Posts Tagged ‘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.

Strapping Up

Monday, April 7th, 2014

By Sam Glaser

My first exposure to tefillin was in a basement workshop of a holy sofer (scribe) in Jerusalem.  I was in Israel for my Bar Mitzvah; a lucky Brentwood, CA boy whose parents opted not only for an LA celebration but also for a meaningful few weeks touring the Promised Land.  The culmination of the experience was a second Bar Mitzvah service at the Western Wall where I read Torah at the spiritual “ground zero” of our planet and forged an unbreakable bond with Israel and my people.  I remember my new tefillin straps feeling sharp and rough; it would be months before the leather would soften and feel comfortable on my skin. After this trip my father made a point of praying with me in his rich, walnut-lined study in the mornings before school, allowing for quality father-son time and ensuring that my tefillin would actually get some use.

Unfortunately I fell into the pattern of most of my Conservative peers and my Bar Mitzvah year would be the last time I’d have any shred of active Jewish life.  Yes, I attended confirmation and a few youth group activities but Judaism as I saw it was for nerds and those without a social life.  Mypriorities were fitting in at public school, skiing, biking and surfing and playing with my band.  I was proud to be Jewish and enjoyed family Friday Night dinners, but my tefillin were relegated to a dark closet never to see the light of day.

Fast forward to my twenties when I was building my first recording studio and working as a full-time composer.  I was chasing TV and movie score work, producing my first albums for clients and trying to get a record deal with my own band.  I was approached to write some music to benefit the Operation Exodus campaign (Hineni) and a song for a Camp Ramah Hallel service (Pitchu Li) and suddenly found myself referred to as a Jewish composer. Accelerating this awakening was meeting John and Ruth Rauch whose Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity was offering a two-week arts seminar in Jerusalem, all expenses paid.  I knew I wanted to get back to Jerusalem and was excited to get some inspiration to write some more Jewish tunes, so I applied and got accepted to the program.

Imagine the thrill of living in the elegant guest artist hotel Mishkenot She’ananim in Jerusalem where creative types of all sorts performed, collaborated and workshopped late into the nights. I wrote another three songs that would become part of my first Jewish album and bonded tightly with the international group of composers assembled from the four corners of the earth.  On one of the final nights of the program one of our mentors made a point of having a one-on-one conversation with me. Phillip said, “Sam, I’ve noticed you are a deeply religious guy.” I laughed, waiting for the punch line.  “No, I’m serious,” he insisted.  I responded that I couldn’t imagine why he might have come to this conclusion and he replied that he had overheard me in dialog with the Israelis on our program and noted that I always took the religious side of our theological arguments.

Phillip concluded that I should further investigate this side of my personality and perhaps it would bear some fruit.  When I asked how I might do that he suggested that I choose a mitzvah and make it my own. We pondered the alternatives and he then asked if I had ever wrapped tefillin.  “Yes,” I replied, “I have a pair that I received for my Bar Mitzvah.” Phillip told me to try putting them on and using this spiritual activity as a way to remember the connection I felt in Israel.  Upon returning home weeks went by before I made it over to my parent’s house and found the aged leather in the exact place where it had been left sixteen years earlier. The next morning in my beachside apartment I tried to put them on.  I had very little recollection of how to tie the straps or utter the appropriate blessings. I did know enough once I got them on that it was a good time to say the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, to thank God for the blessings in my life and ponder my connection with my heritage.

Midway through my prayers the phone rang.  As I reached for the receiver it dawned on me that this was my time to pray and I shouldn’t interrupt the moment with a call. As I uttered the ancient words, however, I did pause to listen to my answering machine as it picked up the message: it was my friend Jymm Adams from the Sports Channel of LA asking me to do all the music for TV broadcast of the Dodger and Angel home games that season.  I reached my strapped up hands to the heavens and said, “We’ll try this again tomorrow!”

I never got another lucrative mid-prayer phone call, but this small daily exercise of faith gave me something much more: a palpable relationship with the Creator of heaven and earth.  As long as I was setting aside a few minutes each day to pray I started to navigate the challenging waters of the long winded P’zukei D’zimra (Psalms of Praise) and the central prayer, the Shmoneh Esrai.  I added paragraph by paragraph onto my personal ritual, not wanting to bog myself down with too long a service but hoping to increase the fluidity of my Hebrew reading.  I was suddenly grateful for the hours of Hebrew School, Camp Ramah and practice with my cantor and Bar Mitzvah tutor. Thanks to those with the thankless task of teaching this class clown, I could actually read the Hebrew and with time could flow through the siddur.  Before long I could get through the majority of the Shachrit (morning) service and put on my tefillin like a champ.  Eventually I learned to focus on the meanings rather than just pronunciations of the words and learned to close my eyes and simply dwell in God’s presence.

At first the whole binding exercise seemed like a masochistic reenactment of the binding of Isaac, attempting to sublimate ego and will to that of the Almighty in a servant/master relationship. Perhaps tefillin are a physical expression of our being “bound” in a covenant with God. Contracts and covenants are good in that they inspire a sense of trust for each party; I was learning to trust God in my daily life, and I was hoping to become someone that God would consider a trustworthy partner in the healing of the world. As I grew in my spiritual intelligence I realized that tefillin commemorate a much greater degree of intimacy that can only be compared to the covenant of marriage: When we wind them around our fingers we utter the betrothal passage of Hoshea that is often recited at marriage ceremonies. For me, tefillin represent a daily “chuppah” moment just like at Mount Sinai, where I get to participate in a loving embrace of my “partner” in creation.

We all know that tefillin are mentioned four times in our Torah, most notably in one of our most important prayers, the Sh’ma. It is these four passages that are carefully transcribed with the same care as a mezuzah or Torah scroll, both in the head and arm boxes. In the Sh’ma our love affair with God is described as one that involves all our heart, soul and might. So too do we wear the tefillin on the arm close to the heart, on the head, the seat of the soul/intellect, and might, the realm of action on our bicep. There is also an idea that the head straps hang unevenly down towards our genitalia. Essentially we are employing a very physical system of checks and balances, a daily uniting of our spiritual and material existence, our yetzer hatov and yetzer harah (good and evil inclinations,) all within the realm of love. Tefillin offer us the chance to walk the middle path, to keep our intellect, emotions and physical being in peaceful coexistence in service to God.

Another virtue of this practice is the idea of unifying the transmission of both the written and oral law.  The Chumash (Torah) advises that we place a sign on our arms and between our eyes, but does not tell us exactly where that place is, what that “sign” looks like or even to employ leather and parchment.  Yet for millennia Jews have worn the same black boxes in more or less the same way.  I remember on that Bar Mitzvah trip how we hiked to top of Masada and learned that the 2000-year-old tefillin that were discovered were indistinguishable from those of today. Clearly Moses was shown diagrams and visions in addition to just taking dictation on Sinai. This oral law gives us the “meat” on the bones of our written transmission of God’s will. By wearing tefillin everyday we deepen the connection of these two worlds of understanding and take our place in the chain of transmission.

I highly recommend Aryeh Kaplan’s book aptly titled “Tefillin” for anyone curious about the role of gender and the deeper mystical aspects of this mitzvah.

These days I wear my tefillin wherever I wander.  I find that I am often in airports or on the rooftops of hotels looking for a quiet corner to strap up and say my morning prayers. I know it appears strange to onlookers but laying tefillin makes a definitive statement: “I’m Jewish, this is what we do, thanks for respecting our differences.” I welcome the questions that often ensue. When I’m not in the synagogue, I have a favorite spot on my east-facing porch where I am greeted with the warm morning light, flitting hummingbirds and the perfume of jasmine. With my own kids I am relaxed with pushing them to get to a minyan on Shabbat, but I consider the wearing of tefillin every weekday inviolate. Their willingness to do this mitzvah is a prerequisite to participating in our family vacations or any activities on Sundays. Thankfully they get it, largely because they see me doing it and they intuit the importance of consistency. Hopefully it’s more than guilt that motivates them…they have their own loving relationship with God…why mess that up? As Woody Allen says, “80% of life is showing up.” I believe that faithful behavior like a daily appointment with one’s tefillin elevates elusive faith into the realm of knowledge.

I’d like to finish with a tefillin story.  Everyone that I know that wraps on a daily basis has a good tefillin story, usually about their quest never to miss a day under any circumstances. One day on a concert tour/family vacation on the North Shore of Kauai I did my morning service on the beach overlooking a perfect double overhead swell at Hanalei Bay.  After davening I stashed my tefillin in the car and paddled out to have one of the most exciting surf sessions of my life. The locals were helping me get into position to drop into some of the smoothest and deepest bowls of bright green glass of my aquatic career.  After a few hours of breathless exertion I returned to my rental car surprised that the interior smelled of cigarette smoke.  I then realized that someone else had been in the car.  I checked under the seat to find that my phone, camera and tallis/tefillin bag were gone.

I searched the area, interviewed onlookers and filed a report with the police, to no avail.  My son Max was Bar Mitzvah age but had left his tefillin in LA and I didn’t know of anyone else in the North Shore that might be observant. What would I pray with on the following day, the last weekday of our trip?  I had another problem…how would I reach the guy with whom I was supposed to be jamming that night?  After my concert the night before, some locals were inspired to get me together with a percussionist to do a show in a club. But now without my precious iPhone, I didn’t have any of their contact information.  It dawned on me that some friends of ours from LA were vacationing on the South Shore. Perhaps we could reach them and arrange to get together and borrow their tefillin.

Sure enough the Brant-Sarif family agreed to meet us for a hike on the North Shore. We met on the edge of a certain condo complex where a steep trail heads down a cliff to a system of ocean-side sea caves inhabited by giant sea turtles. Following our explorations we scaled the cliff back to the parking lot and went back to their car so that my son and I could daven with tefillin. Time was of the essence since they had to get back down south before Shabbat came in. Just as I strapped up, a warm Hawaiian drizzle started to fall.  To avoid getting my friend’s tefillin wet we all dashed into the alcove of one of the condos and shared an animated communal mincha (afternoon) prayer session.

Just as we were davening the owner of this particular condo came walking down the stairs and shouted, “What the…” Upon closer inspection he stated, “my mishpocha!”  Sure enough he was a Jewish guy from the mainland that had recently made Hawaii his home.  He demurred when we offered him to try on the tefillin but he invited us into his condo for a drink.  When I introduced myself as a visiting musician he responded, “You’re Sam Glaser?? We were supposed to jam last night!”  Yes, this condo where we were huddled, trying to sneak in our mitzvah of tefillin before Shabbat began, was the very home of the person that I needed to reach the day before.

Wearing my tefillin on a daily basis has been nothing other than a window to perceive the daily miracles in my life. Thanks to this discipline I have a regular rendezvous with the Almighty that is fulfilling and unshakeable.   Ensuring that I never miss this appointment has created some truly memorable moments.  I’m also reminded of the power of an encouraging word: just like my mentor on that Israel program gave me the idea of tefillin as a way to connect my trip to further spiritual growth, so too do I try to offer similar suggestions to those with open hearts whom I encounter. Finally, tefillin offer access to the deepest realms of the soul: a connection of mind, body and heart, a binding of servant to master and a daily reenactment of our sacred marriage with the Creator of the Universe.

Why is This Night Different From All Other Nights?

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

By Sam Glaser

lake sunsetOne 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 usGlasers on Lakespent 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.

prayerI 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.

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.)

The Jewish Secret of Attracting Abundance

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

by Sam Glaser

My wife buys the smallest packages of food in order to conserve space in our three-shelf pantry. When I open it on any given morning and find one of those 10oz. boxes of Cheerios I cringe and dream of a time when we can shop at Costco. Furthermore, I insist on having a plethora of cereal options so that I can mix and match my breakfast. She retaliates by buying the mini jars of peanut butter. I get the same grief when it comes to my closet full of clothes. She argues that I have more than she does and calls me a pack rat. I respond that I like lots of choices and see no reason to throw my old favorites away, as long as they still fit. So too with my CD collection, the gear in my music studio, my library. Am I too attached to material things? Yes. But I prefer to give my obsession another name.

Shefa. Shefa is one of my favorite Hebrew words. It means abundance, and it’s something to which all of us aspire. On the most basic level it’s having plenty of money in your bank account. For our family, after our household expenses and day school tuition, this “plenty” is highly variable. I think my array of cereal and t-shirt choices is a subconscious attempt to live in that world of shefa, for at least some of my day. Another way we add shefa into our lives is by celebrating Shabbat in grand style. We get tremendous pleasure out of entertaining guests. Even though it’s expensive to buy all the food and my wife works so hard to make a delicious and beautifully presented meal, one day a week we reign as the monarchs of Livonia Avenue.

I resonate with the idea of living large. I love my king size bed, skiing big mountains, eating overstuffed burritos. I sit in an enormous relax-the-back chair in my studio; I love epic movies on big screens and all-day-long music festivals. Big things give me big joy. I recognize that this conspicuous consumption flies in the face of politicalcorrectness. We live at a time when conscientious Americans are trying to reduce our carbon footprints, bringing canvas bags to the supermarket, driving hybrids and recycling. I’m not suggesting that we abandon these astute practices, God forbid! I am suggesting that we distinguish between minimizing our consumption and maximizing our joy.

Some feel that invoking shefa to accumulate wealth is at odds with Judaism or a liberal agenda. The fact is that all of our patriarchs and matriarchs were loaded. Their illustrious stories are enshrined in our national consciousness to teach that financial abundance isn’t just tolerated, it’s encouraged! The single caveat is that one must remain a mensch (kind-hearted person.) When Abraham left Egypt with the trappings of wealth he took care that his vast flocks didn’t graze on anyone else’s property. Isaac managed his holdings with a low profile and when neighbors maliciously tampered with his wells he reached out with overtures of peace. When Jacob made his fortune he radically transitioned from hardened businessman into the spiritual father of the Jewish People.

Kabbalah describes a higher meaning of shefa: our God is essentially GOOD, and created the universe to extend His/Her good in every direction. Shefa isn’t just material abundance; it refers to the FLOW of God’s beneficence in every form. Imagine a brilliant beam emanating from a spotlight towards a performer on stage. This is like the divine light highlighting all creation. Spotlight operators have the choice of filters to dim the light all the way down to near darkness. What most self-help books and seminars attempt to show us is that we are in control of these filters and can open or close our personal flow, based on our actions and attitudes.

I chose to write about shefa this month because I feel that we tend to self-limit our own shefa, the flow of God’s light in our lives. We allow global economic woes to diminish our outlook, feel beaten down at work, have less time to do the things we enjoy, feel hopeless trying to pay stacks of bills with shrinking salaries, feel helpless dealing with health issues. Life is scary. Living in fear takes us out of the flow of shefa. The million-dollar question is how can we attract blessing in our income, health and happiness?  Thankfully, for the Jewish people, there are very specific ways to master the law of attraction.

Our crowning quality as human beings is our freedom of choice. God created a world where we must choose constantly, where our own micro universes are manifestations of our daily choices. God implores us to “choose life,” to arm ourselves with the information of exactly what is life and what is death and to choose appropriately. Just like we might obsess over which new HD3DTV to purchase on Black Friday, in order to get into a place of divine flow we must we investigate our spiritual choices and then commit to a path.

Our most fundamental choice is whether or not we choose to have God in our lives. Choosing God requires that we create the space for a relationship and connect on a regular basis. You wouldn’t call a once a year Facebook post a great relationship. That’s right, we need more than just the High Holidays to “go with the flow.” Relationship building in Judaism is a two way street: we have to pray with passion and we have to study God’s Torah to hear God’s voice in return. Any deep relationship has the important prerequisite of humility. With the same stubbornness that I will drive around lost rather than ask for directions, I often forget that God is here to help me and bring bounty in my life. The Kotzker Rebbe says, “Where is God? Wherever you let God in.” Get your ego in check, open your heart and simply ask for guidance and sustenance. This is the magic of prayer. To get on the E-ticket ride on this Heavenly wave, all we have to do is ASK for it.

Another aspect of bringing shefa into our lives is in fashioning vessels that can handle ever-increasing blessing. A sixteen-year-old praying for a red Ferrari most likely is not ready for such a vehicle. The answer to his prayer, regardless of how earnestly he asks, is likely going to be NO. Too much shefa can destroy us. Over our lifetime God gives us challenges to see how much shefa we are ready for. The tests we get on a daily basis are here to build us into people who can deal with greater gifts. Only God really knows how much we can handle, even better than we know ourselves. Of course, random acts of loving-kindness are shefa“magnets”; if we prove that we know how to do the right thing in any situation, clearly God can trust us with abundance. God aches to give us more, but we have to CHOOSE the relationship, we have to ASK for what we want and we have to BUILD ourselves into individuals who can handle abundance.

At a conference at which I was performing a few years ago I met a Chassidic maple syrup farmer named Shmuel Simenowitz. He lectures on the subject of eco-farming, getting back to the land and working with one’s hands. One thing he warned of however, is knowing when to be thrifty and when to aim for abundance. We must tread lightly on our planet, but with God we have to live LARGE and ask for the moon. He brought with him a diminutive, two-handled cup for the ritual washing of the hands. He explained that it was given to him by a Jewish ecological organization to minimize the water used in the hand washing ceremony. In no uncertain terms Reb Shmuel lambasted this assault at shefa. Indeed, we bring abundance into our lives when we wash with a lot of water! In other words, don’t hold back with your mitzvot. Do them with alacrity and dedication. Give big charity, make loud blessings over your food, learn Torah with fervor. Take shorter showers but pour it on when you wash.

My regular readers know that I’m a big advocate of halacha, or Jewish law. Halacha has at its root the word “pathway” or how one walks. Halacha may seem formfitting but it is truly a unique channel for each individual. It serves to orient our neshamot (souls) on a step by step ascent towards that spiritual beam of light. Halacha gives us the ability to know the choices at hand and to choose wisely. This is true “informed choice.” Halacha teaches us how to walk humbly before our Creator. It gives us a daily workout of our spiritual muscles in the form of prayer and blessings, even when we don’t feel like working out. It doesn’t turn us into robots; it molds us into the best individuals that we can possibly be, the most refined version of ourselves, the ideal receptacles for God’s blessings. Just like planets and atoms have orbits, animals have instincts and trees know which way is up, so too do we human beings have a divine pathway.

One issue that I’m sure is not unique to the Jewish people is that we often let our tightly defined denominations limit us rather than allow us to bask in the rays of unadulterated shefa. We tend to deem those less observant than we are as heretics and more observant as fanatics. When I grew up in the Conservative movement, I somehow thought that the laws of kashrut were only for the rabbi. I often hear my Reform friends say “well, as a Reform Jew I don’t have to ________” (fill in the blank with whatever mitzvah is deemed too difficult.) Some Modern Orthodox Jews scoff at their “backwards” Haredi neighbors who are simply trying to be earnest in their divine service. My point is that we are all on a personal growth continuum

and should use our Jewish institutions to enhance our connection rather than provide a glass ceiling to our growth. My friend David Suissa comments that in religious life we decide, “that’s not what I do” and then defend that stance religiously! We argue: why try a mitzvah one time if it makes us a “hypocrite” for not sticking with it? As Jews, our access to shefa is closely aligned with the mitzvot that we take on. Take a chance! Be a hypocrite once in a while. Suissa quotes Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz as saying “God counts only the mitzvahs you do, not the ones you don’t.”

Another point of blockage to that loving beam of spiritual light is our own feelings of inferiority. Often we feel like we are not deserving. We can be our own worst enemy. We label ourselves “bad Jews” and sinners and become paralyzed with depression and doubt. There is no such thing as a perfect person. Proverbs tell us that a righteous person falls seven times. But he or she gets back up! Dust yourself off, pound your chest, start a new day and get over it! God created teshuva (return to a spiritual path) before creating the world. God is infinite and therefore infinitely forgiving. God has such tremendous gifts in store for all of us. If we can just get out of our own way.

My wife loves me so much. A few months after the cereal argument she told me that she realizes that having great variety is an important ingredient in my personal quest for shefa. Now she not only provides it lovingly, she actively shops for the brands I like. The boxes are still small, however. Our relationship with our Creator is much like a marriage: success is based on knowing what makes your partner tick, expressing heartfelt gratitude, being sensitive to what makes the relationship flow and rectifying what doesn’t. God is continuously showering us with shefa, in the form of the breath we take, our insight, relationships, awareness and inner peace. And of course, in wearing a favorite outfit, getting that perfect gig and blue-sky powder days on the slopes.

United We Stand

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

by Sam Glaser

My cherished custom every time I land in Florida is to head straight to the beach and jump in the glassy, warm water. The shock of the Pacific chill is absent…no wetsuit required…and the white sand unfolds to the North for hundreds of miles. Upon arriving on this last trip with my fellow Jewish singer and good buddy Todd Herzog, we dropped our bags at the beachfront hotel and davened a peaceful mincha (afternoon prayer) before jumping into the shallow blue-green playground. As we pondered the pelicans and sandpipers, Todd asked me some penetrating questions about why one would want to say the same exact words three times a day. He was curious what I get out of it. Am I was focusing on just getting the words out or am I actually thinking about meanings? Where do I add my own thoughts? And what happens on Shabbat when we stop making requests from God…what am I praying for then?

This conversation got me thinking about why I am so obsessed about getting in my thrice-daily conversation with our Creator. Is it all hot air? Does God hear me? Is it for God or me? Why do the words have to be just right? Have I been brainwashed? Isn’t repeating the same behavior while expecting a different result the definition of insanity? I know…lots of questions. My first answer is that prayer keeps my God-focus intact. It exercises a spiritual muscle that grows stronger with each repetition. Just like a marathon runner would never start a race without training, saying the Amidah (standing prayer) three times a day keeps me spiritually limber. Using that same analogy, for someone just starting out, I never recommend they try to tackle the whole siddur. Bite size chunks, little by little, adding a few miles a day makes the runner a success rather than a crash and burn heretic. I don’t wait for inspiration to pray that may or may not come. I would argue that davening regularly makes God your best friend, your teammate that you train with daily. It makes the elusive “I-Thou” bond palpable.

The next obvious question is “why repeat these exact words?  How about prayer from the heart?” Over the past twenty years I have found that respecting Jewish tradition is a safe road. Generations of righteous people have rallied around these specific paragraphs for millennia and I believe that they have served as a key to our unique and unprecedented survival. The Men of the Great Assembly codified our central prayer nearly 2500 years ago…and it was clearly already in use when they did so. Among their ranks were several sages of prophetic stature. They boiled down God’s will for the Jewish People in eighteen (later nineteen) crucial categories. When we repeat this menu of our deepest needs, we enact our partnership with God in bringing them to fruition. So central is this prayer to our existence that it is simply referred to as tefila (THE prayer) when discussed in the Talmud. The Sh’ma and psalms are important, but the Amidah is IT. I think Rashi says it best when he explains that l’hitpalel, or to pray, means to dream or think ultimate thoughts. We utter nineteen dreams for humanity and those dreams become part of us, defining our aspirations and clarifying our service to God.

When my brother and I were getting more involved in our heritage we made a pact with each other that we call “Holocaust Proofing.” Interestingly, we both came up with this practice on our own and then shared it with one another. The idea is that the structure of the siddur is set up for memorization due to the repetitive nature of the prayer experience. Over the years, with minimal effort we were able to internalize the morning, afternoon and evening prayers so that if we were to find ourselves without a prayer book or, God forbid, in an adverse situation, we would always have these crucial words on our lips. In my personal practice I pray without a book every other time so that I don’t lose the accumulated knowledge. One of the keys to this technique is mouthing the words silently, a custom that we learn from our prophetess Hannah when she so ardently prayed for a child. Just scanning the words doesn’t seem to be as effective as quietly pronouncing every last one.

A friend who was recently divorced was appalled that the rabbi writing her Get (divorce document) didn’t have a special kavanah (spiritual intent) as he wrote the letters with careful calligraphy. She kept asking him to try to infuse the document with spiritual meaning and passion and the frustrated rabbi could only reply, “my kavanah is that I’m writing a Get, period!” Sometimes my emotional connection in prayer isn’t so passionate. It’s the exercise that counts. Rabbi Natan Lopez Cardozo states that simply saying the words, even if you are thinking about the stock market, is still a remarkable triumph. Indeed, taking time out from one’s busy schedule to stand with God is a profound step that cannot be underestimated. I find that my personal Amidah is on a continuum, from awe-inspiring, tear filled revelation to squeezing in a quick mincha hiding behind a Christmas tree in an airport. I’m convinced that those radical moments of sublime unity wouldn’t happen if I didn’t subscribe to the “Just Do It” day-to-day practice.

For me, the key is to make each prayer session personal and real. I realize that most minyanim don’t allow slow nurturing of each syllable but I still insist that the key is in living the words. My rabbi Moshe Cohen says the first paragraph of the Amidah is the web address. If you misspell you are going to get some random website. Or worse. there’s any place that you want to deeply focus and use the formulaic words of the millennia, this is it.


Even this single minute of concentration is hard to achieve when your head is filled with worry and deadlines. That’s why we start with a sentence asking God to open our mouths for us; we have to supersede our human limitations to enter the realm of the spirit. A crucial place to pause is the prayer for healing, refa-eynu. The Amidah is written in the plural…it’s not all about you! This paragraph is a perfect place to take a break and earnestly say the names of those who are in need of healing of the body and spirit. I try to make sure I’m focused on Jerusalem during the prayer for the holy city…it’s not enough that I’m facing East; I try to envision a vortex of holiness at the site of the Temple spreading all the way to Los Angeles. During Shma Koleynu I insert anything I’m dealing with at the time, in my own words, silently speaking in plain English exactly what I want and need. Then I make sure that my Modim (thank you) is real, that thanks is pouring out of me like a grateful defendant who just received a positive verdict.

Todd’s last issue concerns how to navigate the personal prayers on Shabbat. The middle thirteen blessings with personal petitions are not part of the Sabbath liturgy. This omission heightens our sensitivity to the glory of the day, since we are tasting “Olam Habah,” a realm where all our needs are met. Crying about our needs can create a sense of lack and potential bitterness, clearly counterproductive in our attempt to establish a sacred island in time. We certainly are allowed to pray for our spiritual needs and for communal imperatives like healing and peace. Our sages recognize that praying for a soul mate is a spiritual need. A good question is what happens for those who only pray on Shabbat…when do they get to ask for their personal needs if not on Shabbat when they do show up to the synagogue?

As I first started praying regularly and respecting Shabbat my main battle was consistency, “walking the talk.”  The beauty of the Amidah is that it helps to unify our inner and outer essence and keep us on a divine pathway. Clearly, success in prayer happens when we are honest in our personal reflection, baring all to our God that perceives all. Tefilah and Tofel, or secondary, have the same root, teaching us that part of the foundation of prayer is making oneself secondary to our Creator. It re-establishes our servitude to a Higher Power; we shouldn’t be cowardly, but humble, making God’s will our will. I have found that this powerful prayer forces me to constantly reassess my personal will with divine will and when in doubt, to err on the side of holiness.

Since the powerful spiritual practice of reciting the Amidah requires engaging and understanding the Hebrew text, it’s important to find a good siddur. The book I prefer is the new Artscroll’s Interlinearsiddur since it has the English printed in a clever way under each word. In fact, I think that it’s intellectually dishonest for a non-fluent Hebrew speaker to use anything else now that this amazing tool is available. It also has the prayer “aerobics” instructions for when to stand, bow and say amen.

In the words of MC Hammer, “We got to pray just to make it today.” Prayer affects worlds beyond our grasp. It connects, corrects, consoles, propels, heals and inspires. With the weight of the world on our shoulders we can opt for fight or flight. As the People of the Book and the Children of Israel, we have at our root a connection to the collective wisdom and strength of the past and a penchant to get into the ring. Yisrael means to struggle with God and man. And win! The Amidah is one of the best tools to unite us as a nation, and when we stand together anything is possible.