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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

September 16, 2021

Yom Kippur 5782

A few years ago, I participated in a retreat in a wooded area of Westchester, perched above the Hudson River.

Each morning, there were options for worship and prayer, some of them traditional, many creative.

Many of you have had the opportunity to take a Shabbat or holiday hike with me here in the Berkshires. There is something incredible about bringing our worship to the wilderness, something that opens up inside of us when we take our prayers outdoors.

So one beautiful fall morning, right around this time of year, I elected to join a group that would be praying outside at this retreat.

The prayer elective I chose was called Hitbodedut. To break down the word, it is reflexive, which means, something that we do to or for ourselves, on our own. And the Hebrew root boded means alone, solitary, or isolated.

In fact, when Israelis return from traveling abroad today under COVID restrictions, they call it bidud - solitary quarantine.

Having never participated in Hitbodedut before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. We gathered in a clearing in the woods in the early hours of the morning, pulling on sweatshirts, our breath visible in a sign that the evenings would soon be filled with frost.

Hitbodedut,” said our leader, “is spontaneous and personal prayer. I’ll invite everyone to spread out in this area, to find your own personal space in the woods. And I’ll invite you to pray, to talk to God, to say whatever is on your mind.”

I followed along so far, this sounded similar to silent prayer during or at the conclusion of the Amidah, a familiar feature of our synagogue services.

“Here’s what might be different - I want you to pray out loud. On your own. Solitary, solo, by yourself. I want you to shout and speak to God. Raise your voice. You’re on your own, except you’re not, because you’re talking to God.”

Our small group stared at the leader, questions in our eyes.

“Just try it.”

So, we spread out across the hillside among the trees. I found a spot where I could see the mist rising off the river.

I have to admit, I felt a little weird. I felt self-conscious. I wasn’t sure how to begin.

Then I took three deep breaths. I realized I was alone in the woods. No one was around to hear me. There was actually no reason to feel self-conscious. And so the only thing to do was to begin.

After a few moments of silence, of listening, I started to pray out loud.

“God, this isn’t how we usually talk, but there’s no one to hear me but You. So, let’s get into it….”

Our one-sided conversation continued from there. While it was certainly outside of my comfort zone, and at times I felt a little awkward, it was a powerful way of talking to God that has stayed with me.

Hitbodedut. The act of self-isolation, of turning inward, of praying out loud, alone. And yet, like listening to one half of a telephone conversation, we know, we can sense, that someone, something, is there on the other end of the line.

Praying out loud, alone. One half of a conversation.

When our son, Lior, was born, I received some excellent advice.

“Just talk to him. He’s like a sponge. Every word you say to him is helping him grow and learn.”

And so, this spring, at home with our new baby, Mikah, during my family leave, I spoke to her all day. In the beginning, I was definitely having one half of a conversation. And while different than those who had a new baby in the early stages of the pandemic, we still tried to keep her mostly isolated, away from others, in a baby bubble.

So, we spent a lot of time, in the house, talking - alone. And while she’s not speaking in words or sentences yet, now, we have a rhythm to our dialogue - in the pauses in between my sentences and songs, she replies with babbling, laughs, and smiles.

One half of a conversation, alone, together.

That’s also how we might describe this unusual year of High Holy Days, this unprecedented time in our lives, when we pray together, yet apart. Not unlike our experiences with zoom or streaming services in the past year and a half - our voices muted, alone, together.

Even in a more typical year, when the sanctuary is full with each of you, I get a glimpse of this feeling at moments when we pray before the open ark - for Avinu Malkeinu, or the final words of our Yom Kippur Neilah service, which we will share in just a few hours - shouting, declaring, speaking these words into the air.

With pages and pages of liturgy, the High Holy Days offer many moments for fixed, pre-written, familiar, well-worn prayers. Words that we have inherited across the generations, and new ways of expressing our requests, gratitude, and, particularly today, our repentance.

These prayers are called keva - which means fixed - and while we may, from generation to generation, write new prayerbooks and adapt the language for our modern, egalitarian sensibilities, the words are meaningful in their yearly repetition. They are words that belong to us, but they are not our own words. They are written by someone else. For example, our theme for these High Holy Days, Birkat Kohanim, is one of our oldest inherited, keva prayers, a piece of fixed liturgy, coming to us directly from the Torah.

That is why, on Shabbat and the High Holy Days, in the woods and in our living rooms, there is much to be gained from the moments of silence, too. Without needing to stand on a mountaintop, our times of silent prayer can be an opportunity for our own, spontaneous, prayers - whether out loud or internal.

These moments of kavannah, of personal intention, of creativity, allow us to say what we need to say to God. To make it personal. To take the moments, hours, months of isolation and separation, and to give them a vessel, to endow them with meaning.

Hitbodedut - we transcend a solitary room, our self-isolation, our being alone - and we open a window to God - if we allow ourselves to try.

As one of my favorite readings in our Shabbat prayerbook, Mishkan Tefilah, so eloquently describes:

I begin with a prayer of gratitude

for all that is holy in my life.

God needs no words, no English or Hebrew, no semantics or services.

But I need them.

Through prayer, I can sense my inner strength, my inner purpose,

my inner joy, my capacity to love.

As I reach upward in prayer,

I sense these qualities in my Creator.

To love God is to love each other,

to work to make our lives better.

To love God is to love the world God created and to work to perfect it.

God doesn’t need our prayers, but we need them - now, more than ever.

However we pray, whatever words we say, whether in the plural or singular, spontaneous or traditional, silent or aloud - prayer is our way of talking to God.

Birkat Kohanim, the priestly benediction, is three lines of Hebrew, six verbs. May You, God, bless us and keep us. May You. We make this petition, this humble request, for blessing and safety, grace and enlightenment, mercy and peace.

Birkat Kohanim is a prayer, but it is not a blessing. A semantic but also significant distinction. A blessing begins or ends with a familiar formula: Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam - Blessed are You, our God, Ruler of the Universe….

We do not find that phrase in the Priestly Benediction. Instead of blessing God, we ask God to bestow us with blessings.

And so we do not conclude the Priestly Benediction with Amen - I agree. In conversation, in community, in prayer, we reply with these three words:

Kein Yehi Ratzon - May this be God’s will.

Kein Yehi Ratzon - words of request, of willing something to be, of asking God for blessings.

Kein Yehi Ratzon - asking God for a better world in the year to come.

Kein Yehi Ratzon - for all that may be - a prayer of possibility. A prayer for the future. A prayer of hope.

Kein Yehi Ratzon, may it be God’s will, may these be our gifts for the new year.

May we be blessed and may we be kept.

May we be enlightened, may we be gracious to ourselves and others.

May we be curious, not judgmental.

May we be kept in safety, in health, in well-being, and in peace.

Kein Yehi Ratzon, May this be God’s will!

 

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Sun, October 17 2021 11 Cheshvan 5782