Sheila Nesis

Can Prayer Help Us Be Good Samaritans?

Recently, I have found myself re-reading Rabbi Raymond A. Zwerin’s collection of High Holy Day sermons. Organized in a book called “Forty Years of Wondering” (2006), one of the sermons that continues to strike me was given on Kol Nidre, year 1997. Rabbi Zwerin begins his D’var listing the many excuses people have used over the years on why they can’t pray. They include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. I can’t pray because I don’t know if anybody is listening and answering my prayers (or, I know that nobody is listening and answering my prayers.)
  2. I can’t pray because the prayers in the Siddur don’t speak to me. They don’t represent modern thinking, life and concerns, and are, simply put, old fashioned (in a bad way).
  3. I can’t pray because I don’t like the music at my shul. The melodies are too traditional/too popular. The Cantor is too operatic/too folksy. There is too much Hebrew/too much English.
  4. I can’t pray because the Rabbi doesn’t talk enough about current events/the Rabbi’s sermons are too political.
  5. Prayer is not my thing; my thing is Judaism as a call to action and I’d rather engage in acts of Tikkun Olam, which seem to be more central to Judaism.

Excuses four and five are my additions, but I believe they fit the bill just fine. The list, of course, goes on. As a Cantor and prayer leader, I find that they still ring true in this day and age. It’s not surprising: In times when the polarization of our thoughts and ways of life have deepened, it is only natural that the same habits and mechanisms would permeate our prayer and spiritual life, maybe even more than ever before. And so I ask myself this question: instead of expecting our worldviews to shape our prayer experiences, what would it look like to turn to our prayer experiences as laboratories, a form of controlled microenvironment for, not only allowing ourselves to pray, but also engaging in practices of tolerance, kindness and respectful disagreement that would in turn shake and shape us as members of our communities? Can the act of communal prayer and the prayers themselves teach us to be good samaritans? I think so. And here I offer some humble ways to engage in the experiment.

Be an active listener. In prayer, like in life, we feel that singing loud/speaking loud, is how we show that we are engaged. However, I recommend practicing active listening. It’s not that I want to sing a solo piece to feed my ego, but listening is an important Jewish value, spiritual practice, and the central message in many of our prayers. Moreover, both Cantor Jacob Mendelson and singer songwriter Debbie Friedman, z’l, two very different and prominent figures in the world of chazzanut and Jewish music, believe in the power of listening. I have a vivid memory of Debbie Friedman leading Mi Shebeirach at a URJ Biennial in Latinamerica: she would sing the first stanza to us, so that we could receive the words, and then she invited us to join singing the second stanza with her. So, listen; don’t fill all the voids with your own voice; maybe someone is trying to give you a gift.

Focus on feeling moved, not on feeling joy. As a fairly general statement, I would say that I see prayer as opportunities to be moved, and here I mean it as opposed to feeling joy. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against joy! But, I happen to believe everything in moderation is often a good thing. Cantor Ellen Dreskin in “Making Prayer Real” (2010) shares a quote from Rabbi Joshua Heschel: “…worship should comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” I take this to heart, both in prayer and life.  I have a strong intuition that we have showered ourselves with comfort (and also, with what is comfortable) during worship (and, you guessed right, in life as well). I think it’s time to make ourselves more uncomfortable. For me, it’s about using liturgy and music to highlight being present and open to be moved, whether it is with joy or sorrow.

Don’t expect to get something out of it, if you are not putting something into it. We all talk about “going to services” or “attending services” The problem is that in our modern times, the word “service” is used for activities that have a different, if not almost opposite, meaning to what we are trying to convey for our worship experiences. We use “services” to refer to things that we expect others (who are more skilled than we are on a certain task) to do for us. If we go for a haircut, it is fair to say that we are paying for a service. If we come out with a bad haircut, it’s fair to say that we received bad service. But the same analogy doesn’t hold true for worship: If worship hasn’t worked for you, it isn’t always the prayer leader’s fault. It’s the responsibility of the pray-er to bring something of their own to the moment of worship for they too are responsible for their own prayer experience, as well as the experience of all those in the same room. All of us, prayer leaders and pray-ers, are responsible for the avodah shevalev, the necessary work from our hearts in our moments of prayer. But in case you think I’m leaving worship leaders too much off the hook, keep reading.

If you are a leader (or if you follow one) make sure your/their ego stays down, before they get on a podium to speak. Some sources indicate that traditionally the Sheliach Tizbur, the prayer leader, would move both in front and down when leading. This was both a spiritual and physical statement. Although they were knowledgeable on the kevah (the fixed structure), and gifted on the ways of kavanah (spontaneity and intention), they were not superior to those participating in the communal experience.  A prayer leader’s prayers will not cause a spiritual experience to all attending worship. But, with humility, a prayer leader can aspire to open some doors for self reflection, spirituality and joy for some individuals at certain moments during prayer. A prayer leader should provide different tools for congregants to be empowered to be co- creators of any given worship experience in which they participate.  In other words, worship leaders should rejoice in knowing that if worship has worked for you, it isn’t always thanks to them.

Not everything is about you. I still remember Cantor Ellen Dreskin telling the following story during a workshop at one of the Union for Reform Judaism Biennials: A Cantor introduces a new melody for Mi Chamocha during Friday evening services. At the end of the service, a congregant comes over to tell the Cantor how wonderful the services were, and adds, “But that Mi Chamocha– I hated it!”.  What is most remarkable is the answer Cantor Dreskin offered. She said “I’m sorry that melody didn’t work for you. But you should have looked at the congregants sitting a few rows behind you; they were loving it!” In worship, as in life, praying and being in community means that, sometimes, you celebrate the opportunities to feel elevated, and other times, you feel elevated by watching your fellow community members rejoice and have moments of connection, even if you didn’t like the song.

You can be a source of change. To pray and to be in the world are not, or should not be seen as, two separate things. Don’t ask yourself “Who am I praying to?”, but rather “what difference does it make if I pray?” Praying to some entity that would bestow the answers or solutions to our problems is not the way into Jewish prayer. Praying to remind ourselves to be grateful, to acknowledge the power of that which both encompases and exceeds us at all times, to motivate us to create and change, to love and be loved, and to have the courage to bring more justice and kindness to our world, are the principles of Jewish prayer.

Be grateful. Or, simply say “Thank you”. It certainly helps to mean it, before we say it. Other times, saying it enough will bring an awareness of the mystery of the world that we have the responsible privilege to inhabit. What, if not thanksgiving, is the meaning of that repetitive formula that we have throughout prayer, “Baruch Ata Adonai “(Blessed are You, Adonai)…? You don’t have to say those words if they don’t work for you. Just a “Wow, I get to see this/be this/be with/live this/read this/smell this/know them” will do. Let this, if nothing else, be your prayer, and a way into being a good samaritan.

About the Author
Cantor Sheila Nesis isthe Cantor in Residence at Etz Chaim Synagogue in Portland, Maine and the creator and educator of the Prayer Leadership Training program at the Center for Small Town Jewish Life in midcoast, Maine. She has been selected to be part of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Clergy Leadership Program beginning in January 2023. Her writings appear in various Jewish publications, including The Times of Israel, Kveller, The Forward, and Ritualwell. Originally from Argentina, she lives in Cumberland Foreside, Maine, with her husband and two children.
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