A Prayer for ‘Trying’

There is a piece of liturgy. It’s not one of the major sections of our worship experience. It’s not the Bar’chu, K’riat Sh’ma or Amidah. It does, however, appear in every worship experience. It’s the Chatzi Kaddish. This ancient text in aramaic always marks a moment of transition in the service. For example, in reform movement worship, the Chatzi Kaddish signals worshippers that we have concluded the “warmup”, and we are about to move into the first major section of the service, the Bar’chu. In the conservative and orthodox movements, the Chatzi Kaddish appears numerous times throughout the service. “Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored , and lauded. Beyond all earthly  words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort. To which we say: Amen.” (Mishkan T’filah. New York, CCAR Press, 2009.) Despite the lack of centrality of this text in our worship, as a Cantor, I have always found this particular section of the Chatzi Kaddish extraordinarily deep. What it’s saying, I think, is that as we move through our prayers, asking for things, praising, and thanking God, we acknowledge that our words only touch the surface. We understand that our fixed liturgy, our choreography, the melodies we sing, and the kavanot we offer are the ways in which we try to express ourselves and the intentions of our hearts to connect to the divinity. Nonetheless, we come to it over and over again and give it our best try. But, is trying enough?

For more than two months now, worship experience has taken place virtually. I miss the warm embrace (literally) of fellow congregants, our family of families. I miss the sound of kisses reaching people’s cheeks. I miss the giggles, the noise. I even miss hearing complaints that the room is too hot/too cold! And as a prayer leader, I have been feeling at a loss. The main difference between us, cantors, rabbis and prayer leaders, and performers is that we hold two hats at once: on the one hand, we are serving as Shlichei Tzibur; we are emissaries of our congregation, helping people  reach to their deepest selves to offer prayers with sincerity. On the other hand, we, as part of the pray-er group, are also worshiping along our congregants. This is a beautiful dynamic that takes place when we worship with our communities. Now, we find ourselves davening from home: from  kitchen tables turned into offices, and from computers turned into pulpits. The time we use checking our internet connection, and confirming that our computer charger and earpiece are working correctly has replaced our “worship prep time”. We feel that something has gone missing. We are doing what we can, and from a limited tool box of things that we can do, we are reaching for all of them. We are trying our best. But, is trying enough?

In conversations with colleagues, I find myself asking for suggestions and advice on what we can do now, with the circumstances being what they are, and the limitations that we have, to make worship meaningful for our communities. But recently, I have turned to a different question. What was  it that I, as a Cantor, was doing before coronavirus (and zoom) when it came to worship? Reflexively, I want to answer that I was making worship accessible, participatory, engaging, dynamic, out of the box, reflective, etc. But what if I was, just like I am now, simply trying? Trying to make it dynamic, engaging, spiritual, etc. In other words, what if the whole exercise of prayer is a big “trying” effort? The Chatzi Kaddish calls us to pause and to inhabit a moment of limitations and, in the same act, we affirm that even in our limited efforts, we won’t give up. We will continue to show up for  our congregants for singing, learning, praying, mourning, dancing, and demonstrating that we care. I know, trying is not often seen as something admirable. Trying is something happening now; it’s something that is in the making, while so many of our efforts are  directed towards the final result, toward completed tasks. Yet, we are living in a state of transition. We are, perhaps, living in a Chatzi Kaddish moment, and within it, we have the opportunity and capacity to pause and observe the many ways in which we are trying to be a sacred and caring community.

And so, maybe this minor prayer that we often recite as a transition to move quickly into what comes next, could, after all,  now be a stand alone prayer, our prayer for trying. Maybe the Chatzi Kaddish can become, in this moment, a loving home where our prayers, both communal and personal, can reside. Maybe we can read it and chant it anew as a reminder that trying, when exercised as a value, can be powerful and transforming, or  even  all that’s needed to bring us together in these times.

About the Author
Sheila Nesis is a cantor and mother of two. She served as Cantor at Temple Sinai in Denver, CO from 2014 to 2019. Prior to that, she served progressive congregations in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona. She grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and moved to New York City in 2007 to join the clergy at Temple Israel of New York City in Manhattan. She has written for a number of jewish publications. She currently resides in Portland, Maine.
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