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Tazria-Metzora 5783                   April 22, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

When Rosh Hodesh comes just a week or so after Pesach, it used to be annoying to me. After a week of extra prayers, Torah readings, Musaf and Hallel, after reading Shir HaShirim and praying for Tal/Dew, it is good to get back to normal daily and Shabbat prayer. And yet, just when we think that we have six more weeks until the next holiday, Rosh Hodesh comes along and suddenly we are right back into holiday mode.

I don’t mind it so much this year because our Parsha is Tazria and Metzora, parshiot that have a significant “yuck” factor. Unless one is a dermatologist, let’s just say that this section makes me itch! Fortunately. I don’t have to speak about the parsha this week because we have a special haftarah, the haftarah from Isaiah that we read on Shabbat Rosh Hodesh.

In our Haftarah today we find these words from the prophet:

Yet to such a one I look:

To the poor and brokenhearted,
Who is concerned about My word.

As for those who slaughter oxen and slay humans,
Who sacrifice sheep and immolate dogs,
Who present as oblation the blood of swine,
Who offer incense and worship false gods—
Just as they have chosen their ways
And take pleasure in their abominations,

So will I choose to mock them,
To bring on them the very thing they dread.”

Isaiah here is talking to two different types of people who pray. Those who pray with a broken heart, who have troubles that weigh them down, who are looking to God for some solace or relief from their suffering; together with those who are concerned about the problems they see in the world; these are people who understand how to pray. These people show through their prayers, that they are concerned about God and society and concerned about how God, who is full of compassion, can help us in our hour of need.

Isaiah goes on to describe a second group of people who offer words of prayer. They offer sacrifices to God, but the sacrifice does nothing to change the evil that they do. They say they are worshiping God, but they also make offerings to idols. They give token prayers to God not because they believe in God, but because it doesn’t hurt to have all their bases covered.

I was a Rabbi in a large synagogue in the Midwest. They had an entire band to play music for Kabbalat Shabbat. The music was composed by their cantor, and it was a beautiful service in so many ways. The only problem was that the Rabbi who came before me, had solicited a donation for the special siddur they would use for this service. It was a fixed text that, once printed and dedicated, was impossible to change. How could we not use the book after someone had paid to dedicate the volume? While the text was pretty good, because it had been dedicated, it was now impossible to update or change the music or the liturgy.

This is always the problem when it comes to the Siddur. Once prayers are written down, they often become sacred texts. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, notes that there are people who have no concept of Shabbat; they go right from services to the golf course, but, when it comes to prayer, they insist that the words and music of the Musaf Amidah can never be skipped or changed. This is a very significant problem.

Such people sometimes see prayer as magic. Magic is a way we show how we can manipulate the world. By invoking a magic word or waving a magic wand, we can do things that look to be impossible. When it comes to magic, we know that what we are seeing is an illusion, but it is fun, and it leaves us wondering how the illusion was done. Prayer is not magic; it is not about illusions or sleight of hand. Prayers are not magic words that help us perform wonderous deeds. Prayer was not designed to work that way.

Some people are superstitious about prayer. Superstition is another way we humans try to manipulate the world, or worse, we try to manipulate God. By performing the special acts and saying the special words, we get God to give us what we want. But prayer is not designed to work this way either. Prayer is not some spiritual method used to manipulate God. God is God and God does what God wants to do. We can recognize the power of God, but we can’t bend the will of God to do whatever we want.

The founder of the Hasidic movement in the late 18th century was The Baal Shem Tov. His real name was Israel ben Eliezer, and we even have a tax record from that time in Russia that lists his name and lists his job as a miracle healer. The story is that when there was a need for a great miracle, The Baal Shem Tov would go to a special place in the forest, light a special fire, say a special prayer and God would come through with the necessary miracle. The successor of the Baal Shem Tov was the Maggid of Mezeritch. He did not know where the special place in the forest was, but he would find a clearing, light the special fire, say the special prayer, and pray that it would be enough to bring about the needed miracle. And it always worked. The Seer of Lublin did not know how to make the special fire, nor did he know the special place in the forest, but he did know the special prayer and when he needed a miracle, he would recite the prayer and it always worked. Menachem Mendel of Kotsk did not know the special place in the forest, he did not know how to build the special fire, he did not even know the words of the prayer, but he would sit in his study when there was a need for a miracle and ask for God’s help and God provided the miracle.

It was not the forest, the fire or the prayer that made the difference. What worked was the broken heart of the one offering the prayer. As Isaiah said, God hears the prayers of the poor and broken hearted. What is important is not what we find in our siddur, but the Kavana, the voice of our hearts that are behind the words we recite that gets the attention of God. It is not enough to pray. We have to mean the words we say.

Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, teacher of Bible at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, looks at our verses in Isaiah and notes that Rabbi Hiyim Luzzato, known as Shadal, takes these verses very literally. She writes, “Shadal reads the text literally: He who kills a bull (presumably for sacrificing to God) may also slay a man. A person’s religious practice is not an indication of his commitment to God’s word. Shadal understands the words of Isaiah as criticizing the people for believing that in religious practice one can manipulate God: acting abhorrently elsewhere, and in the Temple placating God by bringing a sacrifice. Isaiah is trying to tell the people that serving God while acting hideously is seen by God for what it is: Hypocrisy and haughtiness.” 

In our modern times, we still come to synagogue to pray. But for modern Jews, what is it that we are doing when we pray? Do we see these words as some kind of magical incantation? Do we see them as a way to manipulate God to do our will? Or maybe we don’t think that these words do anything at all. We say them but we don’t even pay attention to what we are saying. We think that if we understand the words we recite, if we know the definitions of the prayers that we are saying, that should be enough. But is it enough? Enough to do what? Is it enough just to get the words right? Will saying the right words be enough to protect us for another week?

 

Maybe, if we don’t fully understand the Hebrew, we might read the prayer in English. Translations can be very helpful to keep us focused on what we are trying to say in prayer. But we must understand that a translation is a form of commentary about prayer. Sometimes, the English translation is not enough to understand what our prayer is trying to say. Prayer is not prose; prayer is poetry and there is meaning behind and beyond the translations of the prayers. What does a poem do? It reaches beyond the plain meaning of a text and transports us to places that exist only in our minds, in this way the words connect us to the realities of our lives. The Shema we recite is not just a statement that we believe in one God. It is a declaration of faith that we are a people who worship God alone, and that there are not competing powers in the world that are trying to manipulate us. One God means that we are fully responsible for all that we do. Justice in Judaism means that our actions are done with a free will, and we know that for everything we do, there are consequences. All of this is contained in the six words of the Shema.

Prayer is not about changing God, but it is about changing ourselves. The words speak to our heart, so we know where we stand when we stand before God. God has no need for our prayers or our praise. God wants our heart, our soul, and our might. Prayer is designed to help us hear the voices in our heart. The voices that cry out from the pain in our lives and the pain in the world. When there is joy in our hearts, that joy extends to God through our feelings of gratitude. Prayer is more than just standing before God. Prayer is about losing ourselves in our service to others who may be in need. God hears that prayer in our heart.

Our being here on Shabbat is a reminder of what we need to be doing all week. We are here to listen to the words we recite and examine how we can bring them into our daily life. How can we live the words we pray? How can we gain from our prayers a heart of wisdom? With all the noise in the world, where else but in synagogue can we slow down our pace, quiet our minds and listen to the still small voice in our hearts?

I understand that it takes some work to quiet a busy mind. The many tasks in our lives weigh on us all the time. It would not be unusual to come here with a mind burdened with the stress of the week. There is always laundry to do, groceries to buy, bills to be paid, and repairs waiting for us at home. We can argue if services are too long, but they always need to be long enough to get past the detritus of our week (all those chores will still be there come Sunday morning) and find the space within ourselves where we can discover the full nature of who we are, what is meaningful in our lives, and how we can bring love and compassion into our world. If we can get just that straight in our heads while we are here, then we will experience the miracle of the Hasidim, no matter the problems, we will find the peace and serenity we will need to face whatever the future may bring.

May the prayers we recite today lift us up, body and soul, heart, and mind, so that when we leave this sacred space, we will carry some of that holiness with us into the days beyond. May we find the place in our hearts, the fire of our soul and the prayers on our mind that will lead us closer to God. That will be miracle enough.

May God be with us in our time of prayer, and may God understand the brokenness and heaviness in our hearts, May God recognize our concern for others and for our world and may God hear what is in our hearts and grant us joy and peace.

As we say… Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784