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.