During my Rosh Hashanah welcome, I shared an idea that was inspired by a reading by Rabbi James Diamond.
He points out that the word ‘High’ in High Holy Days can have different meanings. For some, especially those who might have a hard time with the conventional and sometimes archaic prayers, the ‘High’ is more of a “Hi,” where the social focus is what brings meaning into their lives – re-connecting with friends, sitting with other Jews, and being with family. For others, the familiar and unfamiliar prayers, the music and sermon are spiritually uplifting and carry them to a ‘higher’ place.
Clergy often struggle with the balance of ‘performance’ vs. ‘prayer’. People comment on a regular basis, “Your version of ‘pick-a-prayer’ was the best you’ve done yet” or “ You should be on Broadway.” While I am flattered by these comments, I struggle all the time between trying to be a pray-er (one who strives to pray) and trying to sing as beautifully as possible (performer). It has taken me years to be able to both lead a service and find a way to myself pray. Sometimes I feel truly connected for only a few moments in a service, and sometimes I am able to express my innermost thoughts throughout. In those rare moments when I realize I am no longer singing, but rather praying, my voice and my soul soar. These moments are poignant. However, I still struggle with the question of what is prayer. I know that when I find moments of release, relief or pure gratitude, I am praying. How I get to it depends on a number of things: am I on the bimah singing with my heart and soul, am I taking a walk through the woods breathing in the beauty that surrounds me, am I having a connected conversation with someone who is ill. I often wonder if other people struggle as I do, to find ways to connect through prayer.
I am currently reading a book titled, Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do about It by Rabbi Mike Comins. This book is meant to aid people on their spiritual quest. It explores the obstacles of prayer, including the idea that many liberal Jews have trouble with an all-powerful, all-knowing God; the fact that the prayers are in Hebrew, a language which relatively few people know; and, perhaps most interesting, that most people do not have a solid grasp of the concept of prayer. The book aims to help us understand the spiritual aspects of prayer, it gives advice for cultivating our own personal prayer, and it gives ideas for building prayer practices as we learn to embrace our prayerbook.
As I looked out from the bimah upon the hundreds of faces during the HH Day services, I wondered to what degree, if any, people felt prayerful. I wondered if they struggled as I do, yearning for something more, but not always knowing how to get there. I am grateful for the moments when I do feel prayerful, when my heart and soul open up to God. Even if it is only a moment, I feel more conscious, I feel more aware, and I feel a part of something much larger than me.
I encourage you to read this book if you too, are looking to develop your own personal prayer voice. In the words of Rabbi Comins, “Becoming a prayer-person is not about making life more complex and convoluted. It is about slowing down and taking responsibility for what only we can really guide – our inner lives.”
Cantor Tracey Scher