Category Archives: prayer

Eat, be satisfied, and bless – a d’var Torah for Eikev

Shabbath-vachalta-vsavata_07-50x402-e1433537246991I was working a few days ago with a friend’s daughter who’s becoming bat mitzvah in a few weeks. I found myself remembering a moment shortly after my own celebration of bat mitzvah.

Faced with the prospect of writing a mountain of thank-you notes. I took up my pretty new stationery and I wrote, “Dear so-and-so, thank you for the gift, love Rachel” over and over and over.

When my mother found out that I hadn’t been personalizing the notes, she made me throw them all out and start again. She insisted that I say what each gift was and why I appreciated it.

And that’s how I learned that one must be specific in a thank-you note. “Thank you for the thing, whatever it was” will not cut it. (Not for my mother, anyway.) Enter this week’s Torah portion, Eikev:

וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יָה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ

And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless YHVH your God for this good land that God has given you.

From this springs the custom of birkat hamazon, the “grace after meals,” also called bentsching. Our tradition teaches us to offer that prayer after any meal at which bread is consumed in a quantity as large as an olive. Even for a bite-sized gift, we’re meant to say thank You.

The traditional birkat hamazon contains four blessings: for the food, for the land, for the holy city of Jerusalem, and for God’s goodness. Those blessings are adorned with an introductory psalm and a series of blessings that call God The Merciful One, plus additions for Shabbat and festivals. This is how our tradition works: a short text is embroidered with additions, and the additions become canon too.

And while it’s easy to roll our eyes at that process of accretion — this is how we wind up with long prayers: because we get attached to the new additions, but we can’t bear to get rid of the original material! — the process often yields liturgy that I truly love singing. And I do love bentsching (singing the birkat hamazon) when I’m lucky enough to gather a table of people who want to sing it with me.

Besides, one could argue that the impulse comes out of the same place as my mother’s decision to make me rewrite all of my thank-you notes. It’s not enough to just say “Hey, thanks for the thing.” If we’re doing it right, we ought to articulate gratitude for the food, and for the land in which the food arises, and for our holy places, and for the goodness of God that leads to the gift of sustenance in the first place.

Then again, it’s often our custom here to sing abbreviated liturgy. This is true in its most concentrated form when we have contemplative services. But most of the time we opt for fewer words and greater connection with those words, rather than singing the full text of what the most liturgical versions of Judaism might prescribe. Most often when we bless after a meal here, we sing brich rachamana:

בּרִיךְ רָחָמַנָה מָלְכַא דְעָלמַע מָרֵי דְהָאי פִתָא.

You are the source of life for all that is and Your blessing flows through me.

(Aramic translation: Blessed is the Merciful One, Sovereign of all worlds, source of this food.)

You have probably heard me say that that blessing originates in Talmud. You may also have heard me say that it’s the shortest possible grace after meals that one can offer — for instance, if one were being chased by robbers and needed to make the prayer quick. This is a popular teaching, though I can’t actually source it! But it shows awareness, in the tradition, that sometimes we can’t manage full-text.

For me, then, the question becomes: how do we sing the one-liner in such a way that we invest it with the kavvanah (the meaning and the intention) that the long version is designed to help us cultivate? How do we sing the short version without falling into the trap that I fell into as an overeager thirteen-year-old writing “thanks for the thing”?

One answer is to go deep into the words. This short Aramaic sentence tells us four things about God: God is blessed, and merciful, and is malkah, and is the source of our sustenance. I want to explore each of those, but I’m going to save the untranslated one for last.

1) God is blessed. What makes God blessed? We do, with our words of blessing. We declare God to be blessed, and by saying it, we make it so. (If this intrigues you, read Rabbi Marcia Prager’s The Path of Blessing — it’s in our shul library.)

2) God is merciful. The Hebrew word “merciful” is related to the Hebrew word for “womb.” God is the One in Whose Womb all of creation is sustained. When I really think about that metaphor, it blows my mind. The entire universe is drinking from God’s umbilical cord!

3) God is the source. The source of all things; the source of every subatomic particle in the universe; the source of the earth in which our food comes to be, and the hands that raised or harvested or prepared what we eat, and the source of the things we eat that sustain us.

4) And God is malkah. That word can be translated as King, or Queen, or if you prefer gender-neutral, Sovereign. But to our mystics, the root מ/ל/כ connotes Shechinah: the immanent, indwelling, feminine Presence of God — divinity with us, within us, among us.

God is blessed because we invest our hearts and souls in speaking that truth into being. God is mercy made manifest in our lives. God is the source from Whom all blessings flow. And God is that Presence that we feel in our hearts and in our minds, in our souls and in our bones. It’s that Presence — or, if you’ll permit me some rabbinic-style wordplay, those Presents — for which we articulate our thanks.

To be really grateful is to be grateful for the specific, not the general. (That was my mother’s thank-you note lesson all those years ago.) The Aramaic says ‘d’hai pita,’ “for this bread,” not just for bread. I’m grateful for this bread that I took into my body. That makes it personal, because gratitude is personal by definition.  If we don’t take our gratitude personally, then it’s not gratitude; it’s just rote words.

Our task is to eat, because ours is not an ascetic tradition. To be satisfied, because that is a healthy response to consumption. (Alexander Massey suggests that we cultivate satisfaction as a good in itself, and pray from there.) And then our task is to bless, and to really feel the awareness and the gratitude and the presence, to take them personally and make them real — no matter what words we use.

 

Image source: a challah cover bearing the words “you shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless,” available at one of my favorite Judaica stores, The Aesthetic Sense. Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

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An Unetaneh Tokef for Teens of Today

written by the b’nei mitzvah class at Congregation Beth Israel

Today is the day of judgment
when we all come before You to be judged.

We all pass before You
like artisans whose work needs to be inspected.

Just as we all have to go to the doctor
for regular check-ups to make sure we’re okay,

so we all have to be checked-out by You
to make sure that our actions and our behaviors meet Your standards.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

Who will get good grades, and who will flunk out and stay back;
Who wil get the things they want, and who won’t;

Who will be rewarded, and who will be punished;
Who will be healed, and who will be sick;

Who will get the LEGO sets they want, and who will be thwarted;
Whose team will win, and whose team will lose;

Who will be happy with the election results, and who won’t;
Who will have a good year in school, and who will not;

Who will score a goal, and whose shots will go wide of the net;
Whose electronics will work well, and whose will stop working;

Who will be popular, and who will be misunderstood;
Who will have friends, and who will be lonely.

But teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah
temper the harshness of the decree.

 

For reference: about the Unetaneh Tokef prayer; see also Everyday I Write the Book.

I Seek Your Face… In Everybody Else, Amen – a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776

One of my most consistent childhood memories is saying my prayers before I went to sleep. I can still remember the pattern of the wallpaper on the ceiling of my childhood bedroom, and the gentle dip of the bed from where my mom would sit next to me.

I would sing the one-line shema, and then say my litany of “God bless.” I began with “God bless Mom and Dad,” then named my grandparents, then named my siblings and in time their spouses and children. At the very end, I would ask God to bless “all my aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and everybody else, Amen.”

I’m not sure what I thought it meant to ask God to bless someone. But clearly being blessed by God was a good thing, and I didn’t want anyone to accidentally get left out.

There’s a blessing called Oseh Shalom which appears throughout our liturgy. Here are the words as you may have learned them:

עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָּׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן:

“May the One Who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say: Amen.”

In many communities around the Jewish world today, including this one, another phrase is now added. That phrase is וְעַל כָּל יוֹשבֵי תֵבֱל — “and all who dwell on Earth.” Adding that phrase to Oseh Shalom is a little bit like what I did in my childhood bedtime prayers: “and everybody else, amen.”

Why am I so invested in praying for “everybody else, amen”? Continue reading

A short history of Jewish meditation

Buddhistjewishcenterv2-214x300“Would you consider teaching or writing something about Jewish meditation?” a CBI member asked me recently. “I think people wonder sometimes whether it’s really Jewish.”

Contemplative practice in Judaism has taken a variety of forms, and bears a variety of names, but it’s been a part of Judaism for a very long time. (“Contemplative practice” is an umbrella term which covers a variety of practices; meditation is one of those practices.) Let’s start here: maybe you know that traditional Jewish practice includes praying three times a day. The traditional explanation for that thrice-daily prayer regimen teaches either that we do this in remembrance of the offerings at the Temple of old, or that we do this in remembrance of the patriarchs (or both.)

We read in Torah that Abraham connected with God in the morning, Isaac in the afternoon, and Jacob in the evening, so we do the same. And in Torah, what form did that connection take? In Genesis 24:63, when Isaac went out לָשׂוּחַ / la’suach in the fields, what exactly was going on? According to the classical JPS translation, that verb means “to meditate.” So one could make the case that from the patriarchs on, Jewish prayer has always had a meditative component.

Later, during the time of the Tanna’im (the 1st and 2nd centuries of the Common Era), Jewish mystics sought to elevate their souls by meditating on the chariot visions of Ezekiel. This became a whole school of contemplative practices known as merkavah mysticism. Some of their practices were re-imagined and re-interpreted by later mystical and contemplative movements in Jewish tradition.

Meanwhile, the sages of our tradition were discussing the proper balance of keva (fixed form) and kavanah (intention or meditative focus) in Jewish prayer. Some went so far as to argue that prayer without the right meditative intention doesn’t actually count. In the days of the Tanna’im, communal prayer frequently took the form of variations on known themes, where a skilled prayer-leader would improvise new words on the existing themes of the prayers. Over time, those improvised words were written down, and by the Middle Ages became fixed in more-or-less the forms we know today. Continue reading

Blessings and teachings for Thanksgivukkah

Dear friends,

As you know, this coming Thursday is not only Thanksgiving day, but also the first day of Chanukah, making it “Thanksgivukkah.” Most people have been saying that this won’t happen again for thousands of years, though my colleague Rabbi David Seidenberg makes a compelling case that it will happen again in 2070. (He also offers a lovely suggestion for blessing our children or grandchildren who will live to see that next Thanksgivukkah.) In any event: it’s going to be a festive day twice over!

Attached is a pdf file which contains:

  • a prayer for Thanksgivukkah written by Rabbi Jason Miller
  • a prayer for the Thanksgiving meal written by me
  • a prayer for Thanksgiving written by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
  • and sheet music for a one-line grace after meals.

ThanksgivukkahBlessings [downloadable pdf]

I hope that one or all of these will bring extra joy, mindfulness, and gratitude to your Thanksgivukkah table.

In Hebrew, the name for Thanksgiving is Yom Hodu, “Day of Gratitude.” (Hoda’ah means gratitude or thankfulness.) But the word hodu also means turkey, the animal which is traditional Thanksgiving fare. So Yom Hodu means both “Day of Gratitude” (or “Thanksgiving Day”) and “Day of Turkey.” May your Yom Hodu contain an abundance of gratitude — and, for those who aren’t vegetarians, an abundance of turkey, too!

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Prayer for Cemetery Committee & Chevra Kadisha

Here is the prayer for our Cemetery Committee and our Chevra Kadisha which was offered during services this past Shabbat, on Shabbat Chayei Sarah, when we read about Avraham purchasing a burial plot and burying his wife Sarah.

Dear God,

We are grateful to You for instilling in us a love of life and a respect for death.

Today we honor those who serve on our Cemetery Committee and those who lovingly prepare the dead for burial through our Chevra Kadisha. These generous members of our holy community both serve You and honor us with their dedication and loving kindness to our beloved dead.

Through their commitment to the mitzvah of kavod ha-meit, honoring the dead, they also perform the mitzvah of nichum avelim, comforting the mourners, who are assured that their loved ones have been attended to with care and respect.

We thank You, God, for our rich, loving, and wise tradition which deepens our connections to Life, to the meaning of death, to community, and to You.

Amen.

The Poetry of Prayer at the Williamstown Coffee Shop this fall/winter

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The Poetry of Prayer at the Coffee Shop

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One Friday A Month, Oct-Feb, 2pm

Join poet & rabbi Rachel Barenblat for a monthly taste of the poetry of Jewish liturgical prayer. Each month we’ll explore a different prayer from the standard daily service, learning a bit about its origins but focusing primarily on its poetry. How do its metaphors and allusions aim to connect us with something beyond ourselves? How does reading the prayer as poetry free us to experience it in a new way? We’ll also look at contemporary / creative reworkings of these classical prayers. There will be plenty of time for questions and conversation.

If you have a favorite prayerbook, feel free to bring it, though copies of the prayers will be provided. All are welcome. If you know you’re coming, please email  so we can be sure to make enough copies. There is no tuition.

2-3:30pm, Oct. 25, Nov. 22, Dec. 20, Jan. 31, Feb. 28
at Tunnel City Coffee, Spring Street, Williamstown MA

offered by Congregation Beth Israel | www.cbiweb.org  
www.facebook.com/CBINorthAdams | 413-663-5830 | rebrachel@cbiweb.org