Give and Take

Our congregation, like most, seeks to create a communal prayer experience that is engaging to all who worship with us. Doing so is not always an easy task, for we are a diverse congregation made up of people of various backgrounds, skill sets, and spiritual interests. What kind of service can we create that will meet everyone’s needs? One answer is to embrace compromise. The idea of valuing both receiving and giving in the area of prayer, like so many areas of life, applies not only as communal experience but also as a personal one.

Few congregations are so single-minded that all its worshippers are satisfied with whatever prayers are recited and whatever prayer customs are practiced. An old story is told about a congregation that was fighting constantly over whether or not to stand while reciting Shema Yisrael. The battles were so intense that the president feared people would start throwing prayer books at one another. So a delegation of synagogue leaders was appointed to visit the oldest living congregant, a man over 100 years old living in a nursing home, to find out if the members of the congregation stood or sat for Shema in its early years. The small group came to see the elderly congregant and said, “We must know what to do. Did we always sit for Shema?” The old man answered, “No, I don’t recall that.” They then asked, “Well, did we always stand for Shema?” He answered, “No, I don’t recall that either.” In frustration, they said, “Please tell us what to do…people are throwing prayer books at each other!” The old man said, “Yeesss…that’s what happened back then!”

The reality of Jewish communal prayer, as we learned from Rabbi Jan Uhrbach this past Sunday at our annual Rabbi Alexander Shapiro Memorial Lecture, is that congregations that want to grow and thrive must compromise on modalities of prayer. Such compromise includes being open-minded about not only choices of prayers and music and length of the service, but also about the possibility of experimentation and creative innovation. Here at Oheb Shalom, we strive for an engaging worship service. In order to achieve that, we must be open to compromise. No member of our congregation will necessarily be completely satisfied with every aspect of our service. But, according to the nature of compromise, our members will be fulfilled by the experience as a whole of praying with our congregation. There must be a give and take when it comes to communal prayer.

There is also a “give and take” when it comes to our personal prayer experience as well. There are times in prayer that we hope to be fulfilled, uplifted and satisfied. We want to feel calmed and sheltered from the hectic pace of life. We want to feel unburdened, and to sense that we have been heard. Some of us may desperately want our prayers to be answered. These wishes are understandable and form an important approach to prayer, one which our Sages identified as Bakasha, or petition. Viewed this way, prayer is about satisfying the self.

Yet, there are times that prayer is not about “taking” but about “giving.” Our tradition encourages us to offer ourselves in prayer, to express praise and gratitude to our creator (our Sages called these Shevach and Hoda’a), to see our place as part of a greater whole. There are times that we “give ourselves” in prayer, and there are times that we “take.” This is the nature of life, and it is the way of Jewish prayer.

Join us this Shabbat morning. We’ve built some interesting innovations into the service that we hope you will receive positively. We want to make our congregation’s Tefilah more engaging, more fulfilling, more accessible to you. Come to give of yourself by adding your voice and your ideas, and come to receive spiritual nourishment.

And come to enjoy Kiddush! I am a firm believer that people come to shul on Shabbat morning not only take part in a service but to have a great Kiddush. So I’m making the Kiddush this week—Cholent and kugel! Don’t miss out!

2 thoughts on “Give and Take

  1. Rabbi,

    Great blog! I hope many will read it and engage with the messages.

    On Shabbat morning, we may want to be especially sensitive to some of our beloved members who have voiced discomfort with change, including Bernie and Joe Weiss. I’m also always eager to hear what Jerry Horowitz and Ruth Shapiro think. I see them as thought leaders especially with some of our older regulars. Are there others who come to the front of the list for you and Moriyah?

    I hope there will be opportunity over cholent and kugel to reach out to these and other congregants. My sense is that the burning platform that makes the case for change is the need to retain and bring more younger people into our regular worship service so that we can continue into the future (sustainability). I think many Shabbat regulars relate to that need regardless of their views on change. Of course we also must strive to strike a balance with meeting the needs of long term congregants, who are also critical, fully cherished and sometimes feeling under valued

    Thanks for considering and Shabbat shalom,

    Sent from my iPad

  2. I echo Louise’s sentiments. Having explored the foundations of prayer and after extensive thought and discussion, I think there are key points that we can share with those in our shul who, in the best and most noble senses of the words, are Guardians of Tradition.

    1) Our aim is invigorating and making the services more engaging. We seek to entice current members who are not Shabbat regulars, as well as making our shul even more attractive to members of other shuls or no shul. But at the same time we endeavor to enhance the davening experience FOR THOSE ALREADY COMING TO SERVICES. We have no intention of alienating the “regulars”.

    2) Having brainstormed quite a bit on this, at this point the adjustments to the service are those with a precedent or that are clearly within halacha. For example, lifting the Torah so that all can see it while it is being read is based in a Sephardic tradition. The adjusted modality for the Musaf Amidah is rooted in decisions made by Rambam.

    3) We are eager for feedback. We don’t want anyone to feel unwelcome. If anyone is uncomfortable, hopefully it is limited to the getting out of our comfort zone and furthering our thinking about our lives and our relationship with the Divine and the Jewish people.


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