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Ha-t’fillah She-balev – The Prayer of the Heart

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Then there was the ancient belief, based on a pilpulistic interpretation of a verse from the Biblical book of Nehemiah, that God’s presence, the Shekhina, actually dwells in the west. If that’s the case then, one obviously would want to face God’s presence, rather than, God forbid, turn one’s back to the Shekhina, and therefore one would face west when praying.

And there are still other, even more curious customs. So, for example, in yet another tractate in the Talmud, we learn that “one who wants to become wise should turn south [during prayer]; one who wants to become rich should turn north… Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, ‘One should always face south because from becoming wise, one will [also] become rich.’ Obviously.

Rabbi Yishmael, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva and a leading sage of the first century, tried to make peace between the many schools of thought by positing the opinion that one could actually face in any direction, since God’s presence was everywhere.

Not surprisingly, however, the arguments do not end with this. Not by a long shot. In the middle ages, Maimonides, Joseph Caro (author of the Jewish law compendium, the Shulchan Aruch) and many other wise rabbis were spending an enormous amount of time on this very dilemma. To face east, as was the custom of many pagans, or west, and away from Jerusalem? And if you did face in another direction, would it be a fair compromise to turn your face to the east, even if your feet pointed elsewhere?

The question becomes even more complex in the 16th century, when it first became the custom to house the Torahs in an Ark that was actually inside the sanctuary. Prior to this time, the Torahs were carried into the sanctuary in their storage cases from rooms that could have been anywhere else. Once inside, the Torah was placed on a bimah—a raised platform—that was in the middle of the room, in the midst of the congregation, so that when it was read everyone faced inward, toward this center, rather than in any another direction. The chiddush—this novelty—of building an in-house Ark and placing it against the eastern wall, set a whole new set of arguments in motion.

We know, however, that by the late 19th century, nearly all synagogues were being built to face east. In “Fiddler On The Roof,” Tevye’s deep aspiration to sit at the eastern wall reflects the by-then-established custom of honoring leaders of the community—rabbis, cantors, and the very rich—in this manner.

But the question was still not resolved, and the arguing continued back and forth. And I really don’t want to complicate it any further, but one of the questions that came up was not whether one should face Jerusalem, which was a given, but rather, should one face in the direction of the shortest route to Jerusalem, since, on a spherical world, the shortest route isn’t always the compass route. For example, the compass distance between New York and Jerusalem is about 600 miles longer than the great-circle distance. Which is why airlines that fly from the US to Israel fly over Greenland, well into the Arctic, before turning due south. It may not be the in the precise direction of the east, but it is the shorter route, and isn’t that what really counts when you really want to get somewhere fast.

In the words of our beloved Reb Tevye, these are all questions that would cross a rabbi’s eyes, and in the end, one would have to spend far more time calculating and measuring than actually praying, and that of course would defeat the whole purpose of prayer.

But another interpretation of King Solomon’s prayer regarding the Temple does offer us yet another possibility: This lesson takes the phrase, “They shall pray to you b’chol l’vavam u-v’chol nafsham (‘with all their heart and with all their soul’)” to mean that a person may direct his or her prayers to God’s dwelling within their heart and within their soul.

This answer takes a lovely turn in a lesson taught by the Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who said, “You should know that every shepherd has a unique song, all his own; and know, too, that each and every blade of grass has its own, unique, song. It is from the song of the grass that the shepherd’s song is created. How beautiful it is when we hear this song, how lovely when we pray to its tune and serve God in awe. For this song of the grass causes the heart to awaken; and when the heart awakens, it longs and yearns for its home in the Land of Israel. And then, the Land responds, and a great, wondrous light emerges from the Land of Israel and rises toward the heart, and then the song becomes the Prayer of the Heart.”

Our befuddled NASA rabbi would have known all this; he would have known that in the space shuttle, time was coordinated to match the time zone in Houston, so no matter how many sunrises he saw, he only had to lay tefillin once a day, not every 90 minutes.

And as to what direction to face, if you ever do find yourself floating in the vast majesty of outer space, perhaps the best advice to follow would be Rabbi Nachman’s, who taught us to look for God’s presence inside our hearts, and to make our prayer The Prayer of the Heart, Ha-t’fillah she-balev. And then, when we let our prayer join the prayer that comes from the heart of the person sitting next to us, and the one next to him or her, when all these prayers merge into one song, then that song rises to Heaven, in fulfillment of the line in Psalm 150 that reads, “Let every soul praise God, Halleluyah.”

That, I would say, would be the right way to pray.

May our prayers all rise and be acceptable to God today and every day of our lives.

L’shana tova tikateivu, may we all be inscribed for a good and sweet New Year, Amen.

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Bound By The Covenant of Israel

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

It was this and that much worse when, years later, Abraham once again heard God’s call. This time it had to do with his son, Isaac, and what God was demanding was that Abraham offer Isaac as sacrifice on some far-off mountain. Once again, Abraham obeys, though we can only imagine his grief as the two set out together.

Throughout history, it’s always been hard to be a Jew. Not only because of the number of mitzvot we had to obey (ten would have been dayenu!! Enough! But 613???) But more than that, we saw ourselves as keepers of a special charge, a challenge that became a sacred mission: To pursue knowledge and justice, to seek freedom and equality wherever we saw falsehood, prejudice and discrimination. This was God’s law, and at Sinai we accepted it as our law.

The Law defined us as Israel, chosen to be in a unique relationship and bound by a Covenant—a Covenant with our God, with our Land and with our People. And throughout our history we have been trying to live up to its demands.

In ancient Israel, no one was above the Law. The Prophets of Israel were quick to judge and rebuke anyone—including the king himself—who transgressed against another, who stole from the poor, or otherwise abused his power. In our many countries of exile and Diaspora, we held on to the tenets of the Covenant even when our life was at stake.

Our efforts often met with success. Wherever we were offered hospitality, we and the community around us thrived. No medieval court was ever without a Jewish doctor, accountant or scribe. Our business acumen and connections ensured that we would always have an important role to play in international commerce and trade. Our culture inspired and fostered literature, art and music in places where these did not exist prior to our arrival.

But success often also bred jealousy and hatred. Expelled from one country after another, we were confined to crowded ghettos, our means and livelihood severely restricted. We were heavily taxed, humiliated and often unjustly imprisoned or murdered. Still, we clung to the Covenant.

Through the darkest ages, our faith was our chief source of hope. Our sacred texts provided a safe haven, a home to return to, for the glorious visions they provided of a better and more just world. Our prayers reached deeper into our souls, and soared higher into the heavens. We created even more music, art and literature. We even played a vital role in the Enlightenment that helped bring freedom to all Europe. And throughout it all we never forgot who we were.

Recent times, however, brought with them new developments and greater challenges, in whose wake our faith and commitment to the Covenant found themselves profoundly shaken. First, of course, is the Holocaust. The second, ironically, is the freedom we found in the New World, in America.

The Holocaust saw one-half of our people killed. Two-thirds of the Jews of Europe, a million and a half children—a whole generation—were annihilated. Entire cultures and communities that had existed for hundreds and thousands of years disappeared. The vast scope of the destruction caused an unparalleled crisis of faith. The survivors who emerged from the catastrophe—and I count all of us among them—have been forever changed. Our faith can never again be as firm and unwavering as it was in prior days and ages.

America has brought its own challenge to Jewish continuity. Ironically, here, where Jews are finally able to be free, to mingle without constraints and become integral members of society, the danger we face today is byproduct of our own freedom.

Now our very sense of peoplehood is at risk. Today we don’t need Brotherhoods or Sisterhoods to provide us with opportunities for friendship and camaraderie. Accepted just about anywhere, we don’t need Jewish country clubs or summer resorts such as the Catskills. Ironically, we don’t need other Jews to be Jewish.

Rather than the whole picture, for many of us, our Judaism expresses itself in more specific aspects: Some of us may be more observant in our rituals; but equally valid are those among us who see themselves as secular Jews; or Jews who describe themselves as cultural Jews; Jews by food and tradition; Jews for Israel; or Jews invested in social action and tikkun ‘olam.

In America, for all our freedoms, the danger that we face today is losing sight of the forest for the trees. The bigger picture, the Covenant among ourselves, between us and our God, and between us and our Land, is receding in the blur of modern life and its demands.

And maybe that’s the real purpose of Rosh Ha-Shana, and why it takes place annually, without fail. The Torah does not refer to this day as the beginning of the year. That designation came much later, in the age of the Talmudic Rabbis. In the Torah, it’s called Yom Zikaron—a Day of Remembrance. In the storms and hardship of life, forgetfulness comes too easily. Between one thing and another, it’s too easy to get lost. Rosh Ha-Shana serves to remind us, to call us back, to redirect us onto the right path.

Because here we are, sitting together: rich and poor alike; religious Jews and secular Jews; of Orthodox background, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or of no Jewish background at all; educated Jews, unschooled Jews; Jews by birth, Jews by choice. Life gets complicated. It pulls us apart, taking each of us on a journey we must make alone. Rosh Ha-Shana brings us home again, not only to reminisce, but also to give us a chance to re-orient ourselves, to see ourselves on a larger canvas. On this day—ba-yom ha-zeh—we gather, just as have our people year after year, to recall, to remember, and to reaffirm the terms of the Covenant we chose to accept at Sinai, three thousand six hundred years ago.

On Rosh Ha-Shana, against the infinite backdrop of the Creation of the world, we examine the meaning and direction of our lives. Measuring our faith against the perfect model set by our first Patriarch, Abraham, each of us considers the role we play in in our people’s sacred mission. And we recall that to be Israel is not only to be rooted in the historic land that bears our name, but also to be God’s partner in the ongoing act of Creation, to be a Holy People, a people dedicated to the ideals of knowledge, freedom, justice and equality.

Being Jewish isn’t simple or easy. Pirkei Avot—the Talmudic Tractate of the Fathers—sternly reminds us that it isn’t a task we may desist from. However, taking a somewhat gentler stance, the verse continues: But neither are we obligated to complete it. When each one of us, in our own way, shape, or manner, does whatever we are capable of, when we contribute whatever we can to the greater whole, then all are the better for it.

And that is what it means to be Israel. We are a people united by an ancient Covenant of love, remembrance and responsibility—towards ourselves and one another; towards our God; towards our country and our homeland, for all eternity.

May this Day of Remembrance bring with it sweet memories of past celebrations. May our prayers and meditations today nourish our souls and strengthen our resolve. May this Rosh Ha-Shana show us the path to even greater involvement with our people and tradition. And may we all be inscribed for a good New Year, a year of health, love, joy and peace.

L’shanah tova tikatevu, Amen.

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Words, Words, Words!

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Words give us joy, laughter, and tears—sometimes all at once.

I once remarked to my father, of blessed memory, that he seemed to save too many newspaper and magazine clippings, some of them going back decades in time. My father responded, “What can I do?? I love words.” I now realize that I must have inherited this love from him. I love words and the paths that they lead me on. I love playing with words, listening to their rhythms and rhymes. I love figuring out how words evolved through the ages and how they arrived at the meaning they hold for us today.

Personally, I love puns and word play. One of my favorite passages in all literature is from Hamlet, Shakespeare’s play about the man who sought justice by means of words. In Act II, Hamlet is reading a book when he encounters Polonius, chief counselor to the king. When Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, the prince answers, “Words, words, words.” He then goes on to engages Polonius in some clever and witty wordplay, twisting, turning and tweaking the words Polonius speaks, until Polonius comes to believe that Hamlet has lost his mind. When you take the meaning out of words, Shakespeare seems to tell us, there is nothing left but chaos and madness. When communication breaks down, civilization fails.

Words can turn empty and meaningless. They can become false and turn into lies. And words can be vicious and hurtful, when they are filled with wicked intent and used to evil purposes.

We first learn of the power of words in the Torah’s story of Creation. It is with words, after all, that the world is created. The Big Bang may have brought matter into being, but it is with words, “Let there be light,” that God brings order into the chaos. In chapter 2 of Genesis, God shares this creative power with human beings, not by giving us fire (as in other mythological stories) but rather by giving us the gift of language. By commanding Adam to give animals the names by which they will be known for all time, God empowers all human beings to catalogue and categorize the world around us, to bring purpose and order to the chaos we perceive, to shape and reshape reality in our own image, according to our own knowledge and understanding.

But just as words can create, so can they also destroy. Only a few paragraphs later, in chapter four of the book of Genesis, Cain and Abel, the first set of siblings in the world, have words with one another. We never learn exactly what was said, but whatever it was, the words were forceful enough to lead Cain to kill his brother Abel, the first murder in recorded human history.

As the Good Book says (Proverbs 18:21): death and life are in the power of the tongue.

Little has changed in the millennia since Creation. Today words can still create, teach and inspire; and they can still also destroy, hurt and leave behind deep scars.

Maybe it’s because of the anonymity associated with social media, or maybe because of the power Facebook has given us to judge others quickly and without much thinking—with a simple emoji, with a thumbs up or a thumbs down; or maybe it’s because of MTV and other facets of pop culture, which cater to our baser instincts. Whatever the reason, in the past few years we have seen vile words, words meant to hurt, mock and insult, become the new norm. Even the recent race for the highest and most prestigious office in the world—the Presidency of the United States of America—became a disgusting display of indecency, dishonesty and bullying.

Then, in the wake of the elections, new words appeared—Alt-Right, Alt-Left, the Antifa—words that shed light not only on the deep social, economic and racial rifts that are tearing our nation apart, but also on what the extremists on both sides have in common: hatred, prejudice, and—yes, you guessed it—anti-Semitism.

After Charlottesville, the White House issued words that seemed to show moral equivalency, words that obfuscated the difference between prejudice and tolerance, between hatred and acceptance. Later statements tried to back off from this failure of vision and leadership, but something was still missing. Amidst all the tumult, finger-pointing and shouting, not a single word of apology, not a single “I’m sorry” was spoken—not for Heather Heyer, whose life was so cruelly cut short in Charlottesville; not for the nineteen who were wounded and injured by the man who deliberately rammed his car into the counter-protestors; nor for the thousands and thousands all over the world, whose traumas were reawakened by the once-again-rising specter of racism, misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism. A shocking silence.

But there WAS response. It came from the streets, as in Boston, where, a week after Charlottesville, forty thousand people marched across town and gathered at the Boston Common to drown out the voices of bigotry and prejudice. Response came from other cities as well, where people came out to protest against the hatred.

Response is also found in our machzorim, our holiday prayer books. Here we find words that our people have called holy: Words that teach us how to love one another; words that instruct us to act with charity and compassion; words that remind us that saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t make you less of a man, and that to forgive actually makes you more like God. Here we learn about humility, and about the genius implanted within each and every human being, the unique challenge given each of us by God, and the opportunity we all have to participate in tikkun ‘olam, the repair of our world.

The central image of Rosh Ha-Shana is Sefer ha-chayim, the Book of Life. In this book, we are told, our life story writes itself. Each word we think, utter or act upon is registered on its pages. But then, so are the many lost opportunities, the many missed chances to make it a good story, to imbue it with purpose and meaning, to give it a happy ending.

As we go through the next 10 days, reflecting upon our life and the direction it’s going in, let us remember that until the last day, until our last breath, we have the power to repent, to turn back, to get back on the right path. Words do have power—but we have power over the words we use to shape our lives and the world around us.

Pen in hand, let us take control of our life-story and make sure it turns out right. One day at a time, one breath at a time, one kind word at a time. The story is ours to write, and today we get to begin a new chapter.

L’shanah tova tikatveivu—may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year of goodness, of peace, of life, love, health and prosperity. Amen.