Service of the Heart (עבודת הלב): Exploring Prayer

This week's column was written by Rabbi Lisa Gelber, Associate Dean of The Rabbinical School, JTS.

Moving Forward in Prayer, Together and Alone

Several weeks ago, I attended the West Point funeral of Major Thomas E. Kennedy, husband of my friend Kami. I've officiated at countless funerals and attended many others to comfort the bereaved. Although not my first military funeral, this was the first memorial for an officer I'd known personally, and my first visit to West Point.

At one moment, as I descended a winding staircase to a restroom, my mind drifted back to the many circular stairs I've climbed that ascended toward the tops of lighthouses designed to protect people from unforeseen danger. What was there to protect Tom, and his colleagues, when a suicide bomber detonated a vest as the men journeyed to a meeting?

The funeral, with its 1,000-plus attendees at the Cadet Chapel, was unique (at least, in my experience) in that there were three standing ovations for the deceased. We applauded his strength; his spirit; his commitment to family, friends, and community; his humor; and his leadership. In all he did, at home and on the battlefield, TK (as he was known) lived a life of service to his family, his community, his country, and to God. While I can't describe his prayer life, a faith in something larger cradled Tom and all of us on that day of remembrance. The reverberation of so many clapping hands held all of us up and together. As the notes of family, friends, and strangers continue to materialize in support of Kami and their kids, prayer—for strength, memory, life, and well-being—has emerged as the common theme.

When we pray, and even when we feel we cannot, the energy, directed focus, and kavanah of others can bolster our own strength, directly and indirectly. One of the most powerful blessings of community is the presence of others as we attempt to sit in God's presence. Synagogues and sanctuaries of many faith traditions offer a place and space to be alone and together. We all know it can be difficult to pray. As the Baal Shem Tov writes in Tsava'at Harivash (Siman 72), "There are times when you are not able to pray; do not give up on that day. Rather, strengthen yourself even more, and raise up your awe of God more and more."

Sometimes, knowing the person across the room is engaged in the same struggle to connect, or that the individual next to us is nurturing a deepening awareness and connection with the divine, fortifies us with the strength to attend to our own needs without judgment. The more we can be present for one another to provide the requisite number—and more—to support those marking a yortseyt, and in the days, weeks, and months of mourning, receive thoughtful teaching, model skillful davening, and offer creative expressions of prayer, the more we most fully experience the potential of our sacred and diverse communities.

I recommend the song "Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu" or "Let Peace Come Among Us Soon, Shalom, Salaam" to support our journey in prayer:

Acoustic Version by Andy Suzuki


Inamori Intergenerational Peace Choir Version

 

From the website of Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, United Synagogue of Hoboken, adjunct instructor of Jewish Liturgy, JTS


Rabbi Lisa Gelber, associate dean of The Rabbinical School, may be reached at ligelber@jtsa.edu.