By Sam Glaser
One of the perks of my line of work is time on the road to enjoy new experiences with people and places when I’m not on stage. This year marks my third time leading the High Holiday worship for a wonderful beachside congregation in Virginia Beach. Each year I bring my family and we have used the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to explore Washington DC, the Outer Banks and a very special mid-state retreat, Lake Anna. This unique body of water was formed in the early 70’s to cool the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant. Nearly 13,000 acres were flooded, creating hundreds of miles of prime lakefront property in the middle of an old growth forest.
The silver lining on this seeming ecological nightmare is a ski lake of unprecedented access and “glass.” We are lucky to have incredibly generous friends with a beautiful home with it’s own dock equipped with a ski boat and jet ski. They live at the far end of one of the fingers of the vast lake in a setting of peace and stillness. Just arriving in this slice of paradise was enough to get me breathing again. I made every effort to spend as much time outside as possible, reading and praying on the dock’s cabana, listening to the sweet birdcalls and the occasional powerboat rumble by in the distance. I love davening outdoors and have always felt a subliminal kinship with bodies of water. I want to describe a special ma’ariv (evening prayer) experience I had last night, one that I hope to hold on to for the rest of this new year of 5774 and for the rest of my life.
After active days of water sports the four of usspent our evenings relaxing with movies, card games and Settlers of Catan. I was also repeatedly rehearsing the Yom Kippur services, much to my family’s chagrin. Each night when everyone went to sleep I ventured down the uneven steps to the waters edge to ponder the stars and pray the evening prayers. On this particular night a sliver of the new Tishrei moon appeared and disappeared amidst the clouds above and the motionless ink-black water at my feet stretched to the horizon. I was surrounded with the rich stereo cacophony of multitudinous crickets filling the air and the occasional splash of a leaping lake trout. I closed my eyes and quietly recited the passages before and after the Sh’ma, then walked to the edge of the dock to recite the central Jewish prayer, the Sh’moneh Esrai. As I whispered the sacred words I searched the outlines of the gently swaying trees and felt them beckoning me upward. Suddenly a warm gust of wind welled up behind me and heard the baritone clang of the tubular bells of the large dockside wind chime. A chill rose from my feet to the top of my head and I felt like I was about to lift off the dock. I was ready to fly, to accept the gift of Heavenly wings.
I realized at that profound moment that I was no longer “just praying.” The words silently pouring forth from my lips were actually transforming the world. These were not simply idle recitations of the official thirteen paragraphs of requests that we recite on weekdays. Instead, I could feel with certainty that I was acting as God’s partner in the establishment of these realities. I was creating health and healing. I was forming a year of blessing. I was affecting the ingathering of the exiles, rebuilding Jerusalem, assisting God with the birth of the Messianic Age. There was no distinction between my efforts and God efforts to shape history. My will was enmeshed and inseparable with the Divine will for humanity. By the time I got to the concluding prayer, Aleynu, I was actively creating the possibility of a world where all nations proclaim God’s unified name.
I must say that for the first time, prayer makes perfect sense to me. I’ve been davening daily for over twenty years…I guess it’s about time! The gift of Jewish prayer is a product of the powerful connection initiated by our forefather Avraham, God’s first partner in Tikkun Olam. It is a vehicle for radical transformation with an impact on a global scale. All this time I thought it was just an ancient rabbinic wish list that we endlessly repeat, badgering God into action. Now I understand that prayer is the very instigator of Heavenly action in our material realm. I know viscerally that the transformative power of the human soul is unlimited by space and time. That even though I am surrounded by darkness in the forest of Mineral, VA, I can participate fully in the formation of a peaceful, loving planet, impacting my family, America, Israel, the entire world. Just as God is everywhere, I am everywhere. My pure soul, my “betzelem Elokim” spark of Godliness makes me immortal and omnipresent. At least for those few minutes a day when I choose to connect.
After davening I lay sprawled out on the papa-san chair pondering the implications of this experience. All the pieces of our vast heritage were falling into place. I could perceive the priceless value of walking the path of halacha, studying Torah, observing the commandments, committing God-like acts of loving-kindness. So many phrases uttered from memory and often absentmindedly suddenly made sense. We start our Sh’moneh Esrai with the words: God, open for me my lips (s’fatai) that my mouth may declare Your praise. S’fatai means lips and also the banks of a river, in other words, the limit or defining line of any given body of water. This invocation is encouraging us to leave our bodily limitations in order to invoke nothing less than transformation in the world of the spirit in a powerful partnership with God. We are welcome to stand with God in the Heights and impact world history.
So why the long-winded services when the real “service” is the Sh’moneh Esrai? I now appreciate that achieving this supernal level with the Sh’moneh Esrai requires a formulaic preamble of morning blessings and Psalms of Praise, just so that we mortals have a grasp of with whom we are dealing and therefore how great is our personal power. We need to be reminded that we are the very purpose of creation, the nexus of the spiritual and material realms and that we have a serious job to do. We have the Sh’ma to align us with God’s oneness and therefore our potential to merge with this oneness. It also serves to remind us of God’s love, the inevitable cause and effect when we stray from this love and the grand design of our redemption from Egypt. After all, how could God leave his chosen nation in the hands of a cruel tyrant when God needed us to carry out the master plan for the planet? If we can internalize a sense of wonder and gratitude for that redemption and the gift of the revelation of Torah, we are naturally launched into service in partnership with our redeemer in the form of our primary prayer, the Sh’moneh Esrai.
The next logical question for me is how can I ascend to this exalted place three times a day? How can I soar spiritually when I’m not relaxed on vacation but instead burdened with worry and deadlines in cement-laden Los Angeles? How can I share this passion when I’m in the midst of leading Shabbatons, when I’m on stage or teaching? What is unique about this time in my life that I enjoyed such a breakthrough? On that magical night I believe I was able to fly due to a rare combination of events. The incredible setting not only satiated my senses, it also served to create deep humility in the face of God’s masterful natural world. Spending quality time with my family gives me a degree of pleasure that is best defined in the indefinable word, nachas. I was entirely present, with no deadlines or agendas. As I lay there I dictated into my trusty iPhone a threefold theory of prerequisites to enact this partnership: attaining holiness, living in the present and serving God with joy.
If there is any time during the year that the Jewish People are thrust into the realm of holiness, it is the month of Tishrei. I take the High Holidays very seriously. From the start of the month of Elul I blow shofar every morning after my prayers, prepare the words and melodies of the machzor (Holiday prayer book) so that I can properly serve as cantor and focus on refining my character traits. I find truth in the maxim “according to the effort is the reward;” thanks to this hard work my Rosh Hashana is usually uplifting and empowering. After the days of proclaiming God’s kingship on Rosh Hashana, we enter the special week of repentance/return where our rabbis instruct us to be “goody two shoes” until Yom Kippur. Evidently, God judges us based on where we are at any given moment, unbiased by our past actions or future tendencies. In other words, it’s OK to be on good behavior even it’s something one can’t maintain all year. I’m particularly careful about my blessings before and after meals, how I treat my loved ones, my kavanah in prayer. Furthermore, this time period is marked by special insertions into the Sh’moneh Esrai that require intense concentration so that they are not omitted. You can’t just rally off the same ole prayer that week…if you take your mind off the ball you might skip those passages and must repeat the whole process.
I think I reached this awareness last night because of the power of this time period and the intensity of my concentration on the words. As I whispered them to myself I focused on the meaning of each syllable and proceeded slowly enough to not skip those seasonal insertions. Yes, it helps to have the prayer memorized and a grasp of the holy tongue of Hebrew. It’s challenging to find this time for extended contemplation in the city; we’re usually in a rush to finish or simply rushing to keep up with a minyan. Also, there is something innately purifying about the High Holiday period when one enters it with the right intentions and an open mind. The rabbis tell us that the day of Yom Kippur atones. You just have to show up and toe the line, and the state of purity and closeness follows. Perhaps I lifted off the dock spiritually because I was riding this ten day free gift of enhanced holiness and was taking the time to enjoy it’s fruits.
I believe that maintaining this simple puritythroughout the year is the underlying reason for our intimidating list of 613 commandments. God urges us to become holy vessels so that we can powerfully assist God in the mission to perfect the world. Living within the boundaries that our beloved Torah prescribes keeps us in the spiritual zone and indicates our commitment to do this crucial work. This experience clarified for me why the Jewish People endures this legacy of celestial responsibility and intense demands on our lifestyle. A good example is kashrut, or why we have to give up certain delicacies like clam chowder and Dodger Dogs. We can see these seemingly archaic rules as a nuisance or instead appreciate that they are necessary since we are spiritual giants that on a sacred mission of Tikkun Olam (healing the world.) After all, it makes sense that the holy words of the siddur are uttered by a mouth that eats kosher food. Our food nourishes each cell in our bodies; certainly we are what we eat and our Creator knows the ideal spiritual formula. Suddenly the effort to prepare and shlep ten days worth of meals to bring in our suitcases for this trip makes a bit more sense.
Similarly, our mouth is better equipped to speak the holy words when it isn’t habitually engaging in deceit, gossip or idle chatter. We have rules of family purity and marital fidelity to allow us bodily pleasures that exalt rather than degrade our soul. My eyes can better perceive a Godly world of miracles when they aren’t exposed to those images that harm my soul. Our observance of the Sabbath allows for a weekly reset of priorities and time to appreciate our weekday efforts in the material and spiritual realms. Shabbat also teaches us the crucial lesson of living for the present moment. Sorry to sound like church lady (or Mr. Synagogue,) but I believe that while there’s always room for innovation, there is no need to rewrite our traditions…there is infinite benefit to the mitzvot that our mortal minds cannot begin to surmise.
I believe the next part of the aforementioned formula, living in the present, is a crucial life skill. Creating deep connections with our Creator and serving as God’s emissary only happens in the here and now. Transformative prayer cannot occur when one is mired in the past. It’s also not accessible when one is obsessing about an uncertain future. God’s real “present” to us is the opportunity to live passionately in the present. Since we can’t change the past and don’t know the future, the present is the only human access point with our timeless God. For most of us this requires slowing WAY down. Patience, patience! For that half hour in the morning or the 5-10 minutes for mincha and ma’ariv, one must start with deep breathing, meditation or whatever it takes to bring the spinning internal world to a halt so that true service can commence. The High Holidays bring us into a realm of timelessness: extra time to pray and reflect and hopefully, to feel inspiration from our clergy. Rosh Hashana gives us a view on God’s regal “presence” and a possibility to live lofty lives as princes and princesses of our Father, our King. Yom Kippur whitewashes our poor decisions in our divine service, cleansing those areas where we have missed the mark and allowing us to try again with a clean slate, putting the past in the past and accessing the realm of the here and now.
The bright red bow on top of the “present” of the month of Tishrei is in the message of Sukkot. Sukkot is all about joy. It’s about a sense of triumph after the work of the ten days of repentance, about the recognition that all we really have is this ephemeral relationship with the Almighty, as signified by our fragile sukkah. That breakthrough that I experienced on the dock at midnight is only possible in a milieu of joy. Our prophets could only prophesy in a joyful mood. We know Avraham was ecstatic about his divine service in the near sacrifice of Yitzchak or he wouldn’t have perceived the angel exhorting him to stay his hand. Joy it the key to the Palace. It is the pipeline connecting us to the heavens. We learn that one moment of the Olam Habah (the world that is coming) exceeds all the joy of this world combined. God exists in a realm of sublime pleasure.
With a bit of effort we can find intense happiness within our own lives, satisfaction with our lot, an attitude of gratitude. Joy is found in our human interactions, surrounding ourselves with those we love, making time for sweet friendships, nurturing our relatives, treasuring our spouses. Pursue the activities that give you joy, be it sports, attending concerts, learning a new craft, climbing a mountain. These are the things that cannot be put off. Don’t let vacation time accumulate. Acts of kindsness to others is a great way to refresh your inner joy receptacle. And In times of stress you’ll have that recent joyous moment to pull you through or to envision when you are preparing to pray.
Saying the Sh’moneh Esrai is a sacred gift for which I have a profound new appreciation. Seeing the potential of true service as I did that night has given me incentive to bring recharged enthusiasm to this highly repetitive act and to share that enthusiasm with others. Each time I pray I can challenge myself to bring a little more joy, a little more focus to the enormous task at hand. I’m incentivized to better understand every nuance of the Hebrew and the genius of the text’s construction. To take my three steps back and pause while I still my inner maelstrom and create a space for the Divine Presence. And then take three steps forward as I board the celestial chariot alongside my Creator and best friend. I stand in Tadasana, mountain pose, strong and confident in my personal power as I enter a realm of timelessness and bask in technicolor joy. And then when my avodah/work is done, I bow in sincere gratitude and retreat to my earthly plane.
Let us commit ourselves this year to serving as God’s hands to better this world. Let us be sensitized to the immense power of our words, thoughts and deeds. Let us fashion ourselves into holy vessels to receive God’s light and share that light with all nations. Let us make 5774 the year that all humanity knows God’s name and peace is proclaimed throughout the land.