I’m thinking a lot about Israel this week. Today is Yom HaZikaron and tomorrow is Yom HaAtzmaut; a few days ago rockets marred the skies and Israelis and Palestinians died; and currently my sister is in Israel leading the Cincinnati delegation of March of the Living. Thinking about Israel is messy.
Today, I’m remembering what it is like to be in Israel, the things I love about it. For me, it’s language and time. I love being surrounded by Hebrew, and I love feeling the rhythm of a week that builds toward Shabbat. And I love praying in Israel, experiencing and experimenting with its variety.
In the fall of 2012, when I lived in Jerusalem for the first year of rabbinical school, I wrote a reflection that feels relevant today. For this post, I’m revisiting that reflection, because it captures how a moment, a prayer, a community, and a setting can align to reveal new avenues of meaning. And it reminds me of some valuable prayers for peace.
Over the last few weeks I have experienced praying in a number of settings in Israel, including at HUC, at Minyan Sod Siach, at Nava Tehila, and at Kehilat Birkat Shalom on Kibbutz Gezer. What was more eye opening for me about the recent weeks than the effects the variations in location and community had on my praying, however, was the effect the current events did in conjunction with the location and community.
In particular, I had a transformative experience at Kabbalat Shabbat with Nava Tehila immediately after hearing the first air raid siren in Jerusalem. Having been shaken by the siren, I found myself unable to concentrate on the prayers, and I had trouble letting myself become immersed in Kabbalat Shabbat, which is usually the highlight of my week, prayer wise. However, in my emotional funk, I came to understand some of the words differently than ever before.
Two pieces stick out in my memory the most. The first was the last line from Mizmor l’David: “Adonai oz l’amo yitein; Adonai y’varech et amo vashalom. May GOD give strength to God’s people; may GOD bless God’s people with peace.” As is the style of Nava Tehila, rather than recite the entire Psalm, we chanted this one line over and over for a number of minutes, slowly increasing the energy in the singing as we did so. By the end, the feeling in the room was incredible, and I felt like I was really saying the words rather than just saying the sounds of the words. The thought of asking for strength to get through the feeling of uncertainty that was present in my head and in our community at the time had never felt so real, not to mention the coupling of this supplication with a plea for the blessing of peace. It stuck with me.
The next morning, when I was the rabbinical student responsible for leading Shabbat morning services at HUC, I offered this connection to the community because it was so powerful for me. Over the course of the rest of the conflict, when I felt uncertain or didn’t know what to say, I kept coming back to this one line. I have a feeling that, while the particular sense of the conflict will fade, this guttural connection to this line will persist, and now every time I recite it, whether on Friday nights, during the Torah service, or as part of Birkat HaMazon, I will actually be praying, rather than merely reciting.
The second part of Friday night at Nava Tehila that affected me greatly was the end of L’cha Dodi. This instance relied less on me being at Nava Tehila, since I would have sung all of L’cha Dodi at just about any minyan I would have attended that night, but perhaps it was the juxtaposition of this song with the previous experience that made it so impactful. Regardless, what stuck out were the words “boi v’shalom, come in peace.” Never before had I said these words as anything other than words to a song, but in that moment, after hearing the siren earlier that night, I felt like I was really asking for Shabbat to come in peace—or, rather, to bring peace with it. Again, this was an example for me of realizing that I can say words in Hebrew and have them actually be a prayer.
I think the conflict of the past two weeks really was an opportunity for me to deepen my connection with Hebrew liturgy in general. Because I had the experience of really meaning the words I was saying that Friday night, I feel as if I now have a greater appreciation for the opportunities that any prayer can give me. Perhaps it simply coincided with significant developments in my Hebrew skills, but regardless, the experience opened for me new ways of connecting with liturgy—or, really, the possibility of really connecting with Hebrew liturgy as words with meaning for me and not just rehearsed sounds. Deepening this connection is one of my goals for this year, and had I not explored praying at Nava Tehila that night in that community’s particular mode, I may not have begun to realize it so soon.