Birkat haTefillah Series — Parashat Shelach — 5771 — Offering Our Broken Heart

26/06/2011 at 07:07 Leave a comment

“Offering Our Broken Heart”


Parashat Shelach – Birkat haTefillah

Neil F. Blumofe

18 June 2011


Does it matter where we pray, and with whom we pray?  Can a location make a difference in some component of our prayer experience?  While our Torah describes prayer in outdoor natural settings – generally as individual experiences — our later traditions establish synagogues, or batei k’nesset – houses of assembly, as destinations where a community can come together to fulfill the mitzvot of prayer.


Furthermore, we know that a minyan, a quorum of ten, is desirable – so that we may have the fullest experience of prayer – however, does it matter which ten?  At its heart, is prayer really a group activity?


Over the years when I have spoken to people in the weeks leading up to the High Holydays, there has been disclosure that while gathering as a large community on the important days of the Yamim Noraim is valued, there seems to be something lost – some sense of intimacy or imminence when the larger community comes together.  People have confided in me that at this time, they would rather be out in nature somewhere – in the woods, at the beach, emulating our Hasidic masters, as they would go on a journey of the soul, immersing themselves in private, outdoor dialogue as their preferred way to communicate to God.  A synagogue, as beautiful as it may be, may become stifling, or too regular, or taken for granted – the same material, the same views – people are looking for a bit of spice to take them out of their routine and dramatize for them the experience of prayer.


However, there is a concept in Judaism that many of us also hold fast to – the idea of the makom kavuah, or the sacred space that comes from having a set seat in the synagogue.  Our Talmud teaches,“ whomever establishes a set place for prayer will be personally assisted by God, like God personally assisted our ancestor Avraham” (Berachot 6b).  This concept was considered a high priority – our Gemara elaborates – that upon one’s death, if a person was meticulous about establishing a makom kavuah, then it will be declared that a humble and righteous person has lately arrived into Heaven.


A great medieval Spanish commentator named the Rashba explains that in having a set and dependable place for prayer helps to settle your mind and aids in the proper kavanah both before and during prayer.  Another great sage, the Rif, although he lived 1000 years ago, teaches a concept that many of us struggle with, as well.  He writes that those who consider prayer to be a burden, will always look for an opportunity to not do it, and to through it off at the earliest possible convenience.  This person will haphazardly pray wherever and whenever he can.  Contrasting with this person, is the one who is careful to establish a makom kavuah, which demonstrates that tefillah is a special and valued opportunity.  It is with this preparation and attention that powerfully explains the verse in Psalms, zivchei Elohim ruach nishbarah lev nishbar v’nidkeh – the sacrifices that God desires are a broken heart.


Praying in a set place is explained further in a story told by the Ari, the founder of Lurianic Kabbalah – he tells of a king who wants to conquer a walled city.  The king tries to break down the walls with a battering ram.  He is advised that to be most effective, he must pound away at the same place on the wall, thus weakening the structure until the wall will eventually fall down.  For if the king, smashes one place and then another, and then still another, the wall will not weaken and will never fall.  This kind of effort serves as a comparison to our prayers – many times we live with an enormous iron wall separating us from God – as we establish a regular place for prayer, it is like penetrating the great wall that disconnects us and helps us break it down most effectively.


And what about the people that we are with?  Among my colleagues there is an oft-repeated anecdote that just as rabbis are interviewed to serve communities, it would be wonderful to interview each member of the community to determine their communal fit, as well.  Sadly, over the years, I have had people come to me and tell me that while they enjoy the synagogue generally, they have suffered some slight or insult from one who attends shul, which then makes them so uncomfortable that they do not want to continue coming.  We know that to pray as Jews is a communal activity – our prayers are in the plural form and much is written about the importance of not being alone and of feeling supported in our prayers.


However, what happens when in the sanctuary there are people with whom there is a break somehow, a rift and some unfinished business of teshuvah?  What if we look around and there are a few people present who used to be considered your friends, but are no longer – there was a falling out, or a cooling off?  What do we do – change synagogues or stop coming?  Do we uproot our makom kavuah, to distance ourselves from that person, or do we pray for a way to rise about our hurt feelings still outstanding and to find a path to make peace, at least with ourselves, if not with that person?


While narratives of communal activity of synagogues in the renaissance and the early modern period are rife with discord and chaos – back then, synagogues were utilized as public forums as well as places for prayer – there is much material that is rich in detail that accounts for the activities in the synagogue, there are not many sources that tackle the issues that we have just raised.  There is the concept of herem, or public ostracizing and the outcast of undesirables, according to the decision of the community.  The herem was the harshest form of public reprimand – there also exists the niddui, which is castigation for 7-30 days and also the netzifah — chastisement which lasted a day or so.  However, for many reasons, herem, niddui, or netzifah are no longer practiced in our synagogues and are untenable answers to our individual issues.


Another thought would be to pray for guidance and shield against those who have done us wrong – while possible, this is difficult – to have our prayer experience be fraught with stress is a heavy burden – not knowing whether or not this person will be present in the synagogue – imagine too, if your discomfort is with the rabbi, who most assuredly will be in synagogue on the next Shabbat – this leaves us in a difficult place.


Communal life is a key to Jewish living and finding one’s way in the complex of emotions and feelings is part of our challenge and part of our responsibility.  Establishing a place of belonging within our sacred is a good beginning to encountering what may develop – a makom kavua roots us in times of great trial or change.  With this set place we can say that we are present and others can notice if we are not there and take care to call on us and inquire after our spiritual or physical well being.  Having a place where we belong is the beginning to making prayer a priority for us.


I am all for a retreat into the desert, or the woods, in our quest to seek God or something greater than ourselves or different from the habits of our lives – and too, we eventually have to live somewhere, to establish roots, and to interact with others.  Having a place in the synagogue is the point of departure for establishing a dedicated relationship with God and for staking a claim in a community – both of which are important and necessary commitments in building k’lal Yisrael – the Jewish people from within and from without.


Shabbat Shalom.


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