Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Once in a while the Rabbis get it right.  There are certain enactments that they decreed which have withstood the test of time and continue to work as originally planned, or, perhaps, even better.  One example is the recitation of Kaddish.  This rabbinic custom of chanting Kaddish for the beloved departed continues to keep shuls and minyanim humming to this day.  Many synagogues wouldn't have a minyan without the Kaddish zoggers.  Many places would have a minyan, but the regulars became regulars when they felt the need to say Kaddish.  Not only that, but the Sages got the logistics right.  They put two Kaddishes at the beginning of the service, so people come on time.  Then they put two right at the end, so parishioners won't leave early.  Pretty good planning!  I mention this rabbinic innovation at this time, because I'd like to look at another rabbinic institution which, though successful, has been modified and even attacked by Jewish groups over the past centuries.

            This week we read the first parsha in the book of Leviticus.  That Latin name for the book reflects the fact that much of the material in the book relates to the work of the Cohamin and Levi'im in the Holy Temple.  In case you haven't been in Jerusalem lately, I feel compelled to inform you, dear reader, that we don't presently have that building.  This situation has been in effect for 1940 years.  For 1319 years a competitor has had a franchise in our most desirable location.   So, how do we deal with this issue, that a major part of our religious experience is denied us because of circumstances beyond our control?  Our Sages have used admirable inventiveness to construct a replacement format.  We call it the Prayer Service.   How do we judge this effort?  Well, the reviews are mixed.  Many readers may dismiss the complaints and changes made by the Conservative and Reform movements, but they are indicative of a deeper problem.  The deeper problem is discernable in many Orthodox venues, when careful observation of the crowd leads to the conclusion that many congregants aren't actually praying. 

            As a descendant of Lithuanian Misnagdim, I'm going to make a painful admission.  Chassidim are better at pray.  This has been true for a long time.  There's a story from the eighteenth century about a young man who disappointed his parents because instead of going to Vilna to study with the great Gaon, he went to Mezeritch to follow the Magid (died 1772).  The young man explained that in Vilna he'd learn how to study Talmud, but in Mezeritch he'd learn how to daven, which is harder.  What do they get right that we are often missing?  What do the liberal branches of Judaism miss?

            Sometimes we think too much.  When the Rabbis composed this alternative to the sacrifices, they wanted to replace what happened on the Temple Mount with a comparable feeling.  The Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204) wrote that the Sages had to help the people with their prayers, because they didn't know what to say or how to say it ((Laws of Prayer, 1:4).  The Men of the Great Assembly under the leadership of Ezra had to do something.  They felt the need to both guard the prayer experience from deteriorating and to replace the spiritual high achieved in the Temple, so that it wouldn't be forgotten.  As a result they composed the basic format of the prayers we still recite today, especially the Shmoneh Esreh, the 18 blessing silent devotion, which teaches us the basic needs of a human being.  However, they also wanted to raise our spiritual level to that felt on the Temple Mount.   They, therefore, also wrote:  Be pleased, Lord our God, with Your people Israel and with their prayer; replace the service to Your Sanctuary and accept with love and favor Israel's fire-offerings and prayer; and may the service of Your people Israel always find favor. Their desire was to restore the experience of entering into God's presence.  This is more visceral than intellectual, more soul than mind.  If we view the references to sacrifices as mandatory dogma, many people have had trouble dealing.  However, if we see these lines as background to set a mood of spirituality and sanctity, that's fabulous.  Be chassidish, don't think so much.  Let the emotional juices flow.

            In looking in the Nefesh Hachayim by Rabbi Chayim Volozhiner (1749-1821), I noticed an essential question about how we feel about prayer as a replacement for the Temple service.  When we ask God to accept our prayers as if we were bringing a burnt offering to the altar, are we the generous donor or are we the sacrifice itself?  In the verses themselves there is an attempt to merge the sacrificer with the sacrificed, by requiring that the human place hands upon the head of the animal.  For most of us, I imagine it's easier to identify with the ancient shepherd bringing a lamb from his flock to the Holy Temple.  But there's a song which was very popular during the heyday of the Ba'al Teshuva movement in the late 60's and early 70's, which states:  In my heart, I'll build a Temple, and in that sanctuary I'll place an altar… and as an offering I will offer my only soul.  These lyrics from the Kabbalist, Rabbi Eliezer Azriki, express the yearning to offer up ourselves to our Maker. 

            I don't know which approach is more meaningful or moving, but the point is clear:  when we pray it's about getting closer to God.  So, what's going to happen in the future isn't critical when I pray, and those who are so worried about it that they change the text to delete references to the Temple, have missed the point.  The Rabbis have given us a tool to replace and recreate the Temple service in our own minds, hearts and souls, and I think they've done a pretty good job.



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