On Prayer - Parshat Toldot

This is two sermons, or maybe it's one sermon with a heightened sense of urgency.

Parshat Toldot is one of my favorites, because it is here that we really see what Yitzhak is all about — and Yitzhak is my favorite of our forebears. This is a position that puts me squarely in the company of nobody, and you might have to invite me back some other time so I can convince you of Yitzhak's strength of character and nobility. But for our purposes today, look just at the beginning of the parsah, 25:19-22. We are introduced to the adult Yitzhak, son of Avraham and to his wife Rivka, daughter of Bethuel. And then we read,

"Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rivka conceived."

The root ר ת ע has a specific function: it's a type of pleading to God. It is not asking someone for a favor, it is prayer, the kind of prayer that asks something of God.

Now I know we generally teach that genuine prayer does not have an agenda, it is not right to present God with a wish list. But sometimes our prayer does ask something of God, and it's often something big. I love that Yitzhak pleads with God. Many commentators have noted that almost all of our emahot were barren, but only Yitzhak prays on his wife's behalf. Our other avot father children with other women, which fulfills their need/desire for children, but not that of their wives. I want to say thank you Yitzhak for your ability to see your wife's pain and for taking that pain upon yourself, and for asking, for pleading with God to grant her a child.

Yitzhak models for us genuine prayer — not necessarily bound by the words of the siddur (important and useful though they are). Yitzhak shows us that there are times, moments of despair when it is not only permitted, but necessary to cry out to God, a genuine cry of the heart.

Yesterday I foolishly scrolled through Facebook to get a sense of what people were feeling out there, and I came upon a blog entry written by a woman who said that today, as violence rages in Israel, as hate begets hate, she could not pray.

I would say that today is a day for prayer. Raise your voice to God, give full expression to your grief, your rage, your fear. For many of us it is too soon to analyze — how much of this attack was political, how much religion based, how has CNN added to our pain, does that embolden the next attack.... Many of us are not there yet. It is not time to analyze and categorize. It is time to cry out.

It is time to mention the names: Rabbi Moshe Twersky. Rabbi Kalmin Levine. Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky. Rabbi Avraham Goldberg. Zidon Saif.

We read on Yom Kippur: In the time of the Roman Empire, God suffered ten rabbis to be martyred. It fell to Rabban Shimon to be martyred first and have his blood flow like a slaughtered bull. Rabbi Yishmael cried bitterly, "How the tongue that rushed to teach such beautiful words now licks the earth."

Eleh ezkerah v nafshi alai eshp'chah....

These I recall and my soul melts with sorrow, for the bitter course of our history, tears pour from my eyes.

What can prayer do for us at a time like this? It can assure us that we are not alone in our grief. Rabbi Sharon Cohen Ainsfeld said, "We must grieve in the first person plural." We must acknowledge that for all our many differences, the Israelis who were killed were our fellow Jews. (They did not dress the way we do; we likely would have disagreed vigorously on a range of religious and political issues. But they were our brothers. And Zidon Saif, not a Jew but a lover of Israel as we are, he too was our brother.) When we pray together we grieve in the first person plural. We are reminded that we are in a place where others share our grief and it is safe here to express that grief in its fullness.

When we pray we acknowledge that the world abides in mystery. We will never find a satisfactory answer to those why questions that terrible loss prompts. Why me? Why this child or young mother? And while we are acknowledging mystery, we must know that we will not find any theological explanation that will make sense of the butchering of Jews at prayer.

We have been cautioned not to ask those why questions. It is not our place to understand God's ways. God's justice is not something we can comprehend. Okay, so we won't get answers. But we may articulate the questions. It is only fair that we should be allowed to give voice to our sense of outrage, our sense that life itself is sometimes cruelly unfair, that we just don't get it, that God's world should not be like this. Prayer allows us to say aloud that there are things we do not understand — and that that not understanding leaves us in a terribly uncomfortable state of being.

But prayer also reminds us that mystery does not have to convey meaninglessness. God has not abandoned us or the world God has created. We pray for God to bring us peace and we are reminded, even if just momentarily, that peace still exists as a concept. The world is not given over to meaninglessness. Not yet. Hold on, prayer tells us, it is not absurd to ask for, not absurd to believe in the possibility, of comfort, of peace.

These past few days the need to gather, to cry out, to comfort and be comforted has been acute for many of us. And I will return to the need for prayer in time of crisis in a moment. But if I may shift our focus briefly to the quotidian lives we live when we are not reeling from crisis, I would remind you that very close to home, here in our Temple Israel community, we have friends, or acquaintances, or just co-members of our shul with a need for communal prayer that is ongoing.

I am sad to tell you that we have been struggling — with mixed results — to gather a minyan on weekday mornings. There are several reasons that we insist on a minyan for reciting Kaddish. One is that the mourner is obligated to praise God's Name even — especially — at a time that might be marked by estrangement, anger, a sense of abandonment. And God's Name is not praised, it is not magnified and sanctified, in private, but rather in public, in community.

We insist on a minyan for Kaddish out of concern and love for the mourner. "Get out of your house," we tell the mourner. "It is not good, it is not healthy for you to grieve in your home, alone and quiet. Do not crawl under your covers to grieve. We want to keep an eye on you. We want to remind you that you do not have to mourn alone or quietly. We want, we insist, on hearing and sharing your sorrow. We want to accompany you to healing."

And we insist on a minyan for mourners' Kaddish because it is good for us, the community. We are inspired when we see a mourner, someone who might have every right to be angry with or disappointed with or just disengaged from God stand up and praise God over and over. It teaches us that our turn will come and that we too will somehow find the strength to say, day after heartbroken day, yitgadal v'yitkadash shnei rabba. We see that it can be done. And we see that when it is our turn and we must wrestle with a way to praise God from a place of sorrow, our community will stand with us, as Anita Diamant writes, "shoulder to shoulder with everyone who stands or ever stood as you do, recalling a beloved face that is gone but not forgotten."

For that we need a minyan.

We all need a minyan. And we need to be part of a minyan. That need feels pressing now, but it continues throughout the year. So if you can be here, at that very early hour, on some of these dark and very cold mornings, you have the opportunity to do something great and important. Stand with us. Help us cry out, help us find our way back to praise.

A Blessing for Mourners

My brothers and sisters who are worn out and crushed by this mourning, let your hearts consider this:

This is the path that has existed from the time of creation and will exist forever. Many have drunk from it and many will yet drink. As was the first meal so shall be the last.

A Blessing for Consolers

My brothers and sisters who perform acts of lovingkindness - who follow the way of our father Avraham and our mother Sarah.

My brothers and sisters may the One Who rewards goodness reward you.

Blessed is the One Who rewards deeds of goodness.

And let us say, amen.

Rabbi Leslie Gordon