My studies this week at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a week which has had as its nearly single focus, the subject of prayer, triggered a very early memory. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s one of my earliest Jewish memories. My family joined a neighborhood synagogue as I entered the second grade, presumably so that I could be enrolled in the synagogue’s Hebrew & Religious School to begin learning in a Jewish context. The truth is that I have very strong memories of our family’s involvement in the life of our synagogues (we subsequently moved to another synagogue when our family moved clear across town. Ironically the two congregations merged just a few years later.) We regularly attended services, my parents took on various leadership roles in the life of the congregation(s), and synagogue became a second home. And those memories and that feeling are no small part of the type of community I have tried to create in each of the synagogues in which I have the privilege to service over the past thirty-plus years.
The memory which was triggered was far simpler, at least on the surface. On the side wall of the bimah in our sanctuary were words that over the years I have come to realize adorn many a sanctuary in the synagogue world: “Know Before Whom You Stand.” As a young child, and as I grew up in my synagogue over my formative years, I often wondered about the power of those words. I suppose that was exactly what the designers of our sanctuary had in mind: to make you think.
I recall that in my later high school years and during college, as my Jewish studies continued and moved to different and more intense levels, I went searching for the original source of the words, in Hebrew, Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omeid. Mind you, this was pre-personal computers, let alone electronic resources with which to search. I recall coming up empty, only finding the words in a Talmudic passage in which they were rendered in the plural. At some point I simply gave up looking. And in truth, it’s been a while since I have thought about those childhood memories, though I continue to find the words in sanctuaries from time-to-time. That is, until this week! This week our Hartman Rabbinic Leadership cohort has been studying prayer: in Biblical sources, Rabbinic Sources, Kabbalistic tradition, and in terms of prayer itself. We are even focusing on how contemporary Israelis are approaching prayer from a secular point of view!
Over the course of the past two days, our teacher, Rabbi Donniel Hartman has led us on an exhilarating and enlightening journey through classic Rabbinic texts on the subject of Keva (generally understood as “the fixed structure and timing of Jewish prayer”) and Kavannah (generally understood as “sincere intention” in prayer, or spontaneity.) In truth, we learned this week that both are far more complicated than most of us realized. In the course of our studies we read a passage from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, page 28b in which we read of Rabbi Eliezer instructing his students, who were visiting him during a grave illness. Fearing their teacher might soon die, the students asked him, “Master, teach us the paths of life so that through them we may win life in the world-to-come.” Rabbi Eliezer replied: “Be careful when it comes to the honor of your fellow; keep your children from frivolous meditation, [rather] see that they sit on the knees of scholars [so that they might learn from them], and when you pray know before whom you are standing. In this way, you will win life in the world-to-come.”
There they were, the words from the bimah in my childhood synagogue. And here I was, at a very different place in my journey, and in the midst of a week of intense study about prayer in Jewish tradition and life. I was immediately transported back to that sanctuary, and my search of many years ago. Looking at the words anew, I remembered that years ago I could only find them in the plural. And that precisely how they appear in Berachot 28b. The old puzzle returned. In the course of class, the words were repeated again and again, but in the singular, as if referring only to the individual pray-er. I quickly did a search online and the best I could up with was a reference in a commentary by Rabbi Shefa Gold on the passage, in which she, too, quotes the words in the singular and notes that they are “based on Berachot 28b.”
“Know before Whom you stand.” To be sure, these words will resonate differently for each of us, in accordance with where we are in our faith journeys and our journeys through life as part of the Jewish community (or even for others in their non-Jewish faith journeys.) In a class session which I had the privilege to lead for our classmates, together with my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi David Cohen, entitled, “Praying In and With the Community,” an opportunity for our group to process our experiences as worship leaders and how we nourish our own spirits beyond the bimah, I noted that for many of us, it might also be important to reflect, “know with whom you stand in prayer.” For me personally, that notion is powerfully expressed by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book Who Needs God, when he writes:
“Prayer is not a matter of coming to God with our wish list and pleading with [God] to give us what we ask for. Prayer is first and foremost the experience of being in the presence of God. Whether or not we have our requests granted, whether or not we get anything to take home as a result of the encounter, we are changed by having come into the presence of God . . . In congregational worship . . . I have come to believe that the congregating is more important than the words we speak. Something miraculous happens when people come together seeking the presence of God . . . Somehow the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. A spirit is created in our midst which none of us brought there . . . Each of us came there looking for it because we did not have it when we were alone. But in our coming together, we create the mood and the moment in which God is present . . . We don’t go to synagogue at a stipulated time because God keeps ‘office hours.’ We go because that is when we know there will be other people there, seeking the same kind of encounter we are seeking.”
My comment to our group, and the impact of Rabbi Kushner’s teaching was underscored for me as Rabbi Hartman drew our session towards its conclusion this morning and he stated, “Community creates prayer; and prayer creates community.” What a simple yet profound statement. With those brief words, my teacher set out what I believe to be, and what I striven to create in my rabbinate as one of the most powerful purposes of that primary Jewish act we share when we join together in communal prayer. Yes, one can pray anywhere and at any time (or within certain parameters if one wishes to fulfill the keva – the fixed prayers of Jewish tradition.) But when we join together, believers and skeptics, seekers and questioners, there is so much going on as we join our voices in song and prayer, or even just in our being together for the shared experience. Yes indeed, Donniel: “Community creates prayer; and prayer creates community.” And I look forward to returning home in just a few days to join my community in prayer, and to link myself with the prayer through which we create and strengthen our sense of community.
Rabbi Eric Gurvis