Posts Tagged ‘Jewish prayer’

Surviving Shachrit: Kabbalistic Insights to Enhance the Morning Ritual

Friday, September 4th, 2015
By Sam Glaser
A Miami-based fan who has become a dear friend invited me to share my music with his summertime chevra in the High Country of North Carolina.  During the days before and after my concert we hiked, biked and zip-lined and the nights were spent enjoying the company of his fellow South Florida sunbirds who entertained us in their posh mountain homes.  Since this was our anniversary week, a second airfare was offered so that I could bring my dear wife on the adventure…our first vacation without the kids in as long as we can remember.  We got perfect weather, the forests were painted with wildflowers and the deep blue skies were filled with dreamy scattered clouds. My friend marveled that even though I’m making a vacation out of this Beech Mountain and Asheville concert tour I still manage to keep up with my three times a day prayer ritual and don my kippah wherever I go.  I explained that especially when I’m on the road during my crazy annual performance schedule I rely on my Jewish daily practices to keep me grounded.
I’m grateful for my morning routine.  No matter how sore, sleep deprived or rushed I am feeling, I still carve out time for my various rituals.  Inevitably I feel ready to face the day as soon as I’m finished with my prayers and a heaping bowl of my favorite cereal.  The repetitive rigor of morning mitzvot may seem like mindless drudgery but they give me a sense of accomplishment even when I wake up feeling brain-dead.  I’d like to take you on a detailed tour through my daily checklist and offer a powerful way to relate to the prayers based on the teachings of Jewish mysticism.
At the first sound of the alarm I resist the urge to push snooze, (who invented this perennial challenge?) sit on the side of my bed and groggily say the Modeh Ani. Then I lumber to the bathroom where I do the traditional washing as soon as I’m done with the toilet, pouring copious amounts of water on my hands from a special two-handled pitcher, right-left-right-left-right-left.  This practice is reminiscent of the washing by the priests when the Temple stood and is likely the reason that Jews survived the various plagues that afflicted the unwashed ancient world.  For me, it makes a statement that I am on a distinctive derech (path) of purpose and purity.  I then wash my face, brush my teeth, shave and get dressed.  Even the manner in which one puts on clothing is mandated by Jewish law, for example, I put on the right shoe, then the left shoe, then tie the left one and then the right one.  This teaches subtle lessons in the primacy of the right (representing compassion) over the left, which represents judgment. Some may laugh at this level of requisite detail and when they do, I tell the story about my friend David Sacks who realized that he wasn’t ready to be Sabbath observant but realized that at least he could put on his shoes in a kosher way.  It was this small mitzvah that got him started on a profound and powerful direction.
When I’m not going to a minyan, I go straight to my living room, even if I’m really hungry, and “strap up” in my tallis and tefillin in the nook of my grand piano.  Our sages recommend that we pray before we have a meal or get into our workday. I resonate strongly with making the connection with God before I stuff my face.  Having an empty stomach gives my prayer a bit more urgency and ensures that I do my davening (praying) without getting carried away with the rest of my day.  I usually step out on our verdant front porch…just being outside is enough to enliven my senses and fill me with joy…unless the gardeners are mowing.  My dog-owning neighbors know to look for me and wave when they pass.  Some have told me that even though they don’t daven themselves, just seeing me veiled behind the jasmine vines is enough to give them a spiritual boost.
When praying alone, the traditional service takes about a half hour, start to finish.  When in a rush I still do the whole service but take a shortcut to the highlights of the P’zukei D’zimra (Verses of Praise) portion so that I don’t feel overly burdened by the experience.  As I’ve said before, our mission is to live by the commandments; if I feel annoyed rather than uplifted, I allow myself some liberties.  I’ve worked my way up to getting through the whole siddur in baby-step fashion.  I recommend that prayer neophytes start with the Sh’ma and the V’ahavta and work up to the full three paragraphs. Then the Sh’moneh Esrei, one section at a time, then the main three paragraphs of the Verses of Praise.  In other words, there’s no need to try to tackle the whole megilla in one sitting.
Yes, the morning prayers are extensive, involve vast fields of Hebrew on the printed page and contain some seemingly redundant parts.  The four sections of the Shachrit service can be compared to a good hike up a mountain.  The Birchot Hashachar (morning blessings) are the parking lot at the trailhead, the P’sukei D’zimra (verses of praise) are like the first set of switchbacks, the prayers before and after the Sh’ma are towards the end of the ascent when you are really sweating, and the Sh’moneh Esrai is the view.  Then you go back down again, step by step.  Understanding the deeper aspects of this level by level ascension is best explained in the Jewish mystical tradition.  But to get the insights,  it’s necessary to explain a few essential Kabbalistic concepts.
Kabbalah is our “origin story,” the science of how God interacts with creation.  It isn’t out of reach of laymen or reserved for those over forty, in fact it is readily accessible if you have an open heart and a patient teacher.  I’ll do my best to summarize the heavy stuff…I think it’s worth the effort!  We believe that before the “big bang” there was only the infinite light of God, known as the Or Ein Sof.  Within this all-encompassing revelation there was no possibility for anything “other” to exist.  Therefore, God had to constrict God’s own light to allow for the formation of finite, limited physicality.  This progressive constriction of Godliness is called Tzimtzum and we can best understand the process in the kabbalistic description of four levels of reality, or four worlds.  Imagine that all matter is on a continuum from pure spirituality to raw physicality, like a chair or a rock.  But still that rock isn’t NON spiritual, it’s just the physical edge of this Godly continuum.  Our four level prayer experience takes us through these levels, from our opaque, dimly lit world until we stand at the pinnacle of unadulterated spiritual clarity.
If you are still with me, you will see that according to Judaism, every finite object is infused with Godliness.  Every living thing is animated by holy sparks of divinity, with the Almighty serving as creator and maintainer of all matter.  Therefore we should live with a deep respect and awe for all of nature…and how much more so every human being!  Yes, even the mad homeless lady who rants on the street corner.  We inhabit the lowest of the four Kabbalistic worlds, the realm that contains the entirety of the physical universe, known as Asiyah.  Remarkably, at our mundane level, Godliness is concealed to the degree that even brilliant human beings, the apex of God’s creation, can deny God’s existence.  Regardless of the beliefs of atheists, even our “opaque” world is infused with spirituality and our job as Jews is to reveal God’s handiwork.
 The essence of the world of Asiyah is action.  It is derived from the word L’asot, or to do.  This is the final word in the “Vay’chulu” paragraph of the Friday Night Kiddush, taken from the creation saga in Genesis.  Mankind was created “to do,” to complete an incomplete world, to engage in a “tikkun olam” healing.  Our mission is to serve as “God’s hands,” to seek out what is lacking and make it whole.  The Talmudic statement, “For me the world was created” is less an ego boost than a call to action, in other words, that the world was created for each individual to rectify the lack of clarity of omnipresent Godliness by revealing God’s “name.”  This is the only realm where mitzvot are possible; in the other worlds, Godliness is unquestionable.  Therefore it should make sense that the morning blessings with which the Shachrit service begins reflect this world of Asiyah, describing our physical needs and actions.  Here you’ll find the blessing over washing the hands, the blessing for the gift of our bodies, the blessing for Torah study and for our unique gifts as human beings. Our fragility and temptation to the “dark side” is addressed as is the system of sacrifices in the Temple for which our prayers are designed to substitute.
The next level or world that we reference in our prayers is referred to as Yetzira.  Time and space are the realm of Asiyah whereas in Yetzira the infinite light of Godliness is not limited by these dimensions. Yetzira is dimension itself, beyond the physical, and is described as sephirot or the realm of feelings and emotions.  The second section of the Shachrit prayers, P’zukei D’zimra, or Verses of Praise are primarily composed of the Psalms of King David describing the greatness of God.  It opens with the description of God speaking the world into being and goes on to extol God’s myriad abilities.  These paragraphs are intended to awaken an emotional attachment to God and inspire gratitude.  Of course in most minyanim this section of the service goes by with stunning speed which I believe is a disservice to the beauty of the prose. Zimra comes from the root of zemer or holy song.  In other words, these passages are laden with musical cadence and were likely sung in their entirety back in a more leisurely era.  Whereas the morning blessings are simple statements of awareness God’s gifts, the P’sukei D’zimra section is an emotional, dynamic engagement of our relationship with the Or Ein Sof.  Like Yetzira it is a realm of increased light and clarity and is the place to progress from lip service to a deeply felt, loving connection with God.
The next realm is that of intellect, known as Beriyah.  It corresponds with the Bar’chu, the two blessings before the Sh’ma, the Sh’ma itself and the two blessings afterwards. Beriya means creation and is the penultimate level before Or Ein Sof, unlimited Godliness.  Therefore it implies a nearly unlimited reality, the concept of being, the highest level of the Tzimtzum.  In this world the light is still somewhat obscured and allows for some differentiation. This is the angelic realm described by our prophets, with Chayot and Seraphim, Gavriel and Rafael and company.  A close look at the third part of the Shachrit service reveals an exploration of the workings of the angels, including their secret formulas “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh” and “Baruch kavod Adonai mim’komo.”  We see that the angels are creations of God, and can be best understood as Divine energy directed towards a certain, singular goal.  We do not aspire to emulate these perfect beings, instead we acknowledge our imperfection while recognizing the power of Torah and mitzvot to keep us on an angelic path.  The Sh’ma declares our Beriyah-level awareness of God’s uniqueness and goes on to list crucial daily commandments, an overview of cause and effect and the importance of the memory of our slavery in Egypt to keep us focused on the gift of our freedom.
Finally we arrive at the highest world, the realm of Atzilut, the primordial unrestricted light before Tzimtzum.  What a gift to ascend this ladder of existential thought three times a day and stand in unity with the Creator of the Universe during the Amidah.  Clearly this is not a time to rush the process!  When in this deep communion I try to imagine Avraham’s first recorded divine conversation when he was seated at the entrance of his tent in the portion of Vayera.  It may seem like a chutzpah for us to bask in divine glory and then make the various requests in our weekday Sh’moneh Esrei, but just like a parent is so happy to give to a grateful child, so too is our Parent in Heaven.
Back to our hiking analogy…After a delicious sandwich while enjoying the heart-opening view at the top of the mountain, now you have to go back down.  Similarly, our siddur offers a gradual level by level descent to conclude the morning service.  On most weekdays we go into the Tachanun service where we pray for forgiveness, a mini-Yom Kippur to keep the soul whitewashed, and then corresponding to the P’zukei D’zimra on the way up the hill, we have a second recitation of the Ashrei and the Uva L’tziyon.  By saying the Ashrei twice in Shachrit and then once at the beginning of Mincha we are able to fulfill the three time daily minimum requirement that the Talmud claims will guarantee us a spot in the World to Come.  Finally, corresponding with the morning blessings back at the trailhead we say the Aleynu and the Psalm of the Day, restating our Asiyah/World of Action mission statement to use our efforts to bring our incomplete planet to a place of perfection that recognizes God’s sovereignty. And then the next morning we do it again!
Tomorrow we leave this blessed mountaintop and head to Ashville for the next leg of my tour. Then onto Denver for a city-wide outdoor concert and a few days of mountain biking at my alma mater, Boulder.  When I am back in LA I will do my best to retain a vision of this incredible view, the clarity of this blue sky and gift of dear, generous friends.  At my humble home on Livonia Avenue I may not have the magnificent mountains or extensive leisure time but God willing, thanks to my quaint morning ritual, I will soar to even greater heights in my daily ascent to the realms of Atzilut and beyond.

Mincha Mincha

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

By Sam Glaser

As a teenager I remember the call as I walked down Kikar Tziyon (Zion Square) in Jerusalem. The call of “Mincha, Mincha,” rang out from the entrance of a small storefront shul. I would do my best to avoid the squat elderly man with a thick Sephardic accent that beckoned in the doorway. God forbid I have my afternoon fun interrupted with 10 minutes of boredom as I stood there pretending to pray. As a young traveler I did not have any tradition of the afternoon prayer ritual. At that point in my life I was aware of Shachrit, the morning service which I avoided since I saw it as far too long and inconvenient. I was familiar with Ma’ariv, the evening service from Friday nights at Camp Ramah. But Mincha? No, Mincha was a foreign word to me, lost in the same summertime wasteland that claimed Shavuot, S’firat Ha’Omer and the “Three Weeks.” If it was left out of our annual Hebrew School lexicon it couldn’t be something I needed to worry about.

All that changed after a eye-opening trip to Israel in my twenties when I fell in love with text study and Shabbat. At that point I hungered for more connection as long as the rituals didn’t take too much of my valuable time. I was careful to manage the balance of You-ish and Jew-ish: Too much of this Judaism thing might make me a freak, but a short minimum daily requirement promised to hedge my bets. Over the next several years wrapping tefilin in the mornings became a cherished habit and gave me the discipline to chew on those thorny Hebrew paragraphs until they were smooth like the worn black leather on my arm.

Mincha followed later. Much later.  After all, who has the time mid-afternoon to stop all the action to pray? Didn’t we just say those same words in the morning? I’m a busy recording professional with clients and deadlines. I owe it to my customers to be focused on their music and not shuckling away in some secret hiding place.

Two factors inspired me to make Mincha the centerpiece of my day. The first is my limited attention span. I’m a believer in “living by the mitzvot,” in other words, if I feel a certain mitzvah is “killing” me, I feel no remorse in minimizing it. Shachrit takes a long time and when I’m davening on my own, I take liberties with shortening the Pseukei D’zimra (opening prayers of praise,) for example. Mincha fits in this perfect 5-10 minute window of opportunity where I can dive in and then re-enter the workday.

Another factor is the power of consciously unplugging from my work to plug into my relationship with God. After I received my undergrad degree from the University of Colorado Business School I pondered continuing my education with an MBA. Many of my peers recommended that I should get some work experience in my father’s garment business and only then go back for an advanced degree. True, the MBA curriculum wouldn’t change, but I would change in that I would be better equipped to know what questions I had to ask and what real world business challenges needed to be overcome. Mincha is the same way…you are already out on the test track of life. In the morning your day is theoretical. By Mincha time, you know exactly what you are up against. For me, that creates more intense, deeply felt prayer.

In fact, interrupting the workflow has it’s own celestial merit. We are told in the Ethics of the Fathers that we are not free to desist from the work at hand but we should not feel compelled to finish it. As Rabbi Joe Black says, we must “leave a little bit undone.” A spiritual person has no qualms about asking for God’s help, bringing one’s Partner in Heaven into a very tangible relationship in all endeavors. Taking that break before the sun goes down on my workday allows me to fill my prayer with specific requests based on what I’m going through at the time.

Our thrice daily prayer ritual reflects the contributions of each of our three forefathers. Avraham gave us the custom of Shachrit due to his early morning service reported in the Torah. Yaakov gave us Ma’ariv due to his intense nighttime experience on Har HaMoriah dreaming of ladders stretching up to heaven. We have Yitzchak to thank for Mincha. He is described as “conversing in the field” before the sun set when his besheret Rivka gets a glimpse of him for the first time. Likely this 30-something young man was praying hard for a wife. It’s no wonder that we too are “in the field” when we daven Mincha, either in the agricultural sense toiling the ground by the “sweat of our brow” or in whatever “field” we are engaged.

Yitzchak’s quintessential quality was gevurah or strength/discipline. That makes perfect sense in that this easily overlooked prayer service requires supernal discipline to break away from one’s workday. Once you get the ball rolling it’s hard to stop. Halacha demands that we do Shachrit before we eat breakfast which I believe is a great tactic to make sure we “wrap up” before we get wrapped up in our day. Once we get started in our eating/commuting/work routine it’s easy to forget matters of the spirit. Mincha, on the other hand MUST by definition interrupt the daily flow in order to complete it before the sky gets dark, and that takes tremendous discipline to achieve on a regular basis.

Mincha has three primary facets: Ashrei, a prayer where we butter God up, the Amidah where we ask for whatever we need, and then the Aleynu where we conclude by praying for God’s oneness and Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world. One might think we have already praised God so much in the morning that no more praise is needed, but the rabbis gave us the custom of a third repetition of King David’s Ashrei to get back into a mindset of gratitude. The popular Artscroll prayer book asks the reader to “concentrate intently” in only one sentence of the entire siddur, and that is the “Poteyach et yadecha” line of the Ashrei. This single sentence sets us up for a powerful prayer moment: God opens his hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing. When I’m hustling midday for gigs, when I’m feeling jealous of peers, when it seems that we’ll never have enough cash flow, I read this line and feel comfort. That, my friends, is reason enough to do Mincha.

Another feature of this special line is the idea that God satisfies the desire of those with “chai ratzon,” in other words, those who have a will that is alive. So much of our day is often spent in repetitive tasks and drudgery. We take the same way to work every day, eat the same lunch, see the same faces. Our fire is slowly extinguished by the repetition of the “daily grind” and that ennui can soon turn into hopelessness. The idea of this line of the Ashrei is that YOU must take responsibility for keeping your will alive. Only you can change things around. Take a different way to work, get together with old friends, rediscover activities you enjoy, get physical rather than passive in front of a TV screen or a Facebook feed. Being truly alive requires more than just food, water and an occasional jaunt on a treadmill.

In fact, Mincha offers the chance to flex our “will muscle” in the form of the Amidah where we align our personal will with the will of our Creator. (See my May 2012 newsletter on the power of the Amidah and it’s nineteen blessings.) For the advanced davener there is also the chance to have a daily Yom Kippur moment in the form of the brief Tachanun prayers. Finally, Mincha closes with the Aleynu, sending you back to the office with a reiteration of our Jewish mission statement and the satisfaction that you have just completed a sweet and vital mitzvah.

I often hear friends wish for more opportunities for spirituality, complaining that they don’t get uplifted from organized religion. They are put off by synagogue dues and politics, can’t relate to clergy or don’t feel the need to affiliate. Well, Mincha offers a spiritual high and requires only a quiet place to concentrate. What better way to spend 5-10 minutes than connecting with your Creator, analyzing your life, expressing thanks, keeping your precious will alive. Now whenever I see the sun starting to set I hear that clarion call of “Mincha, Mincha” in my mind and I joyfully respond with gratitude for another chance to dance with my Partner in Heaven.(For those who understand Hebrew, the full text of Mincha is here.  For those who don’t, I recommend this siddur with the English underneath every word.)