24 April 2014

There Are Words!

While preparing to daven Musaf on the 8th day of Passover, I made the decision to cross over into a new way of praying to God.  Rather than read the words on the page carefully and with meaningful spiritual intention; or sing along with the leader quietly; or close my eyes and rock, meditatively, to the ethereal dialogue of the ages, I just spoke.

In the paragraph addressing the God of our ancestors, I did just that and gave thanks for those who came before that I never met but whose image and values I carry with me each day.  To the God of Strength and Giving Life to the Dead I gave thanks for names and words that still live not just in me but in my children and with hope, one day, my grandchildren.  For the God of Holiness, ordinarily lathered with complimentary angels all around, I gave thanks for the Distinction and Uniqueness of the Jewish people, the Jewish narrative, the many Jewish languages and foods and folkways of existence that have animated our People for millennia.

Suddenly, though seated in a somewhat private area of the small chapel, I felt myself surrounded by not quite grace but a gathering of souls that were egging me on for more candor in prayer.  The prayerbook slowly relaxed at my side; the tallis on my shoulders a hero's cape; and my pointed words, my bitter complaints and my stubborn gratitude gave way to a deep breath and renewed commitment to being a guy who gives a damn about Justice.

And Justice was the restored Chapel window I chose to sit next to on Tuesday morning.  Mercy, Justice and Humility, as they are arrayed.
These windows, as some know, are inspired by the Hebrew prophet Micah:  "He has shown you, o man, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you:  to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God."

Micah, you'll notice, placed Justice first, preceding in order Mercy/Love and Humility.  But when the architects built the CBE Temple House, for whatever reason, Justice was made the center window in this triptychal statement of early 20th century American Reform Judaism.  The fulcrum of the contemporary Jewish life that would come to be on the welcoming shores of this nation, they seemed to be saying, would be Justice.  I need to be in Shul for the Holy Days; Light the Menorah; and host a Passover Seder.  But most important, Do Justice.

Like many American Jews of the past few generations, Justice is at the center of our identity.  In the very myth-making of our secular Jewish identities which have always drawn mightily upon the scaffolding of Exodus, Labor Rights, Women's Rights, Civil Rights and Two States for Two People, it is forever "justice, justice" that we are commanded to pursue.

I felt that on Tuesday morning.  I really did.  Freed from the obligation to simply mouth the words, to carry on with an exercise that sometimes feels like the aping of the imagined actions of my pious forebearers, I broke through a wall and spoke directly to God.

Silent God.  Enthroned above a world where so much goes wrong.  But whose fault is that?  His words, afterall, came to me loud and clear.

Your mess, He said.  You clean it up.  Poverty.  Housing.  Guns.  Racism.  Jobs.  Education.  Peace. It's all there.  In Micah and Amos.  In Isaiah and Jeremiah.  In you and me.

Mercy and Humility are there to offer balance, to move us up and down the ladder, like Jacob's dream angels, ascending and descending in gestures of compassion, comfort and love, there for us when we're so damn exhausted and sometimes even broken from the effort, for the backwards slides, for the indignity of convincing others that this is God's real work for us.  So fixing what's broken hard work. It's not like we're the first generation to figure it out.  Avadim Hayinu and all that.

There's a powerful scene in Yoram Kaniuk's memoir, 1948, in which long after the War for Independence, Kaniuk encounters a fellow soldier, now elderly like him and walking with his granddaughter, on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv.  There is recognition of one another, laughter and then this:  "We exchanged a few words, I said something to him, he was moved, and then there were no more words.  His life and mine had not stayed the same.  We had a memory from one day aboard a ship when he was a young, scared and angry boy who had sold his dead parents' diamonds to the SS and now he's an adult, introducing to me his wife and daughter, or granddaughter, I don't remember.  We remained silent for a few moments and then went our separate ways, because we didn't have anything to say to each other, the memories exchanged glances and sentences, but we didn't have the words to talk about them."

This is what prayer is often like for so many people, looking down into the book, exchanging glances and sentences, but left with a feeling, too frequent and for some too painful, that there are "no words to talk about them."

But there are words.  You have to find them.  By pounding away.  Like the way one pursues Justice.


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