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Preparing Ourselves for Prayer

09/06/2019 03:16:35 PM

Sep6

This post originally appeared on Reform.Judaism.org

The arrival of Parashat Va-et’chanan on Shabbat Nachamu reminds us that effective prayer is best achieved when we take the time to focus and organize our thoughts. This advice serves us well as we approach the upcoming Yamim Nora-im, a period of preparation and sanctity that launches amidst a series of structured countdowns.

We begin with this week’s entry into the seven haftarot of consolation. These readings from the prophets emphasize God’s compassion and ability to forgive. In a few weeks, we will spend the entire month of Elul awakening our souls with the calls of the shofar. Finally, most Ashkenazic communities will commence an additional pre–High Holiday warm-up on the Saturday evening prior to Rosh Hashanah with Selichot. This service of penitential prayers explores God’s capacity to forgive transgression, iniquity, and sin while echoing much of the liturgy that will be said later on during Yom Kippur. In the Sephardic tradition, these prayers are said throughout the month of Elul. 

In Parashat Va-et’chanan, Moses formulates his own personal quest to seek God’s forgiveness. In doing so, he creates a model for members of the Jewish community to follow as they seek repentance and forgiveness. Prayer can be a daunting endeavor. We often do not know where to begin. If we follow the blueprint crafted by Moses in this week’s portion as outlined by Cantor Sacks, preparation and flattery precede the eventual ask.

As Sifrei D’varim 26:7 clarifies, the title verb of our parashah — chanan — means prayer. It is fitting that the Torah portion bearing this name is the one that contains some of Judaism’s most fundamental teachings — the Sh’ma (Deut 6:4) and (most of) V’ahavta (Deut 6:5-9Num.15:40-41). When we say these words in a prayer service, they are part of a rubric that is similar to the one that Moses uses in this week’s portion. We prepare with the Bar’chu, our call to worship. We rise in reverence as our bodies, voices, and minds get ready to pray. Next, we praise God’s wondrous creations in Yotzer, flattering God with descriptions of the beautiful world that God created. When we continue with the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, we highlight God’s teachings as we utter the watchword of the Jewish faith.

Rabbi David Hartman describes the Sh’ma as being representative of the partnership between the Jewish people and God. “In reciting the Shema, we hear God addressing the community,” he writes. “It is the moment of commitment of the community to God and to God’s Torah” (Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, vol 3 [NY:UAHC Press, 1995], p.112). This reminds us that even though we each pray as individuals, it is important for us to do so within the context of our greater community. It is community that plays an important role in the next prayer in our service as we celebrate our collective freedom and redemption with Mi Chamochah.

After all of this, we are finally ready to ask. In worship, the ask comes in the form of the Amidah. This prayer is so central to our faith that we often refer to it as the T’filah, the Prayer. The Amidah gives us concrete themes to reflect upon during worship, including forgiveness, wellness, peace, and gratitude. It also gives us time for t'filat halev — the personal prayers of our hearts.

During the Yamim Nora-im, our Machzor presents a similar balance between structured communal liturgy and personal prayer. In Reform liturgy, the cantor begins Rosh HaShanah worship with the Hineni prayer in which she asks for the ability lead her congregation towards repentance. To balance the need to accommodate both individual and communal needs Mishkan HaNefesh includes a parallel prayer that enables individual worshippers time for personal preparation and reflection.

Even as we pray individually, as Moses did at the beginning of Va-et’chanan, it is important to remind ourselves that we all matter — by our words, our demeanor, and our intention — to the success of the prayers of the entire community. Let the examples offered by Moses and by the Sh’ma and her blessings guide us over next seven weeks, into Elul, and towards the High Holidays themselves as we prepare to become our best selves in 5780.

Cantor Lauren Phillips Fogelman serves Temple Israel of Northern Westchester in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. She is a proud member of the American Conference of Cantors.

8/17/2019

Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782