16 February 2010

Ten or More in the Morning

After a brief 24 hour trip down to Del Mar, near San Diego, we're back in LA.

Yesterday's davenning was in the backyard at my friend Steve's house, where the kids swam in the pool in the early morning sun and one of my daughters and his daughter helped me put the tefilin on and take it off, counting out the number of stripes on the arm, spelling out God's name--Shin, Dalet, Yud--along with me. "You know, I heard that was one of God's names--cool," said one, rather conversationally. Yeah, I heard that too, I said.

Part of the day's prayer seemed to extend to a morning hike we took in the Torrey Pines State Park, an uncommonly beautiful segment of Pacific seashore, with countless trails and people of all shapes, colors and sizes huffing and puffing their way throughout the sandy trails and cliffs. We made our way down to the shore, hung out on Flat Rock, and then headed off to Roberto's for burritos. What made the experience "prayerful" if you will was the mindfulness of it all, the quiet and efficiently warm intent of every encounter. A courteous state park ranger at the parking lot entrance; individuals and families hiking and biking their way up and down the hillside with a sense of purpose; even the experience of ordering at lunch was focused, hospitable, and generous. Was it the sun? The ocean air? The varieties of sage brush providing a kind of aromatherapy?

Oh dear God: Was I having a California moment?

I was brought back to earth by overhearing a conversation about breast implants, which in turn reminded me, ironically or not, of the story of the Golden Calf. Meaning: what's better than direct communication from God on a mountain, replete with thunder and lightning, fire and smoke--that you gotta go ahead an build an idol of gold? Thank God for Torah--I'll tell you, it can root you in all sorts of pleasant and unexpected ways.

After an amazing dinner with my cousins last night, it was back up early this morning for minyan at Temple Sinai. After years of daily morning davenning in solitary spiritual practice, I have found the minyans during my time here in LA to be of great comfort, even, to a degree, exhilarating. Fifteen years ago, during my last year of rabbinical school, I gave a "Senior Sermon" about Rebecca's encounter of Isaac out in the field, "meditating" as the Torah describes it, which the Sages say was Isaac davenning Minchah. The poetic and solitary nature of Isaac's conversation with God was very attractive to me at the time and in my sermon I tried to articulate a spirituality of aloneness, of the existential need for individual prayer and communion with the Divine. Afterward, one of my professors, in a private exchange, said, "I get what you are trying to say--it's just that I fear the erosion of the commitment to the minyan, which is how Jews have prayed for two thousand years."

Respect. Reform Judaism, outside the rabbinical schools, does not generally *demand* of its people daily prayer practice in a minyan. We're either not interested, don't make the time, or there simply aren't enough of us in most Reform communities to make it happen. And so for the better part of the past 15 years, I've made daily prayer a private practice, except on Shabbat, where I don't really pray as much as lead prayer, which is a distinctively different mode of spiritual engagement.

In minyan, however, at Ikar and now at Temple Sinai, I am conscious of what the other lives around may be about. Today, again I focused on the fact that most in attendance at the minyan were present to say Kaddish. These individuals were in mourning and their community knew it.

As I sat watching others, I wondered about their lives, their prayers, their disappointments and aspirations. Were they praying for health for themselves and others? For success in business? For a lifting of depression? For a long life? One man seemed to be simply enjoying the Hebrew--singing the words, providing his own emphasis here and there to punctuate a point. I was even cognizant of the varieties of teshuvah present--who was seeking forgiveness for anger? For gluttony? For infidelity? Who among us, in their own prayers to God, was willing to even admit his or her own pathologies? It's not easy work.

And this was my epiphany: The minyan, standing at Sinai with others, facing Jerusalem, really made room for both the individual ("And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide"--Gen 24.63) and the people ("and all the people answered with one voice, and said: 'All the words which the Eternal has spoken will we do.'"--Exodus 24.3)

The shared connectiveness and the sense of communal obligation are too important to be relegated to once a week singing and praying.

We need the minyan--the daily minyan--in Reform practice. If we can't pull it off, it means we risk severing ourselves from a more than two thousand year practice of mindfully assembling in community on a daily basis to be reminded of our own distinct relationship to a Being greater than and beyond us (the necessary humbling) as well as a simultaneous obligation to others (the necessary exalting.)

The necessary exalting? How? In a whole new way I understood why it is that we stand for the Daily Miracles section of our morning prayers:

Praised are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe
Who enables His creatures to distinguish between night and day;
Who made me in His image;
Who made me a Jew;
Who made me free;
Who gives sight to the blind;
Who clothes the naked;
Who releases the bound;
Who raises the downtrodden;
Who creates the heavens and the earth;
Who provides for all my needs;
Who guides us on our path;
Who strengthens the people Israel with courage;
Who crowns the people Israel with glory;
Who restores vigor to the weary.

"All the words which the Eternal has spoken we will do."

Not in solitude but in community, one for the other. Ten or more in the morning, for minyan, we are exalted by the fulfillment of our obligations to others, which is what happens when your eyes are opened. It's a revelatory thought worth standing for.


The Wandering Jew said...

I found this post really interesting. I am a Fellow at the American Hebrew Academy (a pluralistic Jewish boarding school.) We have a requirement at our school called 'synagogue skills.' Every student has to complete four years of this, which include learning how to lead kabbalat shabbat, maariv, shacharit, and chant Torah.
For now, students are divided up by denomination (at some point, I imagine that we will move in the direction of being beyond labels.) Some students who have identified as Reform have questioned why they must learn how to lead weekday shacharit, since, outside of AHA they will almost never find themselves in a Reform weekday minyan.
It's one of those situations that make me uncomfortable identifying as Reform here at AHA, and beyond. I find it very meaningful to pray on a daily basis, but often feel like such a minority in that respect.
Are you aware of any institutions that identify as Reform that do offer daily minyanim?

Andy Bachman said...

We had daily minyan every day at HUC and in New York, I know Central Synagogue has a daily minyan.

Jo Ann said...

really interesting post. almost makes me want to join you at a morning minyan...
i love the prayer you site-is that the one you say when putting on tfillen-and therefore, isn't it the one with the line"thank god I wasn't born a woman?"

Andy Bachman said...

thanks Jo-Ann--that's part of the morning blessings whether or not you put on tefilin. the version i cited has excluded the "thank God for not making me a woman" as well as thanking God for not "making me a slave." tradition does need its adaptations.

mookilatte said...

this is beautiful, andy.

Amanda said...

As someone who, when time allows, also says morning prayers, but always alone, I appreciate the community aspect to prayer that is built into our practice (through the minyan), but I wonder if I would achieve the same spiritual level if I did it as part of a group. I guess I won't really know unless I try. But I wonder if praying in a minyan I'd lose what I value most about prayer, and that is my ability to say the prayers in English, which allows me the ability to pray and really think about what I am saying, rather than just saying the prayers by rote, which often happens when I do it in Hebrew. Granted in services on Friday or Saturday, I say the prayers in Hebrew, except when praying silently alone, but I find I don't have the same amount of time to pause, look at the english and really think and while it is a satisfying experience, it is very different.