  Further, the gemara says there are three keys that God maintains, the key to parnash, to child rearing and to tchiat hameitim.  These are random events that are totally beyond our control, everything else is in our control.  Rav Schachter tells the story of when he visited the Steipler for a bracha when he and his wife were having difficulty having a child. The Steipler said OK. Then R Schachter asked for a bracha for success in learning, and the Steipler said what on earth can I offer you. Sit and learn and you will be successful, don’t sit and learn and you won’t. This is similar to the gadol offering the “segula” of washing the dishes and making the beds for a good marriage.

Bottom line, humans clamor for shortcuts and are inherently superstitious.  That is the very definition of avodah zara.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Freedom to Pray at/on the Kotel

Some of you may have noticed a rise in the public discourse regarding the Woman of the Wall's monthly push to change the status-quo of prayer sections at the Kotel plaza.  Some people are calling it "a prayer for equality" and the NY Times recently featured the topic and how the Israeli Supreme Court might review the issue.  This is an apolitical blog and seeks to stretch and inspire new thoughts on the topic of tefilla.  To that end, I wanted to share this issue with the readers and note the following parallel.

The argument made by many of the advocates for change regarding the prayer policies at the Kotel is that it is religious discrimination at singular place of religious significance to the Jewish people, not just orthodox Jews.  The Woman of the Wall's homepage features "liberators" with a juxtaposed picture of the 1967 IDF paratroopers with three woman with there tallitot and siddurim. The headlines have noted that woman have been arrested for wearing a tallis - attempting to point to the absurd nature of the current policies.

It is interesting to note that the same population of Jews are not applying the same logic and argument to those who feel that the Israeli police do not let them pray or wear at tallis at holy Jewish spot.  Those who want to pray ON the Kotel, to go up to Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount) are dully checked for any prayer paraphenalia before ascending and watched closely by a police escort to prevent and outward davening (I myself have been up on a field visit and had my benchter taken from my wallet by the police).

Even though a Jerusalem Court ruled this past October that Jews should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount, the Israeli police enforce a Muslim ban on Jewish prayer, "citing security concerns".  Interestingly that this is a similar concern that the Israeli police have regarding changing the status-quo at the Kotel plaza. Indeed Jerusalem religious institutions do not deal well with change (one only has to read about the "Immovable Ladder" outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher) - and I admire these women's determination to push their agenda through civil disobedience, but hope to see some similar expression of legal practicality to equal expressions of tefilla in the same arena.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

This is Your Brain on Prayer

The argument put forth by this Huffington Post piece from October 2012 is that that people who daven have greater brain activity.  Originally aired on the "Through the Wormhole" and narrated by Morgan Freeman, the study pushes the idea that the tefilla experience (even just mediation) causes a neurologically experience that stimulates the brain more so than those who do not daven.  This is good news but not something that I would personally use to motivate my students as I remember a study that argued doing a crossword puzzles daily prevents a person's mental decline with age.

This does remind me of an obscure article I read that argued that the tefillin is used on specific acupuncture points that causes mental clarity.  I will leave it the readers to decide on the usefulness of these studies. (H/T @szberger on the first article).

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Pope Tweets Davening Advice!

If you hadn't heard, Pope Benedict XVI joined the twitter-verse two weeks ago and sent out his first personal tweet recently:

Now I am not sure if it is kosher to follow the Pope, but I do find it fascinating to ponder that this is not only the leader of the Catholic Church and official head of state of Vatican City, but he is impermeable to error (according to the doctrine of Papal Infallibility). It is truly awesome (for a Christian believer) to think that the closest that God could be in the flesh of a human and is live tweeting advice!

But on a serious note regarding tefilla, that the Pope took time to tweet to a busy Mom about finding time to pray I think reflects that this is a top trending issue!

As a teaser, I will lead you to the Holy See's twitter handle to see his own answer to his own tweet. I will humbly write more in the coming days about mindfulness as better strategy to find time to daven.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mumbling Alienu

It may just be me who rushes out of shul early to run to work - but have you noticed that Alienu doesn't get much respect these days?

Sometimes on Shabbat, people are in a pre-kiddush talking frenzy that causes mourners to have some difficulty hearing the cue to start saying kaddish at the end.  At morning services there are people wrapping their gear up and will only half heartily bow to acknowledge thank you "to the Supreme King of Kings".  I guess this post is a confession that I personally fear that I haven't really been giving Alienu the proper attention.  After all, isn't this the same prayer that is one if the pinnacle moments of the Rosh Hashana Mussaf tefilla? As a child, only the chazzan in our shul actually full out prostrated himself during the repetition, but in Israel (and now I have seen other Diaspora congregations) all daveners will get down on the floor to "bow in worship" with their full bodies to this very prayer.

Granted that Jews do not generally bow a lot in tefilla anymore, especially compared to Muslims, and this may have been strongly influenced by Jewish encounters with Christianity, so shouldn't this mini-bow be very important? The only exceptions to the full bowing (proper prostration) are on the High Holy Days and it is interesting that the same tefilla is precisely chosen to conclude and exclamate our daily prayers.  The prayer's message of acceptance of the yoke of heaven, the majesty of God, and use of full animation to make this point seems sometimes distant from the everyday mumbling of Alienu and tip of the head.

Alienu is a special tefilla, so much so that one is required to join in saying it even one happens to be in the room as the congregation gets to it.  I would humbly list it on the top ten of most well known Jewish prayers, partially due to its exposure and universality, and its tune (so well known that I have seen many an agnostic friend heartfully sing the words when visiting a shul for a family event).

What are you thinking of when you say Alienu?  How do you keep the magic focus in your prayers?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Thanksgiving & Chanukah

I know that it is a bit belated to speak about Thanksgiving but I wanted to share this Dvar Torah from Rabbi Akiva Block on the topic of giving thanks and in the spirit of singing Hallel for Chanukah.  I think his point is valid - shouldn't we have this appreciation every day?  My father in law often points out that Rav Soliveitchik taught that we say a mini Hallel each morning in the form of the Psalms 145-150 in the morning seder tefilla.  What are some other ways that you concertize your gratitude?
Thanksgiving is a time when we all come together to be thankful for our many blessings. With family, friends, feast, and football, it is a day of time-honored tradition which warms the hearts and the homes of virtually all who participate. 
It has been nearly 150 years since Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of a Day of Thanksgiving in 1863. Needless to say, the notion of giving thanks is one which was featured prominently in the Jewish tradition long before then. Three times a day, we recite in the Amidah prayer, a blessing of thanksgiving to God: “Modim anachnu lach… al nisecha sheb’chol yom imanu, v’al nifle’otecha v’tovotecha sheb’chol et, erev vavoker v’tzahoraim.” “We thank you, Lord… for your miracles which are with us each and every day, and for your wonders and your goodness which are ever-present, in the evening, the morning and the afternoon…” 
In light of our daily prayers we may be moved to ask, “Isn’t every day Thanksgiving? Why limit thanksgiving to just one day?” 
It is quite fortuitous that Thanksgiving often comes out on the week of the Torah portion of Vayetze. Upon further reflection, this week’s portion provides profound insight on the notion of giving thanks, and offers an opportunity to relate to the holiday with new-found appreciation. The Talmud (Berachot 7b) comments that in the history of the world, no one offered thanks to God until Leah did so, when she named her son Judah, saying, “this time I will thank (odeh) God, and she called him Judah (Genesis 29:35).” 
While the heroism and faith of Leah is unquestioned, thanking God despite her second class status in the house of Jacob, this comment by our sages is nonetheless quite jarring. Are we to believe that none of the greats of the previous generations ever offered thanks to God? Not Adam or Noah? Not Abraham or Sarah, or Isaac or Rebecca? Not even Jacob himself? Certainly they owed a debt of gratitude for all God had done for them. So what was unique about the gratitude of Leah? 
Perhaps Leah brought the concept of thanksgiving to a whole new level. While those before her were thankful, Leah actually concertized that thanks. She showed her gratitude by calling her son by the name Judah, a name whose very meaning is gratitude. In naming her son, she offered a lasting testament to her indebtedness to God, taking the sentiment and doing something about it, making it real. 
In truth, every day is Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, it is of inestimable value to take a day and designate it as a day called Thanksgiving. We are offered the opportunity to concertize our gratitude, to take our feelings of indebtedness that we all have and bring them to the fore. Just as Leah eternalized her gratitude by making it her son’s name, so too we take ours, which we express verbally thrice daily, and devote a day to reflection and expression of our thanks. 
Through the lessons of Leah, may the feelings and emotions of gratitude and Thanksgiving permeate within all of us.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Who Has the Strength to Pray?

I am sharing this private post with you because I sometimes don't have the strength to daven or feel frustrated that I cannot focus enough in my prayer for what is really important.  And then you read something like this from Anna Greenberg's family:  

Anna Greenberg’s cancer has again spread
…this time to her pelvis and liver
…with a re-occurrence in her brain. 
Last Wednesday Anna had brain surgery to remove two tumors.This has been Anna’s sixth surgery since 2011-November-15
…with 27 sessions of radiation YET more to be determined early in the week
…with 12 cycles of chemotherapy AND now into her next WITH several more cycles to follow 
Anna is home from the hospital...fighting this cancer with ANNA-TUDE! Friends have put together a HEALING PRAYER SERVICE for ANNA GREENBERG. If you cannot join us in person, please join us in prayer....

Please daven for Hinda Tzryil bat Channa Temme!

A special prayer for Anna will be made on Sunday, January 15, 7:00 PM (Mountain Time Zone) at the Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort in Tucson, Arizona. Chapters from the Book of Psalms (Tehillim) will be recited and a special Mi Sheberach.  

Here's praying that small miracles will continue to give Anna strength to fight and live beyond this Chanukah. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Art of Davening

In my effort to share a variety of tefilla resources, I wanted to post the following Tefillah Tip (from May 2012) and acknowledge that is part of a program run by Rabbi Ephraim Epstein as part of the Orthodox Union Department of Community Services and their Tefilla Initiative.
To experience meaningful prayer is an art and a skill. There are many different portals towards meaningful prayer. For some, it is the music, the niggunim, which lift their souls and join the hearts and voices of many in unison, to praise and demonstrate gratitude to Hashem. For others, it is the poetry and beauty of the language and expressions in our prayers that inspire attention and reverence to G-d. After years of tefillah study, one of the portals I enter to achieve potent prayer is concentrating on the sources of the verses referenced in our Tefillot
Last week, we explored the verse Mi Kamocha extracted from the Song of the Sea, when our ancestors, together with the entire world cried out in joy ‘Mi Kamocha’ – ‘Who is like You G-d’, girded in holiness and glory. In this Tefillah Tip, I intend to examine the concluding phrase before the blessing of redemption – Baruch Atoh…gaal Yisrael. 
We are taught that our enslavement and dramatic exodus from Egypt is not only the seminal period in the formation of our nation Israel, but also the prototype for all future exiles and redemptions. Therefore, so many of our mitzvot and prayers refer and reflect upon our 210 years in Egypt and our miraculous departure that we reenact each year on Pesach. The mitzvot of tzitzit, tefillin, shema, kiddush, pidyon haben... are all related to our Egyptian exile and exodus. 
The challenge of the prophetic architects of our siddur was not only to invoke our past glory, but to provide genuine palpable hope and faith for Jews throughout the millennia in difficult and trying times as well as in pleasant and joyous times – always keeping it relevant. The way they accomplished this in our tefillah, was to include the verse from Jeremiah 31:10, ‘Veneemar ki fadah Hashem et Yaakov’… As a summation statement it says, ‘G-d will redeem Jacob from an even stronger enemy’ before concluding the blessing Gaal Yisrael –who redeems Israel. Chapter 31 in Jeremiah, tells of the great Exodus of Egypt (like our prayer) and then states that just as G-d redeemed us from Egypt, so too He will redeem us again anew. In 31:3 Jeremiah writes, ‘Evneych Venivneyt Betulat Yisrael ’ – I, G-d, will build a divine Third Temple that will never be destroyed. So in one moment of prayer during Maariv we invoke the euphoria of the splitting of the Red Sea in Egypt 3300 years ago and then fast forward 1000 years to the redemptive prophecy of Jeremiah in Jerusalem in 630 BCE. While praying we literally travel through history and express longing for our destiny.  
It is the usage of a perfect shade of color amid an array of colors that creates its stunning beauty within a painting. The perfectly timed correct chord amid a full concert of flowing music releases the beauty of the entire symphony. So too in our prayers, invoking a specific verse creates the perfect moment to acknowledge our past and future redemption. 
Take Home Tip:
When we notice in our prayers an array of verses from disparate sources let’s consider why they specifically have been inserted together. This will lend new meaning to our prayers.
I think as educators, you hope to teach and appreciation and knowledge for the depth of of history held within the binding of a siddur.  I am eager for more resources and ones that are active, so if you do know of any please feel free to email us at

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Happy Chanukah!

May this be a year, where our prayers thanking Hashem for miracles, redemption, mighty deeds, salvation, and wonders which occurred - בימים ההם בזמן הזה -  in those days and for today - be fulfilled.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Purpose of Prayer?!

I was travelling last week and found myself reading a copy of Jewish Action, not my usual periodical but a good read nonetheless.  As I was thirsty for information I really read every page, including the letters and found this interesting tefilla gem:

I was quite disturbed by the message conveyed in the article “How Was Your Davening?” (fall 2012). The author states that the only criterion by which to rate his davening is to see whether or not his prayers were answered. This is a gross misunderstanding of the purpose of our davening. 
We do not provide a laundry list of requests to God, and then sit back to see if we receive them. The purpose of davening is to improve our relationship with the Borei Olam and to grow spiritually. On Rosh Hashanah especially, the davening is not about requests. It is about declaring God to be our King. Of course we ask Him to provide us with our needs in order to serve Him properly, but emunah implies having faith that God alone knows what is best for us. If He does not “do as we ask,” then we must believe that what we asked for wasn’t in our best interests. 
Donna Keilson
Lawrence, New York
Steve Lipman, the author, replied here and raised a tremendous point about evaluating tefilla:
A more objective, admittedly external, way of evaluating one’s davening is to see if God granted any of the requests asked of Him. If God responded “no” to every single request, then perhaps one is doing something wrong.

That is some serious food for thought and an interesting pedagogical approach to teach our students. What do you think? 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Guest Post: Davening is Tough

So we all know davening is a tough discipline.

But one of the many nuggets of motivation that I find super validating is found in the davening itself.  It is a small line that we utter several times a day. 

Just before we begin the Amida we say 6 words.  Often these words are said without focus on what their meaning is.

The words are "Ado-ai siftai tiftach u'fi yagid t'helaticha". 

אֲדֹנָי שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ

I like to roughly translate them as, "G-d, help! Open my mouth so that I can do this prayer stuff."

To me, these words seem to validate the reality that even the tefillot themselves acknowledge that it is tough to pray.  And so, we pray that G-d will help us through the act of prayer!  And then we dive into the Amida, hoping, with G'd's help, our prayer experience is meaning infused.

WILD, huh?!

When we say these words,  G-d seems to become not only the one we direct our tefila TOWARD, but also, G-d becomes an ACTIVE PARTNER in the act of davening itself.

Don't know about you, but I think that's cool.

Rachel Goldberg was born and raised in Chicago and now lives with her family in Israel. Rachel's teaching experience includes Judaic Studies at the Oakland Hebrew Day School, the Endangered Spirits program, she has lectured for Hebrew University's Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, WUJS, and recently wrote and published an awesome curriculum on Jewish Identity for Birthright groups. She is one of the finest Jewish role models and informal educators that I have met.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Children's Siddur to Buy or Not to Buy

So I have small children and my wife and I are trying to educate them to be connected to tefilla.  We started with the basic one used in our shul:
It has its advantages and disadvantages - one disadvantage being that it doesn't have "Ashrei" - one of the most popular parts of tefilla.  Another disadvantage is that the spine is very thin and won't survive intensive prayer nor play davening. Meanwhile the graphics are good and my kids love to use it (while it lasts).

Koren Publishers came out last year with a more developed version of a children's siddur.
Seems to me like similar graphics and approach to tefilla, but with some more structure and meat to the siddur.

Today I came across what I must think is the worst siddur that I have come across yet, and that is saying much considering the two dimensional nature of Artscroll publishing.

Apparently Dudu's Fisher's siddur comes with an CD (featured above - same cover on the siddur) and lots of spirit and excitement. I am in some very weird way embrassed by this siddur and its efforts to solely teach the peformance of the prayers without much mention of a self-reflective or mediatiive dimension.  Indded my frustration may stem from my more exclusive focus on teenagers and adult tefilla experiences, but oh how I loathe that this approach is exclusivley pushed as if prayer is a team sport!

Of relevance is Daniel Rose's query in today's Lookjed in which he is reseraching about children's siddurim:
I am doing some initial research into Jewish Day School Siddur use. I am interested in understanding what a school looks for in a siddur for grades 1-4 (ages 6-10). Which siddur do use in your school in these grades? In your school is the siddur primarily used for its text (to learn the tefillot) or do you (or do you think you would like to) use a school siddur as a teaching resource for teaching tefilla? What do you/would you teach from the siddur (Reading? Tefilla skills? Hilchot tefilla? Tefilla themes and ideas?) Does the siddur you use (or would you like it to) come as part of a curriculum with a teacher's resource packet/booklet?
Any feedback you could give is gratefully received (
I encourage you to share your expreinces of what your kids or students may be using to daven and hope that it will benefit other parents and teachers.  And if you are in the process of writing or publishing a new children's siddur, let us know!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tefilla Question of the Year

My seven year old son asked the following question tonight, right before bedtime:
I know that there is a 'song of the day' for each of the days of the week in our siddur, but why isn't there different davening for each day - why do we daven the same thing each day? 
Good questions - any good answers out there?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Guest Post: Chief Rabbi Sacks - Encountering God

Encountering God - Yayetze
24 November 2012 - 10 Kislev 5773

It is one of the great visions of the Torah. Jacob, alone at night, fleeing from the wrath of Esau, lies down to rest, and sees not a nightmare of fear but an epiphany:
He came to a certain place [vayifga bamakom] and stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream. He saw a ladder resting on the earth, with its top reaching heaven. G-d’s angels were going up and down on it. There above it stood G-d . . .
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “G-d is truly in this place, but I did not know it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of G-d; this is the gate of heaven.” (28:11-17)

On the basis of this passage the sages said that “Jacob instituted the evening prayer.” The inference is based on the word vayifga which can mean not only, “he came to, encountered, happened upon” but also “he prayed, entreated, pleaded” as in Jeremiah 7: 16, “Neither lift up cry nor prayer for them nor make intercession to Me [ve-al tifga bi].”

The sages also understood the word bamakom, “the place” to mean “G-d” (the “place” of the universe). Thus Jacob completed the cycle of daily prayers. Abraham instituted shacharit, the morning prayer, Isaac minchah, the afternoon prayer, and Jacob arvit, the prayer of nighttimes.

This is a striking idea. Though each of the weekday prayers is identical in wording, each bears the character of one of the patriarchs. Abraham represents morning. He is the initiator, the one who introduced a new religious consciousness to the world. With him a day begins. Isaac represents afternoon. There is nothing new about Isaac – no major transition from darkness to light or light to darkness. Many of the incidents in Isaac’s life recapitulate those of his father. Famine forces him, as it did Abraham, to go to the land of the Philistines. He re-digs his father’s wells. Isaac’s is the quiet heroism of continuity. He is a link in the chain of the covenant. He joins one generation to the next. He introduces nothing new into the life of faith, but his life has its own nobility. Isaac is steadfastness, loyalty, the determination to continue. Jacob represents night. He is the man of fear and flight, the man who wrestles with G-d, with others and with himself. Jacob is one who knows the darkness of this world.

There is, however, a difficulty with the idea that Jacob introduced the evening prayer. In a famous episode in the Talmud, Rabbi Joshua takes the view that, unlike shacharit or minchah, the evening prayer is not obligatory (though, as the commentators note, it has become obligatory through the acceptance of generations of Jews). Why, if it was instituted by Jacob, was it not held to carry the same obligation as the prayers of Abraham and Isaac? Tradition offers three answers.

The first is that the view that arvit is non-obligatory according to those who hold that our daily prayers are based, not on the patriarchs but on the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple. There was a morning and afternoon offering but no evening sacrifice. The two views differ precisely on this, that for those who trace prayer to sacrifice, the evening prayer is voluntary, whereas for those who base it on the patriarchs, it is obligatory.

The second is that there is a law that those on a journey (and for three days thereafter) are exempt from prayer. In the days when journeys were hazardous – when travellers were in constant fear of attack by raiders – it was impossible to concentrate. Prayer requires concentration (kavanah). Therefore Jacob was exempt from prayer, and offered up his entreaty not as an obligation but as a voluntary act – and so it remained.

The third is that there is a tradition that, as Jacob was travelling, “the sun set suddenly” – not at its normal time. Jacob had intended to say the afternoon prayer, but found, to his surprise, that night had fallen. Arvit did not become an obligation, since Jacob had not meant to say an evening prayer at all.

There is, however, a more profound explanation. A different linguistic construction is used for each of the three occasions that the sages saw as the basis of prayer. Abraham “rose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before G-d” (19:27). Isaac “went out to meditate [lasuach] in the field towards evening” (24:63). Jacob “met, encountered, came across” G-d [vayifga bamakom]. These are different kinds of religious experience.

Abraham initiated the quest for G-d. He was a creative religious personality – the father of all those who set out on a journey of the spirit to an unknown destination, armed only with the trust that those who seek, find. Abraham sought G-d before G-d sought him.

Isaac’s prayer is described as a sichah, literally, a conversation or dialogue. There are two parties to a dialogue – one who speaks and one who listens, and having listened, responds. Isaac represents the religious experience as conversation between the word of G-d and the word of mankind.

Jacob’s prayer is very different. He does not initiate it. His thoughts are elsewhere – on Esau from whom he is escaping, and on Laban to whom he is travelling. Into this troubled mind comes a vision of G-d and the angels and a stairway connecting earth and heaven. He has done nothing to prepare for it. It is unexpected. Jacob literally “encounters” G-d as we can sometimes encounter a familiar face among a crowd of strangers. This is a meeting brought about by G-d, not man. That is why Jacob’s prayer could not be made the basis of a regular obligation. None of us knows when the presence of G-d will suddenly intrude into our lives.

There is an element of the religious life that is beyond conscious control. It comes out of nowhere, when we are least expecting it. If Abraham represents our journey towards G-d, and Isaac our dialogue with G-d, Jacob signifies G-d’s encounter with us – unplanned, unscheduled, unexpected; the vision, the voice, the call we can never know in advance but which leaves us transformed. As for Jacob so for us, it feels as if we are waking from a sleep and realising as if for the first time that “G-d was in this place and I did not know it.” The place has not changed, but we have. Such an experience can never be made the subject of an obligation. It is not something we do. It is something that happens to us. Vayfiga bamakom means that, thinking of other things, we find that we have walked into the presence of G-d.

Such experiences take place, literally or metaphorically, at night. They happen when we are alone, afraid, vulnerable, close to despair. It is then that, when we least expect it, we can find our lives flooded by the radiance of the divine. Suddenly, with a certainty that is unmistakable, we know that we are not alone, that G-d is there and has been all along but that we were too preoccupied by our own concerns to notice Him. That is how Jacob found G-d – not by his own efforts, like Abraham; not through continuous dialogue, like Isaac; but in the midst of fear and isolation. Jacob, in flight, trips and falls – and finds he has fallen into the waiting arms of G-d. No one who has had this experience, ever forgets it. “Now I know that You were with me all the time but I was looking elsewhere.”

That was Jacob’s prayer. There are times when we speak and times when we are spoken to. Prayer is not always predictable, a matter of fixed times and daily obligation. It is also an openness, a vulnerability. G-d can take us by surprise, waking us from our sleep, catching us as we fall.

Shabbat Shalom,
This article was published with permission of the Office of the Chief Rabbi.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Prayer and Psalms

I, like many of you, have been a bit preoccupied with headlines and news updates.  With the rise in tension and rocket attacks, I can also say that my kavanah in my tefilot has also improved (a fortunate byproduct of an unfortunate time).  What psalms or prayer are you adding?  One shul suggested 83, 130 and 142.

How are your prayers managing in this time of turmoil?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Guest Post: The Potty Prayer

When I teach youth about prayer or blessings, and how to connect to these potentially abstract ideas, I always share what my favorite prayer is and why.  Initially, when students hear about it they giggle or think I'm actually joking.

When I was a freshman in high school I first heard about 'The Pee Prayer', or 'Asher Yatzar', the prayer said after going to the bathroom.

The text of the prayer is almost mechanical in the way it describes the functioning of the body. The basic gist of the prayer is, 'Thanks G-d!  You created my body with all of its valves, tubes, and plumbing.  If just one of these various parts stopped functioning, even for an hour, it would be impossible for me to exist.'

At 14, I thought, 'Cool! There's even a prayer for peeing!'  And I began saying it diligently every time after I had gone to the bathroom.

Six years later, when I was 20, my favorite uncle, Johnny Goldberg, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Johnny was 46 years old and had three children. His youngest daughter would be celebrating her bat mitzva in just a few short weeks.

I went to say goodbye to him before I left for my sophomore year of college.  All of us (he too), knew his death was imminent.  I sat next to him on his bed and I knew it would be the last conversation with him.  I felt comfortable and curious enough to ask him, 'If you could have one thing right now, what would it be?'

I was sure he would say, 'To live to see Judy's bat mitzva', or 'To feel well',  or 'To have the pain go away.'  But without missing a beat he said, 'I would like to be able to go to the bathroom again.'

He died two days later.

And finally, for the first time, after years of saying the pee prayer, I understood just how miraculous our bodies are. How intricately they function.  And how when they breakdown, just how debilitating and devastating it is.

As unbelievable as it seems, ever since that September afternoon in 1989, I have said Asher Yatzer with more intention, understanding, and appreciation.

One of the many things that I love about connecting to various Brachot is how they can compel us to go through our lives with 'deliberateness'.  Brachot force us to recognize the miraculous in the seemly everyday, routine, and pedestrian.

For 6 years I said the Bracha, and it meant something.  But then the switch was thrown, and the Bracha became illuminated for me - I finally GOT IT.

Which of the Brachot that you often say 'speaks' to you?  Why?  And what does it say?

Rachel Goldberg was born and raised in Chicago and now lives with her family in Israel. Rachel's teaching experience includes Judaic Studies at the Oakland Hebrew Day School, the Endangered Spirits program, she has lectured for Hebrew University's Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, WUJS, and recently wrote and published an awesome curriculum on Jewish Identity for Birthright groups. She is one of the finest Jewish role models and informal educators that I have met.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Prayers & Sacrifices

In light of yesterday's post about prayer and the Temple worship, I wanted to share the Lubavitcher Rebbe speaking (in 1984 and in yiddish) about selfless prayer and the lessons we can learn from biblical sacrifices. Follow this link to watch and listen to the Rebbe's perspective (or at least six minutes of his perspective).

Monday, November 12, 2012

Prayers Have Been Cancelled

The following email was sent to a shul during Hurricane Sandy:
Dear Community,
In light of the deteriorating situation resulting from "Sandy", and based upon the directives issued by local authorities for people to stay home this evening and thereby protect themselves from the teeth of the storm, in my capacity as Posek for our community, I have instructed the shul to cancel tonight's Maariv service. Pikuach Nefesh is a consideration that allows even for Shabbat violation in order to preserve life so that future Shabbatot can be properly observed. It stands to reason that Tefilla B'Tzibbur, even when one has the obligation to say Kaddish, should be governed by a similar consideration. What is of paramount importance is that everyone stay safe and current conditions constitute a real danger to life and limb. May we all get through the next few days so that we can once again resume our normal lives and serve HaShem as we are meant to.
There are two main arguments about the source of the commandment to daven.  One argument links us back to the patriarchs who each is credited with establishing a tefilla - the other approach connects to the practical worship of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  While I am more inspired and perhaps persuaded that the Avot started the davening project, I think that the formulated worship, ritualized practices with codes and dogmas are more powerfully connected to the historical experience of the Temple.  One of the key concepts underlying this service was the tamid offering, that it was perpetually brought regardless of the weather or political conditions, and reflected the community's ideals much more than the individual's personality or situation.

I think that the above email reflects the spirit of davening even if it reflects an interruption of the community's service to Hashem. It also serves as a good reminder that form and function are the ideal combination for a tefilla.  Wishing everyone the best of weather and a speedy return to normal life to those effected by the storm. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Bike and a Prayer

People have many different motivations to pray, but as the saying goes, there are no atheists in a fox hole; so when the going gets tough, the tough start to daven.

Well, that might be most people, but not Yarden Frankel who is not just settling at davening for ill.  I implore you to read the heart wrenching story of Stella and Yarden and their struggles with late stage stomach cancer. I encourage you to donate and to participate in Yarden's amazing voyage to bike from the highest point in Israel to the lowest and then to his home in Neve Daniel and to see how one person becomes a moving prayer.  This is the second time around for treatment and as someone who has participated in a minyan that recited special prayers every weekday for her (and others) behalf, I can admit that when we heard that she was first in remission I cried with immense gratefulness that our hopes and prayers were working.  So Yarden begins his second great ride, for an incredible cause - please help spread the word.

I personally have great admiration for Yarden although never having met him, but think he, riding on his mountain bike down the Jordan Valley, very much embodies the idea that an individual is their own personal prayer - ואני תפילתי - I am my prayer, and hope that our prayers for Stella's health and wellness be received by the Almighty.  And if you around, you can catch the morning minyan that is forming at Almog right be for Yarden makes his climb to Jerusalem.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Do You Write in Your Siddur?

Some people think it is wrong to write in a siddur - sacrilegious was the word I recently heard.  The approach I presume is to treat a siddur like a Torah - we do kiss both and abstain from letting them touch the floor.  I rather think this is one effective way to teach your students how to respect and personalize a prayer book.  Part of the great innovation that the Artscroll siddur brought to the marketplace was incredibly clear (calisthenic) instructions and historical or meaningful notes to gain context. What about personalizing the instruction, to highlight important words or draw focus to themes, motions, or grammar?  Perhaps part of disconnect felt by some young people today at tefillot is a feeling of a it all being scripted and repeated over and over again.

This is my siddur, well worn from daily use over the past 15 years.  I find that each of the marks I made still resonate with me even now and causes me to pause or focus as I scan them. The additions I made were to add to the holiness (kedusha) and context of my personal prayers.

Did you ever write in your siddur?  What did you add?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Tefilla, Resilience and Sandy: Suggestions for Educators

The following is a post by Chana Zweiter, Founding Director of The Rosh PinaMainstreaming Network. She is presently travelling in NY and shares this reflection 

Of all the times to be in NY.  I was there this week during the angry throes of hurricane Sandy.  And I did feel the anger. I watched trees fall into windows and rip out of the earth with sidewalks.  Friends were flooded and lost important and precious items that can never be replaced – memorabilia from parents and photos of kids.

I thank God for that we are all well and were never missing much , even as I wonder and ask Him, “What’s this all about?”

Dr.Aaron Antonofsky, of Ben Gurion University was a noted Israeli physician who focused much of his efforts on helping people to be resilient, overcome challenges in their environment. Our job, he said, was to help individuals/children to develop the inner skills with which “function in the face of changes in themselves and ...their environment.”  There is no one way to respond to what has happened. We need to take the time to reflect on Sandy and not rush to draw conclusions or messages.  But right now, we as family members and educators need to be sure that our children have those inner skills.

A few years ago, Dr. Martin Seligman, leader in the field of Positive Psychology, conducted an empirical study focused on understanding what psychological interventions provide those inner skills .  He and his colleagues examined responses of individuals who were depressed to five exercises. I want to share with you here insights about the following two most effective exercises:

  1. “THREE GOOD THINGS IN LIFE”. Participants were asked to write down three things that went well each day and their causes every night for one week. In addition, they were asked to provide a causal explanation for each good thing.”
  2. “USING SIGNATURE STRENGTHS IN A NEW WAY.” Participants were asked to take our inventory of character strengths online at and to receive individualized feedback about their top five (“signature”) strengths (Peterson et al., 2005a). They were then asked to use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week.”
The study required the participants to complete the exercise for one week, but some continued for six months or longer. They attributed that to the fact the participants who continued to benefit from the exercises did so because “these two interventions involve skills that improve with practice, that are fun, and that thus are self-maintaining.”

Much has been said about the power of tefilla/prayer during this difficult period. I share this in Davenspot because I know that our tefilla provides us with those two exercises, we just need to find them. I suggest that we make daily tefilla more meaningful and connected to our daily lives  immediately,  helping our children to deal with the overwhelming helplessness that Sandy has brought:

  1. The source of “THREE GOOD THINGS IN LIFE” are tefillot such as, Ma tovu, Modeh Ani, Modim Anahnu Lakh, and all the Berachot that we say on an ongoing basis. When you daven/pray tomorrow with your kids, stop before you say Ma tovu and ask them to write three things that are tov, good, in their lives. Ask them to explain why. This exercise can be adapted later on when you ask them to list what they would like to be good and how they can make it happen. Similar activities can be done when reading Modeh Ani – “for what am I grateful – to God, to my parents... “ Guiding the kids in preparing a Grateful Diary in which they record what they are grateful for every day is another exercise that will achieve this focus on what is good, taking away some weight from what is not.
  2.  The source of “USING SIGNATURE STRENGTHS IN A NEW WAY”  can be  found in tefillot/prayers such as the first paragraph of the Amida/Shmone Esrei, which reminds us of Avraham, Yizhak and Yaakov,  forefathers, each of which is noted for a particular characteristic. Conduct a discussion about these characteristics. What were they? What do we learn from them? Then ask the students to make a list of their strengths, how they have used them in the past, and how they can adapt them to meet the immediate needs of the storm.
These are just a sampling of exercises our Ohr Hadash Tefilla Initiative provides. And their benefits are more far reaching than dealing with Sandy.

For more information about the  Ohr Hadash Tefilla Initiative, please write to us at

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Going to a Minyan at a Shelter

This is perhaps one of the more bizarre stories that I have read about the superstorm Sandy, and in none other than Bloomberg Business Week.  I'd personally like to interview Moshe Najjar about his "swinging" tefilla philosophy.

Storm Keeps Long Island Jewish Shelter Short of Men for Prayers
By Peter S. Green on October 29, 2012

Moshe Najjar is having a lonely wait as the South Shore of New York’s Long Island prepares for Hurricane Sandy to arrive. The only Orthodox Jewish man at a specially created Kosher shelter, he is a minyan of one, lacking the rest of the 10-man minimum required for many important prayers.

Evacuated from his home in Cedarhurst, one of the largely Orthodox Five Towns on Long Island’s southern Atlantic coast, Najjar, 47, said today he was pleasantly surprised by the religiously appropriate shelter in the West Hempstead High School, where men and women can bunk separately and Kosher meals are served on paper table cloths.

“I was going to go to a hotel, but right now, the financials are not doing it for me,” Najjar said, wearing a black trench coat and the traditional yarmulke, or skull cap of observant Jews.

“I’m looking for a job; I have some leads,” he said. “Today, tomorrow might not be a good time to be having interviews.”

Officials have ordered a mandatory evacuation of Long Island’s Nassau County coast as Sandy’s winds, combining with a nearly full moon and high tides, are expected to send water surging up to 8 feet deep across the Atlantic Coast and 11 feet or more on the North Shore, from the normally placid Long Island Sound. With 230,000 Jews, the fourth largest Jewish population in the U.S. according to the North American Jewish Data Bank, Nassau County opened the Kosher shelter to encourage people who might not otherwise have a place to stay.

‘Accommodate’ Customs
By midmorning, only 21 people had registered at the center, and Najjar was the only Jewish man. A clutch of elderly women sat chatting in a corner. Several dozen green cots, each with a white Red Cross blanket, stretched across the floor of the school gym.

“We’re trying to accommodate their customs, and the shelter is open to all,” said Susan Dubourg, a Red Cross volunteer managing the shelter.

Not everyone who had come so far appeared to be an observant Jew, she said. With separate sleeping quarters, the shelter can house up to 100 people, and in a crunch could sleep 300 if needed, Dubourg said.
“They are definitely well-prepared here,” said John Rocchetti, 66, an Italian Catholic who grew up in Brooklyn’s predominantly Orthodox Borough Park neighborhood, and was evacuated from his top-floor apartment in the seaside district of Far Rockaway.

Kosher Food
“I live in a Jewish neighborhood, and some of my best friends are Jewish,” he said with a laugh. As a vegetarian, the retired school-bus driver says he likes the Kosher food at the shelter.

The lack of arrivals didn't surprise Chaim Shapiro, a West Hempstead resident who popped in to the shelter to see how he and his nearby synagogue could help.

“The community tends to rally around itself; people open their spare bedrooms to neighbors and family, so I’d guess there will be less than 100 people here,” he said.

“If they get 10 men here, I’ll tell them to bring over the siddurim and the Torah,” he added, referring to prayer books and the scroll of the Old Testament.

When Hurricane Irene hit Long Island last August, Najjar and his then-wife and children didn’t seek out a shelter. “She said, ’Let’s go hide in the basement.’ She did it, but, Baruch Hashem, nothing happened,” he said intoning a Hebrew phrase praising the name of God.

While he follows the Yemenite rite, Najjar welcomed word from Alan Cabelly, a West Hempstead resident who invited him to worship at Young Israel of West Hempstead, an Orthodox synagogue which follows the Ashkenazi traditions of Eastern Europe.

Najjar smiled broadly when he heard there would be enough men for full prayer at the synagogue, a short walk through the wind and rain.

Monday, October 29, 2012

How To Teach Davening So Kids Will Daven

The following is a passage from the national bestseller How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk:

Most of the books on child-rearing tell us that one of our important goals as parents is to help our children separate from us, to help them become independent individuals who will one day be able to function on their own without us. We're urged not to think of our children as little carbon copies of us or extensions of ourselves, but as unique human beings with different temperaments, different tastes, different feelings, different desires, different dreams.   
Yet how are we to help them become separate, independent persons?  By allowing them to do things for themselves, by permitting them to wrestle with their own problems, by letting them learn from their own mistakes.   
Easier said than done.  (p.136)
Are you happy with how your students are davening on their own?  Have you observed them in shul on Shabbat or a holiday?  Perhaps the problem is that they have been encouraging them to daven politely in public and not necessarily prepared them for their separation from an adult led environment?

I know that teachers are not to blame for the lack of davening happening outside of school hours (parents do have a role - at my son's first grade siddur party at his religious school the head rabbi not so subtly encouraged even the parents to take more of an opportunity to use their siddurim as well), but I fear that one of the big problems of the prevalent tefilla pedagogy is that students are not being engaged to do so on their own terms and time. It is indeed easier said than done - but I think that the current model is doing just that - modeling behavior and norms and trying to create carbon copies.  Schools need to be laboratories for children to trained to tackle their present and future spiritual challenges, in their own unique way but within a broad and strong tradition and semi-public atmosphere.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Manifesto

I love a manifesto - the word itself sounds awesome but more so the idea of penning out your ideology and nailing it to a virtual wall, a la Martin Luther as a distinct charm.  The following was posted on the Lookjed Digest and is generating some constructive conversation.   I certainly don't agree with everything here but encourage you read this and join the dialogue.


We’ve hit a wall in our delivery of Jewish Education. We have made great strides in teaching basic Jewish literacy – in explaining Jewish texts, educating the mind, and disseminating information. Jewish educators have excelled at this during the last 25 years.

But preserving the past will not get us to a better future.

The time has come for the next phase of Jewish Education: Personalizing Jewish wisdom. Bringing Jewish wisdom into our hearts and into our lives. We need to allow Jewish wisdom to make us better Jews and transform us into our best selves. We need to allow it to be the force for hearing the unique calling each of us have – in our daily behavior and in the big issues in our lives. This is the key to our future.

25 years ago Jewish knowledge was restricted to a tiny fraternity of rabbis and scholars. The role of Rabbis and educators was to create a literate people. Today, we have witnessed an explosion of access to Jewish information and texts: Israel study programs, Limmud programs, vast online resources, Melton Mini-Schools and adult education classes. People joke about consulting Rabbi Google. Just about everything has been translated. The battle for disseminating and acquiring information about Judaism is over. We have won. We know how to preserve the wisdom of our past. We have succeeded in teaching people to hear other people’s voices: the voices of tradition, the rabbis, and the commentators. The voices of the past.

Educators have become so expert in delivering the voices of the past that they often never discover their own voice. They are a megaphone for what was, and are often afraid to move out of this comfort zone. We’ve become stuck in the success of our scholarship and pedagogy and the question is often – “who knows more voices of the past?”

But today we need more.

Today – it’s not about information – it’s about transformation. 
Today – it’s not about knowledge – it’s about wisdom.  
Today – our educational goal should be not only to preserve our voices of the past, but to enable and encourage our own authentic voices to be heard and to enable personal and spiritual growth. 
Today – most importantly, it’s about the future.

Today, we must ask:

How can we use the explosion of information to teach for transformation? 
How can we bring this mass of Jewish wisdom into our hearts and lives?
How can Jewish education enable us to become better, kinder, more compassionate, idealistic, and authentic Jews? 
How can we use the voices from the past to create a different and better future?

We need not forego our past successes, but we must wake up to the need for a different model of Jewish education. The Jewish world, like the general world, has evolved drastically over the last 25 years.

We must understand that education for transformation is a wholly different paradigm than education for information.

I contend that the goal of religious education should not only be to know how to continue the tradition, but essentially -    in light of the tradition, how can we help our children find and clarify the unique voice of their souls?

A Rabbi recently told me that this approach is completely treif. He said: “Personal authenticity is just the code word for the yetzer hara and self-indulgence.”

I beg to disagree. This is not a narcissistic indulgence. We did not create our uniqueness – God did. We did not create the singular mandate our soul was given to better this world – God did. God gave us particular qualities and a unique life-mission in this world.

It is heresy to not listen to the voice of the soul that God gave us. It is heresy not to clarify our God-given unique purpose in this world. 

And while we – parents, teachers, rabbis, professionals – try to educate our children with the wisdom of our tradition and experience, there is only one voice which can truly help them achieve this goal of fulfilling their God-given uniqueness and purpose in this world. There is only one voice which truly knows them – and it is the voice of their own soul.

I recently visited four elite high schools in the US. Devoted teachers and talented students. I asked the students: “Where in high school do you have an opportunity to personally explore your own unique spiritual path? When do you have the opportunity to listen to your own voice?” The vast majority of them answered clearly and emphatically: “Nowhere. Zero opportunity. We always have to listen. No one is listening to us. No one gives us the opportunity to listen to ourselves. It’s as if they are afraid of it.”

Our past improvements in Jewish education were necessary to preserve Jewish continuity. Now, we must move ahead and make the improvements necessary to create a vibrant Jewish future.

If we want to become a Holy nation, a light unto other nations, then continuity is not enough. Information alone will not transform us into our better selves. To fulfill our destiny and centuries of dreams, we must find the resolve and courage to open the door to the next level of Jewish education…and then walk boldly in.

Aryeh Ben David is the Founder and Director of Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education. Ayeka developed a unique educational approach and curriculum to enable adults to personalize Jewish wisdom and enhance their lives.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Orientation During Prayer

Here is an awesomely long article by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde posted on about the history and meaning behind the direction we daven.  The article is long but is quality reading.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What Not to Do on Your Way To Pray

My grandmother used to suffer from high blood pressure - it runs in the family.  There is a old family legend that one time, she went to see her doctor for a routine check up and the doctor was shocked by the normal, regular read on he BP and was rather puzzled as to what caused the significant drop in tension.  After asking a list of questions about her diet and exercise, the doctor isolated that the only significant change in her routine was that her copy of the New York Times did not arrive at her house that morning.

One of the hardest parts of teaching davening is helping to guide students on how to focus their mind when the room is quiet. When there is a song, it is easy to make noise or hum the tune to feel the moment or the meaning. But when the atmosphere is still, and you have only the thoughts in your head, it can be awfully difficult to quiet the mind. 

One suggestion that I just read about was to be reorient oneself as you prepare to go daven and gain more kavanah.  It is easy to see that before physical exercise you need to stretch and warm up, then is this not also the case for a spiritual workout?  The Rambam in his Laws of Prayer (4:16) asks, "How does one concentrate, and what constitutes proper intentions?  One should empty his heart of all (foreign) thoughts and view himself as if standing in front on of the Shechinah (divine presence).  Therefore, one must settle in a little before the tefilla in order to enable his heart to concentrate, and thereafter pray in peace and supplication."

This follows on the previous post of pausing - the need to really be ready to connect to something on a different level than you normally operate.  There is a minyan at my office for mincha and sometimes I have a hard time joining because I cannot immediately breakaway from the work activity I was doing just previously.  Perhaps this is like having high blood pressure, but you need to remember that there is always a natural way to control one's tension - you just need isolate the primary cause.

Monday, October 22, 2012


In trying to share the best practices for teaching kids how to daven I find that the my constant davening is a great way to experiment.

While in shul this past Shabbat, I wandered across a small Artscroll book Praying with Joy 2.  Now I felt guilty for scanning this book during davening as well as having skipped volume 1.  Nonetheless, this work by Rabbi Daniel Yakov Travis offers daily does of inspiration, midrashim, and laws to help one improve their tefilla.  Interesting enough that the first chapters dealt with pausing and mediation.  I think the idea of pausing really can make in impact in one's tefilla for isn't the entire enterprise of davening a way of pausing life to consider one's needs, wants, and blessings?  By advocating that one pauses before a bracha or the recitation of Gd's name, it pushes the davener to get off the automatic replaying of words and adds a level of forced concentration.  It is harder than you think.  I am having trouble getting a perfect 19 out 19 when I daven!

While on the topic of mediation and training the mind to focus while davening, I wanted to let readers know that I have begun to participate in the Open Heart Project.  I am not usually "into" these kind of things but I thought I would try out this twice weekly email newsletter of content and resources that help share mediation practices.  Let's see how it goes and I am likely to share the best and worst of it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Celebrating Without Shortcuts

There is an interesting halacha (Mishne Torah 8that prohibits using a shul as a shortcut to get to another place - I never really understood why except for kavod hamakom (honor of a place).  However, I think this post by Seth Godin captures a more modern perspective of why this is so.  Although unrelated to tefilla, it reminds me why I daven and teachers, why you teach!


Given how essential it is to every aspect of our life, we spend very little time talking about or celebrating the civilized society we live in.

If civilization is stability, kindness, safety, the arts and a culture that cherishes more than merely winning whatever game is being played, we live in a very special time. There are certainly more people living a civilized life today than ever before in history. (And we still have a long way to go).

Given the opportunity, people almost always move from a place that's less civilized to one that's more civilized. Given the resources, we invest them creating an environment where we can be around people and events that we admire and enjoy. We move to places and cultures where we are trusted and where we are expected to do our share in return.

And yet...

There are always shortcuts available. Sometimes it seems like we should spend less money taking care of others, less time producing beauty, less effort doing the right thing--so we can have more stuff. Sometimes we're encouraged that every man should look out for himself, and that selfishness is at the heart of a productive culture. In the short run, it's tempting indeed to trade in a part of civilized humanity to get a little more for ourselves at the end of the day. And it doesn't work.

We don't need more stuff. We need more civilization. More respect and more dignity. We give up a little and get a lot.

The people who create innovations, jobs, culture and art of all forms have a choice about where and how they do these things. And over and over, they choose to do it in a society that's civilized, surrounded by people who provide them both safety and encouragement. I'm having trouble thinking of a nation (or even a city) that failed because it invested too much in taking care of its people and in creating a educated, civil society.

Your customers and your co-workers might be attracted to a Black Thursday rush for bargains and a dog-eat-dog approach to winning whatever game it is you're offering. But they come back because you respect them and give them a platform to be their best selves.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Which Way to Pray

A great post was published yesterday on by Gil Student titled Pray This Way - I not only encourage you to read this short musing on the direction of our synagogues but to check out the 34 (so far) comments that are 'trending' on the article.

The easy way out for someone unsure about the proper direction is to "direct one's heart" towards the Creator and/or Jerusalem - but what I think the author raises are greater questions about design, tradition, and meaningfulness that cannot be taken for granted upon entering any synagogue.  Now with compass apps for your phones, it is easier than ever to be certain.  What is the cost for questioning assumptions and traditions?  In my humble opinion, it is the method of not making your tefilla 'keva' - regular or fixed.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Were Humans Created to Daven?

There is a fascinating verse in chapter 2 of Genesis 

ה וְכֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה, טֶרֶם יִהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ, וְכָל-עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה, טֶרֶם יִצְמָח:
כִּי לֹא הִמְטִיר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, עַל-הָאָרֶץ, וְאָדָם אַיִן, לַעֲבֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה
No shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground;
No the verse highlights the fact that there is a need for humankind to realize the need to work the land and be partners in the creative nature of the planet.  One friend pointed be to a commentator  Rabbi David Kimhi (the Radak), who noticed a similar piece of language (as do others – Rashbam and the Hizkuni) in chapter 24 where we find Isaac wandering near Beier-lahai-roi on the cusp of meeting his wife for the first time:

סג וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה, לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב; וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִים.
And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, there were camels coming.

Rashi jumps on this verse on Genesis 24:63 to say it is the language of tefilla - and was the perhaps first recorded instance of someone davening mincha.  

I am rather blown away by the idea that in chapter 2, Hashem not only wants man to till the ground, but that the underlying method is for tefilla to move people to act and thus our dependence of rain.  There have been many discussions about why the Torah begins with creation – aside from the obvious, I think it offers the readers a relationship with nature that could be lost otherwise if it was based solely on a covenant of experience or genetics.  Nature is truly what surrounds us and while the Torah and Judaism present a matrix for which we can comprehend the world, tefilla is our language which we can really experience it.  For me, this may be even what we were created to do – to daven for rain and make sure that the cycles of nature are working. 

One final point, now that we have begun to ask for rain please bear in mind that for all that the meteorologist and weather can predict the weather – they still can’t really tell us why it rains and when.  I wish I could be as wrong in my job as the local weather people and still get a paycheck!  Let me stick to the davening.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Direct Method for 5773

Rabbi Dr. Elie Munk, author of The World of Prayer, states the following in his preface:
Vague philosophizing about the nature and idea, origin and form of expression of the prayers is of little help.  A more direct method of approach is required.  Whoever has succeeded in penetrating the external shell of the formal prayer to its innermost core will comprehend the world of thought and feeling hidden deep in its central sphere. 
As we begin a new year, may this be the focus of our efforts, research and prayers - to find clear, direct pedagogical techniques that will create greater access to the innermost core of tefilla.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Magnet to the Torah?

A reader of the blog pointed out an interesting shul phenomenon, one that I think I was narrowly not paying much attention to before.

Whenever the Torah is taken out of the ark- have you noticed that some people move forward to the front of the shul to kiss the Torah?  In some shuls the children swarm the front.  In other shuls people wait for the Torah to pass by their aisle and might extend a fringe or a hand.  All of these are gestures to show how much we cherish the written Torah and that it is a central in our lives.

But have noticed that sometimes, people are just busy talking or to tired to move down the aisle or out of their way to acknowledge the Torah?  Isn't this part of the element of neilla on Yom Kippur, that the ark is opened and that we try to stand at attention at this most holy and propitious time?  Perhaps I am feeling frustrated by the gentleman who I shared a minyan with last week and sat through neilla reading Primo Levi's Survival in Aushwitz but I have since noticed many other shuls were there is a malaise about the removal or returning of the scrolls and I think this is sad.  Further I think there is a certain correlation between shuls with less active physical movement at the opening of the ark sequence to the shul's overall tefilla satisfaction level.  As a parent and educator I very much feel that the small actions and  messages we send are expressions of core values - and one of the core values of Judaism (debate however you may on how to interpret it) is the Torah.  "It is a a Tree of Life for those hold fast to it and all who cling to it find happiness"  - so, what can we do to motivate our fellow congregants to start holding fast and magnetizing their tefilla?

I can tell you this, the shuls that I do visit where davners are moving to the Torah have been places that I would rank as some of my best tefilla experiences.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

I Can't Believe I Missed This...

Actually, I heard about the "worldwide call to prayer for Mosiach" happening around at 5 PM on September 23rd, but I thought it was a joke.  Turns out, I missed 2 million Jews davening at the same time:

I am hungry for more information about the organizers, All Jews As One and can't find much.  Much of the writing smacks of something that I wouldn't want to associate with, see some of the comments on facebook (and I am all for Jewish unity).  Sadly I think these efforts do not really help the professional development of davening for young people - as Mosiach hasn't come since the event and the (just) 35 word prayer is all about Mosiach only. Don't get me wrong, I am for brevity, but this is just overly simplistic fluff. Isn't this notion stealing from the idea of what Yom Kippur is all about?  Most Jews around the world stopping to pause, not at the same moment, but on the same day, united in fast and tefillot?  (full disclosure: I couldn't make it to the end of the video - it was that bad for me).

I am open to other perspectives on this initiative, especially from someone who participated.  But please get back to me before Mosiach comes, because once s/he does arrive, I am pretty confident that I will be shutting down this blog.

Friday, September 28, 2012


A nice quote H/T to @jefferygoldberg and Erica Brown:  "Rabbi Nahman: 'If you are not going to be better tomorrow than today, then what need have you for tomorrow?'  Fast. Pray. Change. Tomorrow."

Monday, September 24, 2012

High Holiday Seats at One Shul

Have you been to One Shul - no fees or dues necessary?   I am fascinated that people connect this way to one another to pray.  While I may like the challenge of summarizing my tefilla into 140 characters or less, I think I am just old fashioned and need a seat in IRL shul.  Hoping that wherever you pray, that it goes well for you.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Who is to Blame?

Please read this article by Devora Meyers Shuls Out for Rosh Hashana.

There is much to this piece, in its honest expression of a common experience for many shul goers, regardless of the style of synagogue they attend.  But while I like Meyers' question, "So what’s the difference between the intellectual discussion that excites me and the prayers that bore me to distraction?" I think her answer is meek.

Let me be clear that I think her answer is correct for her, argued well, and again I add the adjective honest; However, I am starkly reminded of Harold Kushner approach, "What's lacking in you?"

Are we now so self absorbed that we have to always have it our way and that we cannot strive for a communal forum? (do not mistake this as quest for an objective or uniform religious forum).  I get the frustration for prayer in general but for the 3-timers (those that come only three times a year: 2 for Rosh Hashana and once for Yom Kippur) can we justify the opt out?  Great, your bored, the service is long and its not your style - what else can the institutions, teachers, leaders and rabbis do to engage those that don't want what's being served in most tefillot...... It is a good question to ask for every classroom teacher - how do we help nurture not only individuals, but help those individuals share and join into a community of learners and shearers?

I want to end with a quote from Rav Kook from Ein Eyah:
In order to lead human beings on the path of continual improvement, G-d implanted within the human soul the incessant drive to always seek more..."
Here's hoping you have a positive shul experience this week.  

Guest Blog: Making out with G-d

The following article was published at The Times of Israel by blogger Sarah Zadok who is a Jewish educator, a childbirth professional and a freelance writer.  This is a great reflection on how and when can approach your own personal tefilla.  


I learned early on that prayer is primarily about communication. l learned this first from watching Harold and Maude, then years later in a Torah class. For the most part my M.O. as far as prayer is concerned has been to simply talk to G-d, kind of like I would to a girlfriend – only slightly more reverent.  Also with a bunch of young’uns in tow it has been way more convenient to dial-up wireless, than to show up in a house of prayer for a word.

I’m big on the shoot-from-the-hip, “G-d, please let them make the bus” “Bring her fever down now” and “Wow, thanks for that” kind of pray-er. Kind of Rabbi Nachman style, only shorter and not in a forest.

It’s not that I never pick up a prayer book. I do. It’s just that long, organized prayers, like the High Holiday variety tend to rouse the spiritual ADD in me. I got to thinking about that this past Rosh Hashana, while I was at home busy with all manner of domestic preparation. I could have been at shul with my husband and kids, but I was futzing with honey dishes instead, and as I did, a curious little notion surfaced…

I’m not not doing the Rosh Hashana service because I have to be busy with food prep… I’m not praying because I don’t want to.

Prayer is an intimate experience, like kissing on the lips and I’m not always in the mood to take that step with G-d.

Sometimes I want to sit with my arms folded hard in front of my chest, and wait for Him to woo me.
After the rocket fire we’ve endured, the soldiers and citizens we’ve lost to terror, the tears, blood and sweat that we endure – daily – to live in our land…  illness, pain, death, both personal and global… I want Him outside my bedroom window with a boom box playing Peter Gabriel.

So instead of a deep soul-baring session, I pulled a slip-out-the-back-Jack, spiritual version of “I’ve got a headache” and got busy peeling pomegranates and arranging fresh dates on the table.

It’s a justified stance, but as I watched the candles flicker beyond the table, I allowed my eyes to adjust to a wider lens, and a more generous perspective began to take hold.

In spite of my slapdash indifference towards G-d– my candles are still lit, the table is set, and I’m still thinking about Him. We have a relationship.

I don’t always appreciate the way He pulls rank. I have very little understanding about why He does what He does, but in spite of that, I’m in this for the long haul. I continue to ask impossible questions, and push for impossible answers, and search for meaning in the hot mess. I’ve learned enough from my earthly relationships to know that there is more to making it work than what I want, what I deserve and what I think I see.

Hey, it’s not always soft and fuzzy, or even screen-worthy, but it’s real, and it’s fertile ground for some steamy stuff.

You know how Jews attend Rosh Hashana and Yon Kippur services more than any other time in the year? (Ever heard of Purim people? Waaay more fun). That kind of attendance doesn’t happen because we’re looking for a soul-loofah, or because of the nostalgic melodies, or because Mom says “we have to.” That may be part of it, but mostly, we go because regardless of how disappointing our lover may be, we still have a basic human need for love and connection. It’s no small thing that after 5773 years, with all the legitimate reasons we have to be mad, and sad and broken, we (a lot of us… maybe even enough of us) still show up. 

We continue to dialog, even when we don’t want to.

That’s what lovers do – we push and pull at each others hearts until we feel something deep and honest.  That’s what a relationship is.

Even in our pain and grief, when it seems that there is very little to be grateful for… even when we’re mad at Him, He still turns out fabulous sunsets, really good mangos, and allows us to read self-indulgent op-eds if we so choose. When I’m really being honest with myself, I see that even when I don’t want Him to, He shows up all the time, arms wide open, ready to take me as I am.

And, at the end of each day, whatever my mood may be, I’d rather go to sleep at night giving G-d a lack-luster peck on the cheek than walk out of the house all together.