Sermon Notes 17/11/12 - Toldot / Tefillah 4

תפלה: Mechitzah, Responsibility and Transformation

Continuing thoughts on Tefillah, which began here and continued here and here.

It is worthwhile clarifying the role of the mechitzah (separation between men and women) in our Shul.  In the 19th century, a group of influential Hungarian rabbis insisted that the function of a Shul mechitzah is to completely separate the men and women, ensuring that they cannot see each other.  These rabbis went as far as saying that a Shul in which men and women can see each other does not qualify as a place for Jewish prayer.  Many other halachic authorities rejected this view and determined that the mechitzah serves only to prevent social intercourse between the genders during prayer and need not be opaque.  This is the view of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and the one that is followed in all ‘modern’ Shuls, including our own.  Indeed, our temporary mechitzah, designed for the ‘New Minyan’, was built to Rabbi Feinstein’s specifications, mentioned in Igrot Moshe Orech Chaim 1:39-42.  While we work on redeveloping our Shul space, we will continue to discuss the style and design of the new mechitzah and how exactly we will use it to divide our prayer space.

In a previous thought on Tefillah, I referred to Professor A.J. Heschel’s concern about the great responsibility to create a meaningful experience that falls to those running communities:

Ours is a great responsibility.  We demand that people come to worship instead of playing golf, or making money, or going on a picnic.  Why?  Don’t we mislead them?  People take their precious time off to attend service.  Some even arrive with profound expectations.  But what do they get?  What do they receive? (Man’s Quest for God, p. 51)

Heschel, a genius from a Polish Chassidic background, was frustrated by the sterile prayer environment he encountered in mid-20th century Conservative America.  Thank God, our community does not resemble the one he describes, nor does it reflect the aspirations of any of us, yet overstated as it is, it’s worth reading.  (Note that where Heschel uses the word ‘Temple’, we would substitute ‘Shul’ or ‘Synagogue’.)

Has the temple become the graveyard where prayer is buried? There are many who labor in the vineyard of oratory; but who knows how to pray, or how to inspire others to pray? There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks; but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of a soul?

Of course, people still attend “services”—but what does this attendance frequently mean to them? Outpouring of the soul? Worship? Prayer, temple attendance has become a service of the community rather than service of God. People give some of their money to philanthropic causes, and some of their time to the temple.

The modem temple suffers from a severe cold. Congregants preserve a respectful distance between the liturgy and themselves. They say the words, “Forgive us for we have sinned,” but of course, they are not meant. They say, “Thou shalt love the Lord Thy Cod with all thy heart ...” in lofty detachment, in complete anonymity as if giving an impartial opinion about an irrelevant question.

An air of tranquillity, complacency prevails in our houses of worship. What can come out of such an atmosphere? The services are prim, the voice is dry, the temple is clean and tidy, and the soul of prayer lies in agony. You know no one will scream, no one will cry, the words will be still-born.

(I might add in jest – and you know that no one will hear you scream – RHB)

People expect the rabbi to conduct a service: an efficient, expert service. But efficiency and rapidity are no remedy against devotional sterility.

We have developed the habit of praying by proxy. Many congregants seem to have adopted the principle of vicarious prayer. The rabbi or the cantor does the praying for the congregation. Men and women would not raise their voices, unless the rabbi issues the signal. Alas, they have come to regard the rabbi as master of ceremonies.

Is not their mood, in part, a reflection of our own uncertainties? Prayer has become an empty gesture, a figure of speech. (ibid. p. 50)

This powerful passage requires no comment, other than to say that we’ve all been to Shuls that look like this.  Heschel effectively captures the sterility of the ‘someone in the middle will do it for you’ model.

On the topic of sterility, in the third verse of this week’s parashah, the unusual word(עתר)  appears in two different forms:

וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַידֹוָד לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יְדֹוָד וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ

Yitzchak entreated God concerning his wife, for she was barren, and God was entreated by him, and Rivkah, his wife, conceived. (BeReishit 25:21:Translation – New Hirsch Chumash)

Real prayer is one in which the supplicant entreats God and, in response, God ‘allows’ Himself to be entreated.  According to a midrash, the word עתר means a hoe – a tool used to turn – transform – plants.  The message is clear – if we expect God to ‘transform’ Himself and respond to our prayer, we must first transform ourselves though prayer.