Cantor Dress High Holiday Message

Cantor Dress's High Holiday Message for 2013 - 5774


Rabbi Menahem of Kotzk was asked why does the Sh'ma say "these words shall be on your heart?" Why does the Sh'ma not say "these words shall be in your heart?" "The answer," he insightfully replied, "is that the heart is not always open; therefore, we should lay these words on our heart, so that when it opens, they will be there, ready to enter."

Words, meditations, and melodies directed toward God can offer a myriad of meaningful possibilities. In 21st century vernacular, I suppose that we could refer to this as prayer-messaging. Since time immemorial,prayer-messaging with words and melodies has been the Jewish worshippers' means of expressing ourselves to our Creator. Of course, nearly every song – secular and religious - has lyrics and a musical score. Prayer is unique to all other songs because it is generated by the heart. Each Amidah reminds us that words may indeed emerge from the mouth, but the source of prayer in found within the meditative recesses of the human heart. Although words and melodies help us focus our spiritual selves on our sacred task, prayer must transcend the confining limitations of words. Song helps this process; however, it cannot be externally delivered. The words, their corresponding melodies, and related meditations require inner-participation in order for prayer to be realized.

The words of the mahzor and siddur (prayer books) accompanied by sacred melodies can only enter the heart if there is receptivity by a prospective worshipper. If the heart is closed then no words, no meditation, no melodies, no message, and no other human being, no matter how scholarly, no matter how gifted, no matter how sincere can externally penetrate that person's heart.

Jewish prayer requires kavannah: inner-participation of the individual's mind, heart, and soul. The prayer book with its many words and melodies is complex even to native Hebrew readers and speakers, even to scholars and musicians. Therefore, sensitivity, humility, and openness are some of the emotional, spiritual, and psychological qualities that need to supersede intellectualism, rationality, and musicality in order for prayer to occur. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about radical amazement as a concept and image to strive for when engaging in prayer. One of the reasons services take so long is because we need sufficient time and space to transform ourselves from feeling independent and entitled to feeling needy and enlightened. If we really desire to pray in a Jewish way, then we need to strive to step out of ourselves and into a counter-intuitive spiritual realm that defies clear definition.

Jewish prayer passages are commonly studied in a logical manner, yet we do not pray as logical thinkers. Although prayer may be scrupulously analyzed, analysis can be a serious impediment toward attainingd'vekut: a spiritually transcending connection to God that goes beyond the human mind. Prayer passages emerge as a prayerful service of the human heart only when a worshipper's spirit transcends logic and analyses in favor of empathy, sensitivity, sweetness, openness, and humility. Those internal qualities have the capacity to turn the key to open shaarei shamayim, the heavenly gates.

Gathering together in our Temple Israel congregational settings can be helpful in our attempt to suspend the normative patterns of human behavior that often impinge on the spiritual dimension of life. During the ten days of repentance our synagogue building and our Temple Israel family affords us sacred and secure spaces, wonderful people, and opportunities to place ourselves before the Ultimate Judge of the Universe as penitent individuals in the context of a mutually-caring community.

During services and during other occasions – happy and sad, cultural and social, educational and entertaining --our synagogue offers multiple support "systems". Here, we safely join with family, friends, and acquaintances in shared spaces. Together, we read and sing introspective passages from our prayer books. When we are sensitive to the needs and concerns of our fellow congregants including our precious children then we can bring ourselves to the attention of God in true prayer. When we regard God (and not ourselves) as the Subject of prayer, we then have a realistic chance to feel something spiritually special in our private and collective sigh and song.

Therefore, as we approach the High Holy Days, I pray that "these words will (indeed) be on our hearts" so that our individual and collective prayerful experiences will be meaningful to you and accepted on High. To foster enhanced (inner and outer) participatory opportunities, I prepared a gift for you with the generous assistance of Michael Getz. This gift may be accessed on this web site by clicking High Holiday Melodies under the Prayer menu. Recognizing that Hebrew is difficult for many of us, you will notice that the 32 tracks are accompanied by "English" transliterated passages with pagination according to Mahzor Lev Shalem, our Temple Israel High Holy Day Prayer Book. This gift is one of several attempts that I plan to undertake this year as a respectful response to last year's High Holy Day survey contributors. I thank our congregational leaders and other dear congregants with whom I proactively consulted and exchanged ideas and suggestions. I wish all our TI members to know that my heart has always been open to your heart and together, heart to heart, I pray that our prayers will be accepted by our Rock and Redeemer. Myrna joins me in my hope that God will grant you and yours a New Year that promises life, health, harmony, and loveb'shalom al Yisrael, with peace for Israel v'al kol yosh'vei teivel, and for all who dwell on earth. Amen.

Cantor Steven Dress