Excavating and Elevating
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Excavating and Elevating
Being a rabbi is a funny job. Like Joseph, a rabbi is expected to replenish the storehouses of the community. Not literally, of course, but figuratively. Like Joseph, a rabbi is expected to facilitate relationships. Like Joseph, a rabbi is expected to develop a sustainable vision for the future as well as being a ‘dugma ishit’, a personal example. We rabbis answer to a Higher Authority, after all, and despite our personal preferences, foibles and failings, are bearers of the crucible of tradition. I love being a rabbi and only two years in, I feel like I could already write a book about my myriad of moving, challenging and sometimes outright bemusing experiences.
Yet there’s one aspect of a rabbi’s life which is most visible: the rabbi as shaliach tzibbur, prayer leader. This is what stereotypically people imagine a rabbi to be: standing here, in the prerequisite ritual garb, leading the congregation in prayer. It is in a way the most public role and yet the most private. While we rabbis guide our community through the liturgical maze known as our siddur, we hope to take the congregation by the hand so that they can connect with the prayer space and the liturgy in a way that is empowering, relevant and meaningful. Yet at the same time, we have to find those brief, quick, fleeting moments where we can serve God with our own lips and heart.
Being a rabbi is a funny job because as you teach and lead your congregation in prayer, it can be challenging to keep the connections with your own soul open and to maintain your own prayer life.
See, I really believe in the power of prayer. And I think prayer is important. Yet, I don’t think it is important in the hackneyed ways of dour, prescriptive religion. I don’t believe God is a bully in the sky Who is tallying our obedient acts on a cosmic score board. The God I believe in is far more compelling, subtle and gracious than that. We don’t pray to please God or to indulge in divine flattery, and I’d wager to say that many of us don’t even pray to effect cosmic change.
As Reform Jews, many of us check prescriptive, interventionist theologies at the door. But that doesn’t mean that prayer isn’t an incredibly powerful tool of individual and communal transformation. Prayer is difficult, uncomfortable, peculiar, confrontational and perhaps even embarrassing. Prayer, in whatever format we choose, requires an embracing of the uncertain, the unknown and the unseen: whether it is the lofty heights of the Divine or the plunging depths of the human soul.
Prayer is a journey: not only through the theological and intellectual history of the Jewish people, but also through the self. To pray is to take an emotional risk: how will I respond to these words? Can I affirm any of the beliefs in the prayer book and if I cannot, then what does that mean to my Jewish sense of self? Can I pinpoint those moments of transcendence in my life, moments where I thought, ‘wow’. Moments that left me touched deeply in some way. Is it possible to till the soil of my heart through the discipline of prayer? Can I find the silence between the words or the grace between anger, despair and nihilism? Do I dare vocalise for myself that I may need God, whatever ‘God’ is meant to be? Am I ready to offer thanks for blessings I have in my life, even or especially when days are dark?
To pray is to go down deep.
As we have been reading through the last few weeks in the Joseph cycle, Joseph does go into descent: the pit he’s cast in by his brothers, the prison he’s locked up in, the temptations of power and sexuality he is called to stave off. Yet despite it all, he is ‘ish Ruach Elohim bo’, a man in whom the Spirit of God dwells. To pray is to connect. To connect with the Jewish tradition and Jews everywhere around the world, with Reform Jews in our communities, with the values we espouse. When I lead the Friday Night Musical service at Chagigah, I felt so connected to everyone present. It was magical to hear voices blend in song. It was inspiring to experience different Reform minhagim of prayer. It was empowering to realise that there are many different ways to engage with prayer: through recitation or silence, through learning or music, through questioning or affirmation.
To pray is to build. To build community, the edifices and monuments of humanity. We Jews may not always excel in having proud places of worship, but to come together in prayer is to build something altogether different. A support structure for those in mourning, a gateway for our young to pass through the doors of our tradition. A palace of timeless words that we get to dwell in, even if we push against those words, or even if they seem mysterious or irrelevant to us. To pray is to say ‘Hineini’—‘here I am’.
In Parashat Vayigash, God calls Jacob and Jacob into God’s service like many of our ancestors and prophets:
“Vayisa Yisrael v’chol asher lo, vayabo bera sheva; vayizbach zevachim le’Elohei aviv Yitzchak. Vayomer Elohim le’Yisrael bemarot halaialah: vayomer Ya’acov, Ya’acov, vayomer, Hineini.” (Gen. 46:1) “And Israel journeyed with all that was his and came to Be’er Sheva. He sacrificed sacrifices (of thanksgiving) to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel with visions in the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob” and he said, “here I am”.”
From these mere two verses we can learn that like Joseph, Jacob endured a journey of the spirit and that prayer (through sacrifice as was customary in his day) was fundamental to that journey. He brought his all to that prayerful encounter: his traditions from his father, his culture, his possessions, his past experiences, his imperfections. He brought it all and said, ‘here I am’, just like Joseph brought the totality of his being into his divine encounter and was transformed through it. In return, Jacob was given ‘visions in the night’, unexpected inspiration through the challenge of it all.
To pray is to strip bare the spirit and welcome the unexpected. I hope that for all of us, rabbis included, we continued to develop our prayer experiences. Whether you’re an atheist or on a tentative path of spiritual discovery, whether you find strength in God or questioning through the tradition. Whether you are yearning for new, experimental and innovative experiences or whether you cherish the old traditions and minhagim. Whether you embrace the silence or are uplifted by words. Take your chance and pray alongside with me, with us, and reflect on what a great gift we have in excavating and elevating our innermost selves.