Opening the High Holidays: Truth

In the past twenty years, I have spent the High Holidays in nine different congregations and Shabbat and holiday services in synagogues of every denomination on five continents.  Part of the experience of being a Wandering Jew is embracing the familiar – knowing texts and tunes – and learning from the foreign – different customs and nusachim.  You learn what connects you spiritually and what shuts you down.  For example, as a student in Los Angeles, on assignment from a professor to visit in synagogues that we would not normally attend, I visited a Conservative Synagogue on Shabbat morning.  The service was so long.  I saw people walking in and out, spending half the time chatting in the hall. My professor, who was a regular at that minyan, explained that prayer was something to walk in and out of, to join and to leave.  I  just thought of the poor rabbi of the congregation who couldn’t go out in the middle like everyone else but who had to sit through everything.


I have visited on numerous occasions in Orthodox synagogues that often – not always – the tefila is shorter but it is mumbled so fast that it is hard to keep up or to join in the middle.  I wonder, how people even have time to consider what they are saying?

These experiences, while fulfilling for some, often confirm what I felt to be the Reform idea of prayer.  When we set aside a time for the stated purpose of prayer, we actually do it.  Our prayers are shorter to enable people to feel they can sit through the whole thing – according to  the old adage that sometimes less is more.  This way, we read or sing most everything together at a pace that allows us to hear and understand the words.  We aspire to pray words that we can really mean – we have altered certain traditional prayers to reflect Reform values of egalitarianism and universality.

The melodies are important, especially on the High Holidays, evoking in us childhood memories.  Also important is a shared canon for all the Jewish people.  Tradition continuing thousands of years is important.  Among regular pray-ers, there are those who sing enthusiastically, and there are those who sit quietly following the text. Among the occasional pray-ers, I notice that every single bar/bat mitzvah, it has always been essential to the family that everyone arrives before beginning the prayer.  I believe that this due in great part to our approach to prayer – In slowing things down, people can actually think about the words.

In the words of guidance in the siddur and from the service leader, they are helped to understand what these prayers are about, and how these ancient words can be relevant to today.

I personally strive to create a space in which prayer is meaningful and in which prayer created interpersonal and intrapersonal connection.  I believe that prayer is meant to encapsulate the human pursuit of Truth.

Truth has been one of the elusive qualities of the human experience, and the main aspiration of the philosophers throughout the ages.

For Plato, Truth is the natural way of being that exists beyond the scope of human senses.

For Descartes, truth is something beyond the human which is undisputable – such as the idea that one exists.

Neitzche said there is no truth, only perspectives.

In many ways, in Judaism, G-d is associated with truth, as, according to the Talmud חתימתו של הקב”ה היא “אמת”  (Talmud 65a), Truth is the seal of the Holy One Blessed Be He.  In the rabbinic literature, Truth is one of the ministering angels embodying a quality that exists in the world, equal to others such as Tzedek, Shalom, and Chesed.  Rabbi Simone tells the story (Bereishit Rabbah 8:5) that when G-d created Adam, and said “Let us create Adam in our image,” that G-d was speaking with the ministering angels who began to argue about whether G-d should create people or not.  Kindness says to create Adam and Truth says not to.  Righteousness says to create Adam and Peace says not to.  In the end, G-d through Truth down to the earth.  The other angels chastise G- d for throwing Truth away  and tell Him to pick up Truth right away.  In a quite farcical style, the angels kept arguing and  G-d created Adam.

I actually believe that Rabbi Simone teaches something else, maybe without realizing it.  I believe that the throwing of Truth to the ground was intentional and central in the creation of Adam.  It says beautifully in the Psalms, “Truth from the land will sprout and Righteousness will reflect in the heavens.”  G-d throws down the Truth in order to use it as a “seed” for growing the human being.  Truth is something greater than human existence but our existence is a direct result of its power.

Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel said in Pirke Avot (1:18), “The world stands on three things – on the judgment, on the truth, and on the peace….”  Ibn Ezra describes the Truth as the secret (סתר) and the Judgment as the revealed (גלוי).  Judgment is clear-cut.  Truth is elusive.

These are the beautiful, deep insights in the intellectual discussion about the nature of Truth.  Our tradition has so much wisdom.

What, then, is there between Truth and prayer?

Prayer offers yet another path on the pursuit of Truth.  When we study, we talk about Truth.  When we prayer, we actively participate in attempting to verbalize/speak Truth.  We enter a conversation – a reflective conversation with myself, a conversation as a kahal, and a conversation directed toward G-d which doesn’t respond as a human would (if at all).

Let’s pause a moment. Envision what you see as the Truth of this world and of existence. (wait a few moments)  How would you describe it?  (pause)  How would you address it? (pause)

Judaism is about seeking.  The siddur/machzor is a consensus of what we,  as Jews, believe in terms of our relationship to G-d and tradition.  It compiles the kavanah of previous generations that continue to ring true  even today.

I believe that an authentic prayer experience connects us with some aspect of the Truth about G-d, physical existence, and spiritual understanding.

Does the siddur/machzor do this?

I imagine that the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no.  In some places yes, in some places no.  We are, after all, limited and finite human beings.

This is the time of year that we plan to be here in the prayer position more than any other time of year. I hope that we will experience community and an emotional connection with tradition.  But I also want to encourage each of us to spend some extra time pursuing Truth.  I  want to make some suggestions for our time that we will spend here, in this beit tefila, over the coming holidays.

  1. Certainly, be here when you can. It doesn’t have to be for the whole time. Some people can only sit for 45 minutes.  It’s OK.
  2. When you are here, really be here: Engage. Be present.  Focus.  It is an ancient Rabbinic custom to pause before entering a synagogue and say a prayer that one will be able to pray with a pure heart.
  3. Don’t feel like you have to say all the words all the time. Sometimes, you can just read the words and think about them as you go.  Sometimes, go slower and read over carefully the words.  Sometimes, even just focus on a word or two.  Stay with it for awhile.  Sometimes, leave the words completely to make room for personal words.
  4. Feel free to mentally edit. Make changes to make the text authentic for you.  Take out words or add words.  Change the gender of G-d and of our plural “we” from time to time.  “Blessed are you Queen of the world”, “Spirit of the world”,  One rabbinic opinion was even that one is forbidden to say a tefila that he does not mean.

“Seventy faces to Torah” is a mainstream idea in Judaism.  Our central motif is dynamism – that our world, we as human beings, and our experience are constantly changing.  Our experience is that of a constant ping pong between continuity and change. between solidarity and diversity, between belief and doubt. Prayer is not supposed to paralyze us but rather to provide us with movement and intellectual development.

Perhaps there – in the movement that occurs between this and that – can be found the Truth.



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