Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"Why Did It Have to be Snakes? / Parshat Chukkat

Sometimes the very thing that kills also cures; that which hurts also heals; that which causes impurity purifies. Parshat Chukkat opens with the law of the red heifer, whose ashes are crucially necessary to removing the ritual impurity imparted by death. Yet the one who slaughters the red heifer and reduces it to ashes is by that service, rendered impurethis seems like the inverse. It is surprising how often that which hurts also heals.

Following the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the Israelites complain yet again. This is the their last major rebellion but this time the Israelites rebel directly against God.

  וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהֹר הָהָר, דֶּרֶךְ יַם-סוּף, לִסְבֹב, אֶת-אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם; וַתִּקְצַר נֶפֶשׁ-הָעָם, בַּדָּרֶךְ.  וַיְדַבֵּר הָעָם, בֵּאלֹהִים וּבְמֹשֶׁה, לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר:       כִּי אֵין לֶחֶם, וְאֵין מַיִם, וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה, בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל.

They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom. But the people grew restive on the journey, and the people spoke against God and against Moses, Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food. (Numbers 21:4-5)

Gods response is a combination of what we would expect and also something surprising:

 וַיְשַׁלַּח יְהוָה בָּעָם, אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים, וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ, אֶת-הָעָם; וַיָּמָת עַם-רָב, מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל.  וַיָּבֹא הָעָם אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמְרוּ חָטָאנוּ, כִּי-דִבַּרְנוּ בַיהוָה וָבָךְ--הִתְפַּלֵּל אֶל-יְהוָה, וְיָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אֶת-הַנָּחָשׁ; וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה, בְּעַד הָעָם.

The Lord sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, We sinned by speaking against the lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord to take away the serpents from us! And Moses interceded for the people. (Numbers 21:6-7)

We find here a familiar pattern: God sends harsh punishment and the people relentthough not before many have diedthis time asking Moses to plead their case before God. But then something unusual happens. God instructs Moses to fashion a seraph (a snake or serpent) and mount it on a pole. One who looks at it is healed from the bite of the seraph serpents or snakes. Why is it a snake?

Indiana Jones, heroic rough-riding adventurer and mild-mannered archaeology professor of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark is afraid of only one thing: snakes. When he and Marcus toss torches into the Well of Souls, into which they must descend, Indiana realizes it is filled with thousands of slithering snakes. He mutters, Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, is the most common phobia, afflicting one-third of all adults. Evolutionary biologists theorize that the fear of snakes, some of which are poisonous, was advantageous for human survival.

In parshat Chukkat, the Israelites encounter a scene not altogether unlike that in Steven Spielbergs hit movie, but with a bizarre twist. The copper seraph indeed works as promised. What hurt them now heals them. What killed them now cures them.

We might understand the seraph snakes as representing the Israelites deepest fears, and the Copper Snake as affording them the opportunity to face their fears. The Israelites have much to fear, including the harshness of the Wilderness and their vulnerability among other desert-dwelling peoples (Amalek immediately jumps to mind). But perhaps most of all, they are threatened by their own fears, as we often are. We saw this clearly two weeks ago when we read the account of the spies who reconnoiter the Land of Israel. The report they bring back is in many ways highly accurate: a land flowing with milk and honey, whose produce is magnificent and whose cities are fortified. All true. It is their fear that colors the spies intelligence black and foreboding: We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we. (Numbers 13:31)

Can courage abide alongside fear? What does it take for people to convert their fear into courage? Mark Twain wrote: Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.

Israeli neuroscientists Uri Nili, Hagar Goldberg, and Yadin Dudai of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, along with psychiatrist Abraham Weizman of Tel Aviv University, sought to understand how people react to fear, and move from avoiding it to confronting it. They scanned the brains of people acting out of courage, despite great fear. How better to do it than withyou guessed it: snakes. Since the Well of Souls was not readily available, these scientists put people in an MRIhead secured by a cage, body encased in a narrow tube and secured a 5-foot long snake to a trolley on a conveyer belt just above them. The goal, the subjects were told, was to bring the snake toward their heads. The subjects were given two buttons to push. One button brought the snake closer to them and the other moved it further away: Advance and Retreat. Sounds a bit masochistic, doesnt it?

The article reporting their findings in the journal Neuron is entitled, Fear Thou Not: Activity of Frontal and Temporal Circuits in Moments of Real-Life Courage. The scientists measured their subjects behavioral responses, brain activity, and physiological responses. It turns out that there are two separate drivers of fear: one is a physiological response we cannot control (sweating is the most obvious sign) and the other is our conscious level of fear. If both drivers are engaged, fear wins out and we succumb. But if only one driver of fear is engaged, we are able to overcome our fear and act with courage. What is more, the more the subjects did not succumb to fear, the more the brain region known as the subgenus anterior cingulate cortex lit up, and the more courageously the subjects behaved.

In other words, even if subjects had an innate physiological fear response, if they made the mental effort to face their fear, the subgenus anterior cingulate cortex ( the part of the brain that suppresses fear responses) quieted down the amygdala (the part of the brain that engenders fear in the first place). Clearly, its all happening in the brain, but the finding that the Courage Center (the subgenus anterior cingulate cortex) can overcome the Fear Center (the amygdala) is remarkable.

Theres no pill to pop here. But by facing our fears (as the subject in the Weizmann Institute experiment did quite literally) and employing our considerable mental powers, we can reshape our brains and conquer our fears. We watched Indiana Jones do it when he lowered himself into the Well of Souls, and Neville Flynn in Snakes on a Plane. We, too, can do it. Heres one more picture to get us started.

What are you afraid of? Can you envision yourself staring into the eyes of Copper Snake without blinking and overcoming that fear?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Next Spielberg Fllick? / Parshat Korach

Since Cecil B. DeMille is no longer among the living (zichrono livrakhah), but Steve Spielberg is alive and well, I nominate the magician of special effects to produce a movie that features Korach and his minions, rebelling against Moses and Aaron in the Wilderness, and then being swallowed up into the earth. No claymation here — with DreamWorks and their cosmic special effects, I imagine it would be something like this: the ground undulates and sways, a gap opens and the breach grows larger—against the backdrop of heart-pounding music. Then Korach, gesticulating wildly, screaming furiously, and writhing violently, falls into the gaping pit, spinning head over heel again and again as he plummets ever deeper into the abyss of Sheol, while all around people shriek in horror and flee for their lives…  I think it would probably have to be rated R for violence, but hey, after all, Korach’s the bad guy, right? He deserves what he gets, doesn’t he? Torah tells us:

Now Korach, son of Itzhar son of Levi betook himself along with Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, and On son of Pelet, descendants of Reuven, to rise up against Moses, together with 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They joined together in opposition to Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation? (Numbers 16:1-3)

The classical commentators vary only in nuance. Rashi_, following Tanhuma_, says “Korach betook” means he split off from the community, objecting to the selection of Aaron as High Priest. Nachmanides_ says Rashi has misread Tanhuma: Torah is saying that something betook Korach, his heart carried him away from the community. They agree, however, that Korach sought Aaron’s position. Rashbam_ and ibn Ezra_ say that Korach took men with him to stand up to Moses; the word “men” is not found in the Hebrew, but is understood. Rashbam seems to believe that Korach wanted not Aaron’s position, but Moses’s position; Ibn Ezra says Korach resented Moses having removed the first-born status from the tribe of Reuben. Everyone clear on the scorecard? At the end of the day, all agree that Korach’s intentions were evil. He conspired with others to foment rebellion against the Israelite leadership, threatening the stability of the entire nation. So we can all agree that Korach got what he deserved, which Torah describes this way:

…the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. (Numbers 16:31-34)

Over the centuries, Korach has come to represent the arch-villain, a demagogue pursuing power and control to boost his prominence. He ignores the welfare of the community in favor of his ego needs and over-inflated self-image. Korach thereby becomes the Rabbis’ poster child for controversies that are not for the sake of heaven. As Pirke Avot famously tells us: 

A controversy for heaven’s sake will have lasting value, but a controversy not for heaven’s sake will not endure… What is an example of a controversy not for heaven’s sake? The rebellion of Korach and his followers. (Pirke Avot 5:19)

Given the weight of tradition excoriating Korach, it is surprising to find a different perspective. Yet such exists. The 18th century hasidic rabbi, Meshulam Feibush Heller of Zbarash (1740-1795) provides a strikingly different, far more nuanced, and sympathetic lens for viewing the figure of Korach. In Yosher Divrei Emet he tells us:

Korach’s conflict with Moses took place despite the fact of Moses’s great humility, as the Torah states [Numbers 12:3 tells us: Moses was more humble than any person on the face of the earth]. Nevertheless, some grandiosity remained in certain things [Moses] did. He was ruler over Israel, and he conducted himself like a king over his people. Yet he did all this for God’s sake, to guide people in God’s service. This would not have been possible without someone to take the lead. Still, at first [Moses] did not want it. He refused, saying to God, Send whom You will (Exodus 4:13) until God forced him to accept the office.

Rabbi Meshulam reminds us to view the situation through Korach’s eyes. Moses played the part of king. Granted, it  was a position he neither sought nor wanted, and which God thrust upon him, but from Korach’s perspective, Moses played “high and mighty.” What Korach saw was arrogance and pomposity. This is the source of Rabbi Meshulam’s compassion for Korach:

Even though Korach possessed both intelligence and the holy spirit, a spark of envy remained within him. He had not purified his heart of it in a total way. Envy derives from that sense of grandness; he could not believe that Moses did everything by the word of God and that he was in truth so humble and lowly. [Korach] thought that Moses was using his exalted role in a way that opposed truth, that he had strayed from truth and erred in aggrandizing himself. Korach thought that it was Moses’s sense of his own greatness that cause him to exalt himself over God’s community, and so [Korach] said, Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of Adonai? (Numbers 16:3)…

Rabbi Meshulam gives Korach the benefit of the doubt, and in that alone there is an important lesson for us. But the substance of his commentary is to point out that due to his own ego and gradiosity, Korach truly believed that Moses was abusing his role and straying from the straight path of God’s truth, indulging his ego by bathing in power. Korach’s focus, Rabbi Meshulam next tells us, was outward—on Moses—rather than inward, exploring his own feelings and motivations. Envy blinded Korach. Korach's radar picked up a signal he understood as Moses’s self-aggrandizement, because he could not recognize the grandiosity his envy had generated.

Neuroscience supports Rabbi Meshulam’s underlying assumption: We judge others far more harshly than we judge ourselves. Put another way, we condemn in others what we give ourselves a free pass on. In an article in Scientific American, Ozgun Atasoy takes aim at those obnoxious Dove commercials in which a forensic artists draws two pictures of the same woman he never sees: one based on her self-description, and one based on a virtual stranger. Lo and behold, the stranger describes a much more beautiful woman than the woman herself. Atasoy sums up the research—the real science—this way:  “The evidence from psychological research suggests… that we tend to think of our appearance in ways that are more flattering than are warranted. This seems to be part of a broader human tendency to see ourselves through rose colored glasses. Most of us think that we are better than we actually are—not just physically, but in every way.”_ “Every way,” of course, includes morally. This describes Korach, but not only Korach.

Korach, it turns out, is not unique. He is all of us. Yes, he blundered on a big scale, which is why it would take the likes of Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks to do justice to the biblical story on a wide screen, but we blunder more often than we admit or even know, on a much smaller scale, thinking that only we are qualified to do some task or another, only we have the skills, expertise, intellect, or experience needed to do it right.

Rabbi Meshulam now comes to his point. He reminds us of the need to examine ourselves, our egos, our envies, our projections onto others, in the light of this model. He tells us:

…It requires great faith to always assign the lack to yourself, ever seeking submission and humility, even when it comes to doing good. Take care: it might be sinful self-exaltation that makes you want to do a mitzvah that is not required of you and that might be performed by somebody else. Do not think that you are more the right person to do it than your fellow, for that is grandiosity…

We all have a tendency toward envy that colors our view of others and removes us from objective judgment, particularly in matters of power, authority, status, and money. And in case you’re thinking, “Hey, this is human nature and there is nothing we can do about it,” the nascent field of “Cultural Neuroscience”—which emerged about a decade ago—tells us that culture makes a difference. Beth Azar writes in an American Psychological Association publication, supplies this striking example from the realm of morality and judgment: “When an American thinks about whether he is honest, his brain activity looks very different than when he thinks about whether another person is honest, even a close relative. That’s not true for Chinese people. When a Chinese man evaluates whether he is honest, his brain activity looks almost identical to when he is thinking about whether his mother is honest.”_ Whatever else we might conclude about American and Chinese cultures, I bring this to make the following point: What we might have thought was hard-wiring in our brains is not. This means that our brains can also be rewired. 

Rabbi Meshulam Feibush Heller tells us that the key to rewiring is humility. The humility of Moses, so esteemed by our Sages, is within our grasp when we wrestle to tame the ego needs that envy generates. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, June 9, 2014

Fringe Benefits / Parshat Shelach-Lekha

Flying out of Logan airport a few summers ago, my carry-on “failed” the screening. It was put through the x-ray machine twice more and flunked both times. Finally, a security guard took it aside and searched it. Time was tight and I didn’t want to miss my flight. “If you tell me what you’re looking for, I can help you find it quickly,” I told him. “Do you have a lobster pick in here?” he asked. I told that I didn’t know what a lobster pick looks like. He described it and I knew immediately what had showed up in the x-ray. I steered him toward my tallit bag where he found a yad (Torah pointer) which apparently is the Jewish version of lobster pick. He then noticed the tzitzit on the tallit and said, “I’ve always wondered what these are.” So I explained the tradition of fringes on the corners of garments.

Tacked onto the end of this week’s parashah, Shelach-Lecha, following the dramatic story of the spies sent to reconnoiter the Land of Israel and the people’s calamitous response to their report, and after another round of commandments concerning sacrifices, is the instruction concerning tzitzit, which is is the third paragraph of Shema in the prayerbook:

The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people, telling them that they shall make themselves tzitzit on the corners of their garments throughout their generations; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. They shall be tzitzit for you, and you shall see it [alt. Him] and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe  all My commandments and be holy to your God. I the Lord am your God, who brought you out the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God. (Numbers 15:37-41)

This simple passage has given rise to a great deal of imaginative interpretation. I’ll share two very different interpretations with you this week, both of which focus on but a phrase for their insight.

The Sages of the Talmud noticed that Torah, envisioning the tzitzit as a reminder of the mitzvot—like a red string tied around one’s finger—adds the colorful note that this reminder will serve to prevent the Israelites from following their heart and eyes toward things that atem zonim achareihem “you lust after them,” but quite literally, go whoring after.  This phrase gives rise to a most provocative story found on BT Menachot 44a concerning a young student if R. Chiyya who, quite literally, lusted after the most famous and expensive prostitute known. After waiting months for an appointment and paying (in advance) a fortune, he is finally ushered into her boudoir where he ascends a ladder to the top of seven beds she has prepared for him. There she lies naked awaiting him. As the young man prepares for what he has dreamed about for months, his tzitzit fly up and strike him across the face, reminding him that what he has yearned for and which is now within reach, is forbidden. The young man climbs down from her bed. Astounded, for no doubt no one has ever refused her before, the woman inquires why he has. He explains the mitzvah of tzitzit to her. This woman, whom the story makes clear is strikingly beautiful, extremely wealthy, and unquestionably powerful, is so taken by the strength the young man possesses through his tradition that she closes up shop and appears shortly afterward at the Bet Midrash (school) of R. Chiyya asking to be converted so she can marry him. The story ends romantically: “Those very bedclothes that she had spread for him for lust she now spread out for him for sanctity.” The Sages, having brought this story as an example of the reward for keeping the mitzvah of tzitzit tag on this comment: “This is the reward [for obeying the commandment of tzitzit] in this world, and as for its reward in the world-to-come, I do not know how great it is.” Between the story and the tag line, they have told us that keeping the mitzvah of tzitzit is empowering and rewarded.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh of Nadvorna (1740-1802) provides a very different approach to interpreting the mitzvah of tzitzit. His perspective, found in Tzemach Ha-Shem LiTzvi, comes from the world of hasidut. His focus is also on a few words, in this case the phases they shall make themselves tzitzit and they shall be tzitzit from Numbers 15:38 and 39. Perhaps a review of these two verses would be helpful:

Speak to the Israelite people, telling them that they shall make themselves tzitzit on the corners of their garments throughout their generations… They shall be tzitzit for you, and you shall see it [alt: Him].

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh begins by pointing out that the word lahem (“for themselves”) is superfluous. Had Torah said, “Make fringes on the corners of your garments” we would have understood the commandment:

Why is the word לָהֶם (“themselves”) needed? “They shall make fringes on the corners of their garments” would have been enough. This hints that the intention is that they should make themselves see the Blessed One, as Rashi interpreted, [Behold He stands behind our wall] gazing [through the latticework] (Song of Songs 2:9). This is in order to experience awe in the Blessed One because the letters of the word יראה (“awe”) and the word ראיה (“seeing”) are the same. And therefore if you lay down in a box [a piece of clothing], it is exempt from [the requirement of] tzitzit [BT Menachot 41a], because the essence of the mitzvah is precisely in להם…

Hirsch tells us that tzitzit can serve as a reminder of God, that is to say the unity of all things in the universe. In the world of Kabbalah, the ultimate reality beyond our physical experience in the world is the knowledge of the unity and interconnectedness of everything. When that awareness is forefront in our minds, our values and priorities are aligned quite differently from when we are immersed solely in our physical experience and concerned with our own needs. The tzitzit—simple fringes dangling from our clothing—can serve to help us focused on the truth underlying the distractions of life.

But Hirsh goes further. The word lahem having been explained, he notes that Torah then expresses the commandment a second time, though somewhat differently: They shall be tzitzit for you and you shall see it [alt: Him]… and from this second expression we can learn something more.

First, it says: they shall make  themselves tzitzit (“see-ers”), which means that they shall make [it possible] for themselves to see [God]; and afterward it says, they shall be tzitzit for you, signifying that they [i.e., the Israelites] should make themselves vehicles for seeing [God].

Here, Hirsh goes much further, saying that one should not only see beyond the mere physical nature of the universe to the ultimate unity of all, but that one should make oneself a vehicle by which others can see God, as well. In other words, we should strive to live in such a way that others learn through our example that there is a higher purpose and unity in life. The two ideas are linked, of course, because one who lives with the consciousness of God will be such a vehicle for others. Perhaps what Hirsch is suggesting is that knowing that others will benefit from our own spiritual elevation is even greater motivation to make the effort. It’s a win-win.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Long and Short of Prayer / Parshat Beha'alotkha 2014

A friend who is a Catholic priest once told me that mass was designed to last one hour and not a minute longer. I marveled that he could plan with such precision. Wondering if it was his idiosyncrasy, I googled the length of a Catholic mass and, sure enough, scores of people attest that the mass they attend is one hour long, varying only slightly according to who delivers the sermon and whether its a high mass for a special occasion; the lengthiest mass I found was 75 minutes. On shabbat morning in a traditional synagogue service, 75 minutes barely gets you to the Torah service. People frequently complain that Shabbat morning services are too long. Apparently, this is a long-standing Jewish tradition not the long service, the kvetching about the length of the service because Talmud records the complaints in the academies of Babylonia:

Our Rabbis taught: Once a certain student led the prayers in the presence of R. Eliezer and his prayers were very lengthy. The other students said to [R. Eliezer]: Master, how longwinded this fellow is! [R. Eliezer] replied to them: Is he drawing it out any more than Moses, of whom it is written, [I fell down before the Lord] for forty days and forty nights [because the Lord had said He would destroy you] (Deuteronomy 9:25, Moses pleads with God on behalf of the people following the sin of the Golden Calf). On another occasion, a certain student led the prayers in the presence of R. Eliezer and cut them very short. The other students said to [R. Eliezer]: How hasty this fellow is! [R. Eliezer] said to them: Is he any hastier than Moses, who prayed [on behalf of his sister, Miriam, when she was stricken with leprosy] אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ Please, God, please heal her (Numbers 12:13)? (BT Berakhot 34a)

The only surprising part of this account is that the students complain when the prayers are too brief.

The short prayer uttered by Moses on behalf of Miriam is found in this weeks parashah, Behaalotkha, where we are told that Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married. While some commentators interpret this verse through the spectacles of jealousy, presuming that Moses siblings are envious of his authority and closeness with God, Rashi, on the basis of Sifrei, says that Miriam criticizes Moses for neglecting Tzipporah in order to be available to God 24/7. Miriams crime, by this thinking, is articulating her criticism publicly. This does not explain why she alone is stricken with white scales while for Aaron there are no consequences; after all, Torah says that they both spoke against Moses (Numbers 12:1). In any case, Moses responds immediately to Miriams condition with a five-word prayer: אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ Please, God, please heal her (Numbers 12:13). The word please is there twice, comprising 40% of the prayer. Clearly, it is a deeply emotional plea.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), asking why Miriam only merits a prayer of merely five words, explains that there are two types of prayer.

Prayer serves two functions. The first function is to refine character traits and deepen awarenesseither for the person praying, or for the one being prayed for. This type of prayer requires tenacity and perseverance, since correction of flawed traits requires extended effort, and usually occurs gradually over time.

For this reason, Moses needed to pray extensively when he prayed for the Jewish people after the calamitous sin of the golden calf. Why forty days? This period is the time it takes for an embryo to develop limbs and become recognizable as a human fetus. The forty days of Moses' prayer indicated a rebirth of the Jewish people, with a new heart and spirit.

There is, however, a second function of prayer. Sometimes the inner emotions and character traits have already been refined and purified. Prayer only comes to put in words that which already exists in the inner soul. In such cases, an extended prayer is unnecessary; even a brief prayer may express many holy feelings. In the case of Miriam, she had already conceded her mistake. Her healing, both physical and spiritual, required only a short, simple prayer. (Gold from the Land of Israel, p. 163).

This is a surprising comment. We are accustomed to thinking that prayer is for Gods sake: God requires it of us because God desires it. And, indeed, in the ancient world, prayer was understood that way. But Rav Kook was a mystic, and his perspective is often soulfully inward. He is telling us that it is we who need prayer. Prayer can be a time of meditative self-reflection during which we explore our own souls, examine our own behavior, and chart a course for self-improvement. The prayers, then, are tools at our disposal to remind us of appropriate goals. Bachya ibn Pakuda (Spain, 11th century) wrote, Words are the shells; meditation the kernel. Words are the body of the prayer and meditation its spirit (Chovot HaLevavot). The community with whom we pray draws us out of possible self-absorption, helping to insure that our goals for self-improvement are appropriate rather than selfish. Rav Kook tells us that prayer can also be a visceral expression of our inner emotional state, communication straight and unmitigated from the heart. I like Rav Kooks take on prayer; it is honest and constructive.

Another perspective is to see Jewish prayer as falling into five categories that can succinctly be termed: Wow!, Please, Thanks, Oops and Alas! Wow! is a prayer of wonder and astonishment evoked by anything from a rainbow to the birth of a baby. Please is a prayer for what we unselfishly need, from courage to patience. Thanks is an expression of gratitude, marking our ability to appreciate the blessings in our lives. Oops is an admission of wrongdoing, signifying a willingness to take responsibility, and the commitment to rectify the damage we have caused where possible. Alas! is an expression of lamentation, deep sadness, and sorrow, which has reverberated through our tradition historically, but which finds expression in our individual lives, as well. In a sense, each of these five types of prayers fits Rav Kooks framework; perhaps each type has elements of both our expression of our innermost experience, and our search for our better selves. Sometimes that takes a long time; sometimes it takes but a moment.

This can happen in synagogueand when it does we have an opportunity to connect with, and support, the community. It can also happen in venues beyond the walls of the synagogue. Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlavs famous prayer embodies Rav Kooks view, and is saturated with Wow! and Please:

Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone.  May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass, among all growing things.  And there may I be alone in prayer, to talk with my Creator, to express everything in my heart.  And may all the foliage of the field awake at my coming, to send the power of their life into the words of my prayer, so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the spirit of all growing things.

R. Yitzhak tells us that God longs for the prayers of the righteous (BT Yebamot 64a). In its Talmudic context, R. Yitzhak is shockingly suggesting that God inflicts hardship on the patriarchs to induce them to pray to God. Another way to understand this statement is that God only wants to hear from righteous individualsonly their prayer pleases God. I dont care for either interpretation. Rather when I hear, God longs for the prayers of the righteous, I understand it this way: God longs for us to use prayer to make ourselves more righteous. Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, inspired by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote: Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman