Category Archives: prayer


It stands for sine qua non, a latin phrase that means ‘an essential condition, a thing that is absolutely necessary.’  What is the bottom line ingredient that is required to make something what it is?  Scotch, for example, might be blended or single malt, it might be aged in casks made of sherry or oak, it might be smokey or peaty.  But it must be made from malted barley.  That is its sine qua non.  If it isn’t made from malted barley, it isn’t scotch whisky.

I’ve often wondered about the sine qua non of the synagogue.  Does it exist, and if so what would it be?  The study and learning?  The Hebrew school?  The adult education programs?  Social action?  All important.  But if I had to choose one fundamental piece, the one component without which a synagogue would no longer be a synagogue, I would choose the prayer service – the minyan.

After all, the study and learning can happen at a local university with a strong adult education program.  You can participate in social action with a local charity.  Even Hebrew school these days can happen in various and sundry locations – just look at the number of families choosing to hire a private tutor to prepare their child for bar or bat mitzvah.  But the one thing a synagogue does that is unique – its sine quo non – is the minyan.  When ten or more Jews come together to pray.  When the Torah is taken out of the ark and publicly proclaimed.  When the ancient liturgy of our tradition is recited.  The minyan is the synagogue’s raison d’être, its true reason for existing.  Without prayer, the synagogue becomes just another place where Jews gather to be with other Jews.

The problem is this:  the minyan is fading away.  We don’t often acknowledge this, we don’t like to look it right in the eye, but traditional prayer services in the liberal Jewish community are slowly but surely disappearing right before our eyes.  In part because people are busy, and Saturday morning is prime errand time, or golf time.  In part because people don’t have the skills they need to participate (the Hebrew is a serious problem).  In part because people don’t find meaning in it, they don’t believe the act of prayer can be transformative in their lives and characters.  What to do?

It is first important to recognize that there is no magic pill here.  It isn’t simply a matter of finding the right charismatic rabbi or cantor.  It isn’t just arriving at the proper recipe for the service itself, just a tweak here or there, or even a radical rearrangement, and all will be well.  It is a much more complicated equation, multi-layered, involving education, programming, community, and leadership.  Minimally – as a beginning – we need to create opportunities for people in our community to deepen their knowledge of and connection to our prayer services, our minyanim.  Some of this is familiarity.  Some of this is study and discussion.  Some of it is practice!  And some of it is having a safe space where all of these things can happen.

It is this space we are hoping to create with a new ‘learnin’ minyan’ that we will be holding at Beth El.  Meeting the first Shabbat morning of the month, from 9:45 to 10:30, this minyan will be a combination of prayer and study, of delving into the themes and motifs that drive our liturgy while at the same time (hopefully) increasing the number of tools that are available to access those themes and to participate in those prayers.  I have believed for a long time that there is deep meaning in prayer, and that the very exercise of praying can be truly transformative in our lives.  Join us on this journey and we’ll see if we can convince you of the same.  We will meet in the Rabbi Jacob Agus Library, immediately following the Torah study class.  Beginning January 7th.


Filed under American Jewry, celebration, clergy, community, Jewish life, prayer, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, ritual, Uncategorized

When in Shul, Do as the Romans

You are more familiar with the traditional version of the quote, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans.’ That is to say, when you are somewhere with a different culture you should by and large conform to that culture. At the very least be sensitive to the fact that a culture that might seem strange to you can have deep meaning and familiarity to others. Be respectful, don’t look down on it, and sometimes just go with it. It is, minimally, the polite thing to do.

One of the challenging things about shul life today is that many Jews feel like foreigners in their own sanctuaries. They are so unfamiliar with the service, so uncomfortable with the rituals, and so detached from a sense of meaning and connection to the tradition, that the experience of shul is alien to them, foreign, something they watch from afar but do not engage in.

Of course the synagogue has some responsibility for this. This is at least in part our failure. We have not successfully communicated the knowledge and skills that people need to participate in our services. I know this, I feel bad about it, I sympathize, and yes, we have our work cut out for us. We will keep trying!

But we need partners. We need people who want to learn, who feel that their lack of connection is important, is something they would like to change. I’ve noticed recently how fewer and fewer people even bother to pick up a siddur during services. They come and sit, they watch the proceedings, they seem to pay some attention when sermons are delivered. But I just don’t understand why you would sit in a two hour service and not want to pick up the prayer book. We call the pages. We do a fair amount in English. There are responsive readings you can participate in, even if you can’t read Hebrew.

Think for a moment of the message you give to your children if you sit there with them and don’t open the prayer book. You don’t have to say anything to them – they’ll know. Mom thinks this is boring! This must not be important, dad isn’t following what is going on. And then the obvious question – why should I?

And I know many people can’t read the Hebrew. And I also know that many people are not comfortable with prayer (both of those issues, by the way, we can work on!). But out of common courtesy, please pick up the prayer book. Follow the service. You don’t have to believe it! You don’t even have to believe in God! Besides, you might be surprised, and something in those pages might be interesting, moving, meaningful, dare I say it, even spiritual. But just by picking up the book you are showing you are part of the community. You are saying ‘even if I don’t understand this, I respect it.’ And you are showing your children that this is something to participate in, something to be taken seriously, something that might one day have meaning for them, even if it doesn’t for you.

So when in shul, please don’t do as the Romans. Do as the Jews.

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Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, clergy, continiuty, Jewish life, prayer, ritual, synagogue, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

The Difficult and Daunting Search for God

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/2/16 –

The young man who came to see me was disappointed with God.  He had always been a good person, doing his best to make the right choices and do the right things, to include dutifully coming to shul over the years when his family expected him to be there.  But some things had gone wrong in his life.  It hadn’t worked out as he had wanted or planned.  There was a career misstep here, and a failed relationship there.  A close friend had been sick and suffered.  He had always been told that God cared and that God took care of us – watched out for us, rewarded our good behavior and punished our bad.  But from what he saw, from what he had experienced, it didn’t work that way.  So he made a decision.  He would never set foot in a shul again.  After all, if God didn’t do what God had promised, why should he bother?  Why should he come to a service where God’s name was invoked, where God’s essence was praised?

This was painful to his family.  Judaism was important to them, synagogue life was important to them, the rhythms of the Jewish year, the holidays, the family dinners, were part and parcel of their lives.  But he would have none of it.  The system, as he understood it, had been proven false.  His heart had become hardened to the traditions and history of our people.

I knew that part of this was my fault.  Not in the sense of something I did wrong, but rather because of the system I represent.  He had gone to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, studied Hebrew and holidays and Jewish history.  And somewhere along the line he had learned about God.  This is what he had learned:  God is somewhere up there in the sky, looking down on us.  God watches us, our day to day lives.  When we ask something of God, God hears our request, and when our request isn’t answered, God has decided not to answer it.  When something goes wrong, when we don’t get what we hope for, when we fail or get sick or suffer a loss, God has allowed the thing that hurts us to happen to us.  That is to say, God could have prevented it, but chose not to.  In essence, he had learned that God is a micromanager, deciding on a case by case basis that some will have success while others will fail, that some will have lives of goodness while others will suffer, that on a given day one person will be in a car accident while another person will be spared.

These ideas are of course not new, and the young man is not the first person to understand God in this way, nor to be disappointed in this God.  The Talmud tells the story of Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his day, a rising star in the talmudic academy.  But living in Roman times he sees terrible things.  He sees Jews being persecuted.  He sees great sages who are humiliated in front of Roman soldiers.  And one day, says the Talmud, he sees a young boy trying to get eggs from a bird’s nest, high in a tree.  And the boy knows the Torah commands that the mother bird should be sent away before the eggs are taken.  But in trying to get the mother to leave her nest the boy loses his balance and falls to the ground and is killed.  And Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his time, and perhaps of all time, loses his faith.  How could God let something like this happen?, he thinks.

The young man who came to my office did not know about Elisha ben Abuya, had never heard of him I am sure, but he suffered from the same malady and he subscribed to the same theology.  And he had the same question: how could God let something like this happen?

Being a crafty old rabbi, this was not the first time this question had crossed my desk, this was not the first person to sit in the chair across from me with feelings of anger and disappointment about God, and I knew two things – one, there are answers to that question.  And two, none of the answers is fully satisfactory.  So we talked for a while, and I gave him some of those standard answers, and he paused to think seriously about one or two of them, but I don’t think I’ll be seeing him in shul anytime soon.  The misconceptions he holds about how God works are too deeply ingrained for him to let them go, at least now.  But I thought, as he walked out of my office, if we talk about these things more often and more openly, it might help someone else, who is struggling in the same way, to find a different path, and to feel more comfortable walking into a sanctuary carrying doubts about God.

There is an odd passage in this morning’s Torah portion, the first in the book of Exodus.   The Israelites have been enslaved in Egypt.  They are suffering, and the Torah tells us that they cried out to God, a cry for help, for release from suffering and slavery, and that the cry rose up to God.  And then the Torah tells us that God heard their cry, and that God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And then the Torah says this:  וירא ה׳ את בני ישראל וידע ה׳ – Elohim saw the Israelites, and Elohim – God – knew.

There are two things about the passage that strike me, one implied, and the other an unanswered question.  First what is implied – if the Torah tells us that God remembered, it means that at some point God forgot.  God forgot about the Israelites.  God forgot they were in Egypt, that they were slaves, seemingly, that they even existed.  I think this is the Torah’s way of telling us that there will be times in our lives when we will not feel God’s presence.  When we will look for God, call out to God, ask for God’s help, and there will not be a response.  Eventually, God did remember.  But for a long time – ימים רבים the Torah says – for a long, long time, God forgot.

And the second thing that strikes me about the passage – the unanswered question – is this:  what did God know?  If you look at the translation of that verse in your Humash, you’ll see it says “and God took notice of them,” but the Hebrew simply says וידע ה׳ – Elohim knew.  God knew what?  And I think the answer to that question is the very next word in the Torah, a word that you all know – Moshe.  Moses.  God knew that a human being had arrived on the scene who would through his own efforts and actions begin the process of freeing the Israelites.  God wasn’t going to do it.  What changed wasn’t that God was now paying attention to the Israelites when God hadn’t been paying attention before – what changed was that the right person had come.  And because of that God knew that soon the Israelites would be free.

Despite what the young man who came to my office had learned growing up, the tradition often teaches us that God is not a micromanager.  God is not looking at the lives of individuals and deciding that certain prayers will be answered while others will be rejected, that certain hopes will be fulfilled while others will be dashed, that this person will suffer while this other person will be saved.  That is not a God I have seen or known in the course of my life, or through my experience.  But I have known a God who blesses a Moses with the strength, courage, wisdom, and hope to lead a people to freedom.  And I have known a God who gives us as individuals the strength, courage, and hope we need to live our lives, to get up and face another day, to be there for people that we love, and to live with faith.  I tried in my office to introduce the young man to that God that I have known.  I hope that one day they’ll meet.  But my prayer today is that the young man should not stop looking – may he find meaning in his search and each of us in ours –

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, clergy, grief, Jewish thought, loss, prayer, preaching, predestination, sermon, synagogue, Torah, Uncategorized

Spontaneous Prayer

A number of years ago I was fortunate to be able to go to Israel on an Interfaith Clergy trip sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council and the ICJS. We left on a bus from the Chizuk Amuno parking lot, and just as we were pulling out the leader of the trip suggested that we should say a prayer at the beginning of our journey together. Since we were an interfaith group it only made sense that one prayer would be offered by one of the Christian clergy, and one prayer by one of the rabbis.

First the Christian pastor got up, and took the microphone at the front of the bus, closed his eyes, and spontaneously began to pray. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of ‘let the Lord God, God of all people, bless our group in fellowship and faith. Let our time together be full of meaning and hope, let us learn from one another, let us grow in faith together with respect and love. Let us journey in safety, let us return to our loved ones enriched by the experience, and let us together say Amen.’ It was a beautiful prayer, prayed right from the heart, on the spot, sensitive to the fact that Jews and Christians were embarking on this experience together, and expressing our shared sense of mission and God.

Then it was the rabbi’s turn. The rabbi walked to the front of the bus, took out a pocket siddur, looked at the table of contents, began to flip the pages, eventually finding the page that had what prayer on it? The Traveler’s prayer, Tefilat Haderech. The rabbi read the prayer word for word, straight from the siddur, first in Hebrew, and then in English translation. The Traveler’s Prayer is also beautiful and meaningful, but it lacked the spontaneous nature of the prayer the Christian pastor had offered, and it felt more like a rote recitation of a text as opposed to an actual prayer that was trying to connect human beings and God. I am not sure what the Christians on the bus thought of that Traveler’s Prayer, or even how the other rabbis experienced it, but to me it was an illustration of the way in general that Jews struggle with spontaneous prayer. We like to have our text, we like to know what page the prayer is on, we like to open the book to that page, say the words are supposed to say, and be done with it, check the box.

Now sometimes there is something to be said for having that book, for knowing the page and being able to read the words. First of all there is a level of familiarity to it which creates a sense of comfort. Secondly, there is the ability even if you didn’t feel any great emotional connection to be able to say I did what I was supposed to do, I read the prayer and fulfilled my obligation. A prayer book also gives you the advantage of having something to say. With a book you don’t need to worry about ‘what should I say, what if I don’t know what to say, what if I can’t think of anything to say.’ None of that matters because you can just read what is on the page. And last, but certainly not least, there can be something powerful about everyone saying the same thing at the same time, about communal prayer, that you can only arrive at with a text. And the siddur gives Jews access to all of that, not by any means to be underestimated.

But the prayer book also comes with a set of problems, and one of the most difficult of those problems is that the siddur never changes. The words we read from the siddur this morning were the same words that were read here on Shabbat morning at Beth El 30 years ago, and in all probability even 50 years ago. The weekday amidah prayer, said by traditional Jews three times a day, day in and day out, never changes. It doesn’t matter if it is raining or snowing or sunny out, if it is fall or spring, if the stock market is up or down. It doesn’t matter if the person saying the prayer is 15 years old, 50 years old, or 85 years old. With very minor exceptions, it never changes.

Now on the one hand this is a necessity. A liturgy, at least to a certain extent, has to be repetitive and fixed. That enables it to be a point of unification for a community, because everyone is familiar with it. I have many times had people tell me that they were traveling and found a synagogue, entered it for services, and felt immediately at home because they recognized the service, the payers, even some of the tunes. And the reason that happens is because the service is standardized and rarely changes. The repetitive nature of the service also lends to the sense of ritual – ritual by definition is repetitive, connecting you into a community, and also to a history, in Judaism’s case with our services a stream of history that is about two thousand years old.

But the problem with a changeless liturgy is that you or I might arrive in shul, open up the prayer book, and we might not be able to find anything in it that relates to the way we are feeling, to what kind of day we are having, to what is going on in our lives. And if that happens once, it is not the end of the world. But if it happens to someone again and again and again, after a while that person isn’t going to be interested in coming to services, and they aren’t going to believe that the prayers in the siddur have anything to say, having any real meaning. And then why would they come?

Spontaneous prayer is a solution to this problem. What do you suppose people feel is their favorite part of this service? Besides the sermon of course! I’ve been told over and over again. The mishebeirach prayer that we recite during the Torah service. That is the one moment prayer wise where most people find the most meaning. Why? Because it is personal. Because while we are singing the words together, in their minds they are thinking about real people in their lives, people they care about, people they hope – and pray – will be healed. And so that moment feels real to them, it touches them, and the spontaneous part of it is that every individual is thinking about someone they know and care about.

This morning’s Torah portion describes the very beginning of Abraham’s journey, just as God calls him to what will become his life long mission. When he first arrives in the land of Canaan Abraham builds an altar, and offers a sacrifice, a way of showing God gratitude for the fact that he had completed his journey safely. And then the Torah uses an unusual phrase – ויקרא בשם ה׳ – in our Humash you’ll find this phrase translated as ‘Abraham invoked the Lord by name.’ And that translation sounds so staid and dry, like the rabbi on the bus, Abraham took out his siddur, looked in the table of contents, found a prayer, and read it word for word. But of course Abraham didn’t have a siddur, and the force of the Hebrew in the verse – ויקרא – is that he called out, he raised his voice, that it was a moment filled with emotion, and that the prayer that he offered came from his heart.

It is that kind of prayer that we need to recover in our community. Not that we should throw out the service, or the structure, the prayers we know so well and have been reciting for so long. But that perhaps the balance isn’t what it should be – perhaps we’ve become overly reliant on the words and the page numbers, and not as comfortable as we might like to be with looking to God and calling out to the Divine straight from our own hearts. May we find the strength, the courage, the hope, and the belief to pray in that way בשבתך בביתך ובלכתך בדרך יבשכבך ובקומך – when we sit in our homes, when we walk by the way, when we lie down, and when we rise up –

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