Entering the Gates of Prayer

Sermon by Rabbi Jill Rubin on Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5784
September 15, 2023

Sermon Text:

Picture this: a young woman, about 24 years old, sits in a sanctuary in Jerusalem with people singing around her. The sanctuary is relatively modern, but she knows that the area surrounding her is anything but. She is just a few miles from the Old City, from the sites of the First and Second Temples, land that some people believe is the holiest on Earth. It is a place where many feel spiritual, enlightened, connected to their tradition and past. Yet she feels lost and confused, hoping she did not make a huge mistake. 

As you’re probably guessing, this young woman is me, a few days after I arrived in Jerusalem for my first year of rabbinical school. You see, one of the first things we did as a class was pray together. We gathered in the sanctuary, a room which would soon become incredibly familiar and comforting to me, and we joined together in song for Kabbalat Shabbat services. 

The melodies were beautiful, the words were uplifting. And yet, I had a nagging feeling that I was in the wrong place. I looked to my left and to my right, and I saw my new classmates seriously engaged in the act of prayer. Their bodies were in tune with the music and they had a concentration that I had never before seen in services. And here I was, singing along to the words but feeling like a total imposter among the most spiritual people I had ever met. I had so many questions about prayer and my own theological beliefs, And everyone around me seemed to have it all figured out. 

Those first few days in Jerusalem were challenging for me, as I tried to reconcile what I thought rabbinical school would be like versus what it actually was. I wanted to create meaningful and supportive communities, to heal the world through Jewish values, and to sit by someone’s side when they were ill or had lost a loved one. But I was not prepared to be confronted by such challenging theological doubts on the very first day.  

After a few months, however, I was relieved to realize that I was not alone in feeling this way. I opened up to my classmates and realized that many of us were in the same boat. We had so many questions, questions that we had never vocalized before, questions that our rabbis at home had never discussed with us. What was the purpose of prayer, we asked ourselves. Why did we say these words that we weren’t sure we believed? And how could we possibly pretend to know a God who was unknowable? 

This Rosh Hashanah, as we gather together to celebrate the beginning of a new year, I would like to discuss these questions with you. 

I would like to invite you to enter the gates of prayer, which we can translate as Shaaray Tefila, with me. 

At a time when many of us feel untethered from reality, when words like truth and accountability are interpreted in so many different ways, when we’re not sure how we can explain the pain of the world around us, we as Jews can turn to prayer to ground us and connect us to our millenia-old tradition. 

As we enter through Shaaray Tefila together, we may not find all the answers to our questions or the solutions to our worries, but we will explore a new way to relate to prayer:How prayer can give our lives the meaning we are searching for, And how, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, prayer can help us “discover the self in relation to God.”1 

And for those in the congregation for whom “God language” is not accessible, or who are not sure what you believe, That’s ok, too. Judaism does not require you to be certain about a belief in God to engage in prayer. Perhaps you believe in some force larger than yourself, or in the healing power of being in community. Whatever your theology, prayer can be for you. 

If we go back to our ancient texts, we learn that the writers of the Bible and the Talmud wholeheartedly believed that God hears our prayers, and answers them. We learn in tomorrow morning’s haftarah portion, in the book of Samuel, about a young woman named Hannah who desperately wants a child but cannot have one because God has “closed her womb.”2

In a last ditch effort to appeal to God after nothing else has worked, Hannah leaves her home, travels to the Temple in Shiloh, and prays: 

“O Eternal of Hosts,” Hannah cries out, “if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget [me], and if You will grant [me] a male child, I will dedicate him to the Eternal for all the days of his life.”3

The priest of the temple, Eli, sees Hannah’s lips moving, but no sound emerges from her mouth. He ignorantly assumes she is drunk, and unkindly tells her to sober up, that this kind of behavior is not permitted in the Temple of God. Hannah, however, knows the truth. She looks to the priest and tells him how unhappy she has been. She is not drunk! She is simply “pouring out her heart to God,” hoping that God will bless her with a child. And soon after, we learn that God remembered Hannah, and she gives birth to her son, Samuel. 

This story is the first instance in the Bible where we witness a woman praying. And, subsequently, the rabbis of the Talmud lift Hannah up as the quintessential biblical example of prayer. They derive numerous halakhot, Jewish laws, about how we should pray from Hannah’s story.4 She is the example that we should all follow in our prayers, they argue. After all, her prayers are answered; God grants her exactly what she asks for. 

Hannah has always been one of my favorite biblical heroines. Her story is one of a woman who takes agency, she knows what she wants, and she prays so naturally! Rabbi Rachel Timoner beautifully voiced these thoughts in her Rosh Hashanah sermon last year: ”Hannah gave birth to prayer, and Hannah gave birth to a future. When the world was closed to her as a woman, she found a new way. She discerned what she was here to do in the world, made her choice and fought for it.”5

However, even though I love Hannah’s story, I also struggle deeply with the transactional theology that it teaches. Prayer alone does not conquer infertility or cancer or depression. We live in a world of antisemitism, genocide, racism. Bad things happen to good people. 

For the Mets fans out there, we even prayed for a turnaround after the All Star Break. And we know for a fact those prayers weren’t answered.  

All this being said, Whether or not we believe that God hears our prayers and answers them, how can we engage in meaningful prayer in the year 5784? 

First of all, we acknowledge that prayer is multifaceted; there are many ways and reasons to pray. It is not only intellectual, a way of speaking about God, or a way to get what we want in the world, but a practice of the entire body to be in tune with ourselves, our tradition, and a force larger than ourselves. 

As we read in the Book of Psalms, כׇּ֥ל־עַצְמוֹתַ֨י ׀ תֹּאמַרְנָה֮ יְהֹוָ֗ה, All my limbs shall say, “Who is like you, Eternal one?”6 The Psalmist, in his wisdom, knows that when we fully inhabit our bodies in prayer, when we are completely aware of ourselves, we will find new meaning in the act of prayer. We will find that the Divine, or maybe something larger than ourselves, is on the other side. 

Tonight, and throughout these Days of Awe, perhaps we can think about prayer through the lens of our bodies, in four distinct modes: 

tefilat harosh, the prayer of the head, 
tefilat halev, the prayer of the heart, 
tefilat hakol, the prayer of the voice, 
and tefilat haraglayim, the prayer of the feet. 

Head. Heart. Voice. Feet. 

Let’s begin with what I am calling tefilat harosh, prayer of the head.7 

This is the type of prayer that we as Jews are most familiar with, the type of prayer that we expect to experience when we come to synagogue. The words have been laid out for us in prayers books by our ancestors, in what liturgist Rabbi Larry Hoffman calls, “our Jewish diary of the centuries, a collection of prayers composed by generations of those who came before us, as they endeavored to express the meaning of their lives and their relationship to God.”

And we know, because we have experienced it, that this type of prayer can be incredibly moving, and can even inspire us to take action. The Mi Shebeirach prayer, for example, asks God to heal our loved ones who are sick. We share their names aloud in our congregation, but we do not sit around and wait for God to bring peace and recovery to those who are ill. After we pray for them, we visit them in the hospital, we bring them our grandmother’s famous chicken soup, and we call them so they feel less alone. Our prayers inspire us to act, perhaps on God’s behalf, to bring healing into this broken world. 

Tefilat harosh is moving because it is often done in community, when we are surrounded by people with a common history who are saying the exact same words that we are. For example, we cannot say the Kaddish without a minyan of ten Jews, reminding us that we are not alone in the circuitous path of mourning a loved one. 

If we look at the fixed liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, such as Avinu Malkeinu, we see that the prayer is written in the anachnu, or ‘we’, form. 

Avinu Malkeinu, we have strayed and sinned before you. 
Avinu Malkeinu, have compassion on us and our families…
Avinu Malkeinu, answer us with grace, for our deeds are wanting. 
Save us through acts of justice and love.” 

This emphasis on the collective, rather than the individual, reminds us that we are not alone in the messiness of life. It reminds us that we have all missed the mark over the course of the past year, and that we are deserving of grace and love as we make the effort to return to our higher selves. 

And the rabbis teach us that prayer of the head is futile when we do not add the proper kavanah, or intention. We could show up for this service tonight and say every word in our machzor correctly, and yet, when we do not have the proper intention, when we do not focus our hearts on our own processes of repentance and renewal, it is as if we did not pray at all. 

We may not understand every Hebrew word in front of us, but I have come to understand that it doesn’t really matter. It is our kavanah that matters, our intention to start the New Year as the best versions of ourselves, turning back to ourselves and to God. 

Our next mode of prayer is tefilat halev, the prayer of the heart. 

This is the spontaneous prayer in our Biblical stories, the prayer that we learn from Hannah in the book of Samuel. 

Before the siddur was finalized and the Jews turned to prayer as a daily aspect of life, tefilat halev was the dominant type of prayer in Israelite society. Prayer was not a fixed set of liturgy, but a crying out to God from the depths of the heart. And yet, as Jews, I fear that we have become less and less comfortable with tefilat halev.

In a well-known Hasidic tale about this type of prayer, we learn that there was a young shepherd who was unable to recite the Hebrew prayers. The only way in which he worshiped was by making up his own prayers, showing God his love with the words that came to him in the moment. 

One day a wise man who was passing by heard the shepherd praying and shouted at him: “Fool, do not pray like that!” The shepherd asked him, “How should I pray?” Thereupon the wise man taught him the benedictions in order, the recitation of the Shema and the silent prayer, so that from now on he would not say what he was accustomed to saying. 

However, after the wise man left, the shepherd forgot everything he was taught, and he stopped praying altogether. He was even afraid to say what he used to say, because the wise man had told him not to. 

One night the wise man had a dream, and in it he heard a voice: “If you do not tell the shepherd to say what he used to say before, know that misfortune will overtake you, for you have robbed me of one who belongs to the world to come.”

So, the wise man immediately returned to the shepherd, told him what he had dreamed, and asked him to recite the prayer of his heart that he used to say. Let humankind think good thoughts, the story teaches, and let these thoughts be turned to the Holy One, blessed be God.8

How many of us, in our own lives, have been like this shepherd? How many of us have been afraid to utter the thoughts in our heads and the words of our hearts, for fear that they are not the right ones? 

The beauty of tefilat halev is that it frees us from the constraints of our prayer books, and allows us to express our innermost desires and worries. It opens us up to a dialogue with God, with the universe, and with ourselves, being vulnerable in a way that we rarely are. In this way, Tefilat halev is challenging; it requires a great deal of courage. But, I believe that when we meet this challenge, when we look within our hearts for the words that we want to say, we will be changed by this experience of opening up to ourselves and to God. We will emerge better people from this type of prayer, more open to the world around us, with a greater sense of empathy than we have ever had before. 

Our third mode of prayer: tefilat hakol, the prayer of the voice. 

This type of prayer, unlike our last two, Is not about the words we are saying. Rather, it is about the way we use our voices to bring us to a spiritual place. Shaaray Tefila is a community that seriously engages in tefilat hakol every single Shabbat. Held by Cantor Kipnis and our cantorial intern Emily Lezin, we lift up our voices in song, chanting both ancient and modern melodies, and we feel spiritually moved because we are creating something beautiful with the community around us. 

My favorite example of tefilat hakol in our community is Craig Taubman’s Hashkiveinu, a beloved melody in our congregation which we sang earlier this evening. In the words of the Hashkiveinu prayer, we ask God to spread a shelter of peace over us as the night begins to fall. The message is a beautiful one – the dark can be a scary time, and knowing that someone is watching over us can help us feel less alone and helpless. 

However, I don’t think the words of Hashkiveinu are the reason why this particular melody is so beloved in our congregation. We love Taubman’s Hashkiveinu because of the way the music comforts us, the way it transports us to a place of peace, the way it reminds us of home,and the way we can all contribute to this sense of awe with our own voices. We have so few chances in this life to do something so powerful with our own bodies, and when we use our voices in prayer, we transform ourselves and those around us. We help each other find the strength, and hope to continue putting one foot in front of the other, a sort of spiritual sustenance, and we feel held in the beauty of the music around us. For some of us, this is the way the Divine manifests in the world. 

Finally, our fourth type of prayer, tefilat haraglayim, the prayer of the feet. 

Many of us are familiar with Rabbi Heschel’s famous quote when he returned home from the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” 

However, few of us, including myself before writing this sermon, are familiar with a similar quote attributed to 19th century American abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “Praying for freedom never did me any good til I started praying with my feet.”

In different centuries, activists Douglass and Heschel taught us that words are not always enough, that we must also pray with our bodies, we must act, in order to make change in this world. We cannot leave it all to God. 

We even see this sentiment echoed in our prayer book, a reflection of Reform Jewish theology, in a quote from 4th century theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.” 

Our bodies are sacred vessels, and we can use them to further the prayers that we utter while we sit here in this sanctuary. So many of you are deeply involved in Jewish justice work, repairing our world through the lens of Jewish values. 

Whether it is through our Soup Kitchen, our Social Justice team, or another organization outside of this congregation, you are committed to employing Judaism’s lessons to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and build power for the powerless. And I want you to know – this work is prayer. Praying with our feet is yet another way that we can be in relationship with the Divine, partnering with God in the everlasting work of creation to make our world just a little bit better. 

When I think back to that young woman in the sanctuary in Jerusalem, I want to tell her that she is no imposter. She will learn, she will grow, and she will come to learn that prayer can be incredibly empowering and moving when we release ourselves from judgment, shame, and the desire to “get it right.” 

So I invite you, over these next few days, to be curious. To listen to your bodies: your head, your heart, your voice, and your feet. To explore which kinds of prayer speak to you. And then, to really engage in them, in a meaningful way. 

Because when we pray in a way that is meaningful to us, when we find the mode of prayer that works for us, we open up a whole new world. We find meaning, we find connection, and we find purpose. And perhaps we even discover ourselves in relation to God. 

On this Rosh Hashanah, may we all be blessed to enter through one of the many gates of prayer, through Shaaray Tefila. 

Shanah Tovah.

1 Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, 31

2 1 Samuel 1:5

3 1 Samuel 1:11

4 Brachot 31b

5 https://cbebk.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Rabbi-Rachel-Timoner-Sermon-%E2%80%94-Rosh-Hashanah-5783.pdf

6 Psalms 35:10

7 I was inspired by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s concepts of empathetic prayer and expressive prayer that he speaks about in Man’s Quest for God.

8 As told in Man’s Quest for God, 35-36.