7 Elul 5770
One of the most profoundly challenging aspects of Jewish prayer is its seemingly radical inaccessibility. The Sages, in their institution of prayer, rooted it in three specific, Biblical experiences that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob--the Founding Fathers of Judaism, as it were. From those encounters with God, the Sages fixed three times a day for seeking God through prayer--morning, afternoon and evening.
But the structure--reaching out to God at specific times--is not as daunting as the idea behind the form: namely, that the greatness of those who came before us, and the fearsome task of speaking to the Divine, who metaphorically is understood as the Ruler of the Universe. Additionally, in most Reform communities, there is the added challenge of the Hebrew language, and the diminished ability to access the Tradition in its original language in order to access the experience rooted in the original Founders who, according to Tradition, had an original encounter with God.
If you think about it == and don't succumb to the temptation to be turned off by it == it's a very humbling experience. And humbling ourselves, especially at this season in the month of Elul, is good.
Humility, as distinct from humiliation (many people make the mistake of equating the two words) re-calibrates our place in the world. It is a clear reminder of who we are and what we are truly capable of doing. It raises each of us to a level no higher than any other, serving as the great equalizer of our spiritual reality. A teacher in Madison, Richard Davis, once told his students a story about John Coltrane--how at the end of each day, Coltrane would say he'd take his ego, exalted after a long day of achievement, and "put it back on the bottom shelf, so each day it would make its climb from the proper level."
I always liked that story and am so inclined myself. We start low. We rise. But at the end of the evening, when darkness comes, we lay down, we cover ourselves, and we submit to our dreams which often haunt us long into that dark night. Who has ever really passed an evening without being humbled by the fear of one's conscience in turmoil, a troubling dilemma, a restless encounter with our individual lives?
In this context, our approach to prayer is an exaltation in humility. The Hebrew letters constructed to form words and sounds that approach an earlier encounter that those greater than us, who came before us, already had. In our deeply individuated society, this is often categorized as "off-putting." We like to seek personal "transformation" and be deeply moved by an experience, often acting on us, stimulating us into a light-filled realization. It's spiritual commodification. Good wine; good food; pretty people. Really, it's Epicureanism.
Late tonight while walking with Nathan in the heat, a man called out to me from a low place. He was sitting on a stoop on Prospect Park West and through a very thick Guyanese accent he explained that he was in the midst of some seizures. He was initially hard to understand but eventually I understood and fulfilled his request that I call him an ambulance. Nathan and I kept him company while he waited and in a very brief time after calling 911, a Fire Engine and an EMS Ambulance arrived. The firemen jumped down from the truck and approached us, and then a paramedic joined us as well. Gently and carefully they helped the man rise and walked him, slowly, giving easy orders, into the ambulance.
"Thanks, men," I said as the firemen headed back to the truck.
"We've had a few of these already tonight," said one.
In an instant, a personal "mitzvah" had been contextualized into a broader category that had been and will be rehearsed over and over and over again. Because it's never about us but always about someone else, an inherently humbling perspective.