Our Prayers for Israel—For Whom Is the Message?

Our Prayers for Israel—For Whom Is the Message?

Jul 24, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

A serious challenge confronting the all-too-human venture of praying to God is in working out what we can say to the “One Who knows all.” A prayer for a congregation to recite in the face of destructive storms might open with the words, “God, we stand before you in time of peril”—but if God truly knows all, might we not assume that God is well aware of the peril facing the community? 

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Melody or Discord

Melody or Discord

Jul 18, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

There is a parable that speaks of a village that once had a renowned orchestra that played beautiful music at set times in the presence of the king, bringing delight both to the musicians and their ruler, who rewarded the musicians generously for their artistry and commitment. As time passed, the original musicians grew old and their place was taken by others who were not quite so gifted, drawn perhaps by the exalted audience and generous reward.

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Yearning: Poetry and Prayer

Yearning: Poetry and Prayer

Jun 27, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

Psalm 42 offers an extraordinary journey through the life of the soul, and perhaps it is not by chance that traces of this psalm are found in various places in the liturgy. In a previous essay, we looked a little at poetry within the liturgy, and the way in which poetry can open channels and modes of expression not so easily found in plain narrative text. Poetry offers the chance to juxtapose images and invoke diverse metaphors that can point toward a deeper, even implicit or secret, meaning.

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Piyyutim: Poetry of the Soul

Piyyutim: Poetry of the Soul

Jun 12, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

There is an exquisite irony that the same element of our liturgy—the traditional poems (piyyutim) within the siddur that are used in many of our services—is identified with both the greatest tedium and the most profound spiritual depths. We encounter Adon Olam and Yigdal every day and Lekha Dodi and El Adon every Shabbat. In the cycle of the year, there are the piyyutim for rain and dew (Geshem and Tal) associated with Shemini Atzeret and Pesah; Akdamut for Shavu’ot; and of course numerous poetic compositions adorn the liturgy of the Yamim Nora’im (High Holidays).

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Shema’: The “Secrets” of the Eyes

Shema’: The “Secrets” of the Eyes

Jun 6, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

Much of our liturgy and liturgical experience is verbal and analytic, based upon precisely what words we say and the meaning(s) found and embedded in those words. In these essays, we have also looked extensively at the way in which music, melody, and vocal quality add levels of meaning and experience. However, we are not disembodied minds and souls, and there are more than a few occasions when the disposition of the body is engaged to greater or lesser extent in the experience of liturgy. Most dramatically, we might think of the prostrations on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but even in the daily experience, we think naturally of standing for the ‘Amidah, among many other customs and practices.

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Mah Nishtanah . . . A Seder for Yom Ha’atzma’ut

Mah Nishtanah . . . A Seder for Yom Ha’atzma’ut

May 16, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary | Yom Hazikaron-Yom Ha'atzma'ut

In recent weeks, Medinat Israel (the State of Israel) was celebrated by citizens, residents, and the worldwide Jewish community with an array of observances for Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Israel Independence Day). In synagogues of the Conservative/Masorti Movement, morning minyan included the Hallel prayer and a special Torah reading, affirming the understanding that the establishment of Israel is not merely an item in the political history of the mid-20th century, but a vital step in the spiritual story of our people and, perhaps, the world. The “Prayer for the State of Israel,” included in the Shabbat morning service in almost all synagogues, speaks of Israel as “reishit tzemichat ge’ulateinu” (the beginning of the flowering of our redemption).“Redemption,” here, must be understood as the Messianic Era of universal peace and understanding.

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Slivers of Memory (Yom Ha-sho’ah V’-ha-gevurah)

Slivers of Memory (Yom Ha-sho’ah V’-ha-gevurah)

May 2, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary | Yom Hashoah

Several decades ago, many ceremonies commemorating the Shoah attempted to tell the entirety of the story, with numbers that defied comprehension and broad-sweeping trends of history that submerged the experience of individuals in the story of a world run amok. In more recent years, I have observed that the experience and testimonies of individuals have become more prominent, perhaps serving as holographic slivers that represent the wider context. As survivors of the Holocaust are fewer in number each year, we turn to the writings, art, songs, and recordings born out of those years.

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Shema’ (Part 1)—What We Know and What We Don’t

Shema’ (Part 1)—What We Know and What We Don’t

Apr 25, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

Ask almost any group of Jews to identify the most important Jewish “prayer” of all, and at the top of the list will almost certainly be the Shema’. Technically, it is not a prayer, for it is not addressed to God, but to the community of Israel. But that is a technical quibble, so (for now) let it pass. Traditionally, we say the Shema’ twice each day within the formal liturgy, and also just before going to sleep.

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The Song of Songs: Lovers Absent and Present

The Song of Songs: Lovers Absent and Present

Apr 18, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

This Shabbat, Hol Hamo’ed Pesah, we read Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, the provocative and enigmatic cycle of lusty love poetry that is embraced (though not without challenge) by the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Dr. Francis Landy of Calgary University wrote a powerful and lyrical treatise on the Song of Songs entitled Paradoxes of Paradise, which opens with the reflection of Rabbi Akiva—“All the Scriptures are kedoshim, holy, but Shir Hashirim kodesh kodashim, the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies”—radically deploying the term otherwise used to describe the holiest place in the Temple.

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Preparing for Seder Part 3—Visual Midrash on the Four Children

Preparing for Seder Part 3—Visual Midrash on the Four Children

Apr 11, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary | Pesah

The four children (formerly known as the four sons) are among the most provocative part of the seder—for children provoke their parents. That is why Elijah is needed to restore peace between the generations. The evolution of the text as we find it in our Haggadah is complex, and interesting explanations can be found in the recent JTS collection of Sound Bytes of Torah for Passover on YouTube. I have long been fascinated by the interpretation in imagery that offers four books, presumably each book representing one of the four “types” of child. But which one is which?

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Breath of Life—Night or Morning

Breath of Life—Night or Morning

Apr 3, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

The journey through the Passover seder is beloved by many households and communities that gather together. While the meal itself is a feast, the Aggadah, the telling of the story that comes before it, is a rich and multifaceted experience that brings together text and song, classic primary sources, modern interpretations, and personal experience.

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Elijah—Families and the End of Days

Elijah—Families and the End of Days

Mar 27, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary | Pesah

Elijah is an enigmatic and beloved figure in the Passover seder, with a myriad of explanations for his appearance and role. It’s worth noting that Elijah appears first in our liturgical texts even before we sit down to begin the seder: the haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol (the Shabbat before Pesah) is from the end of Malachi, and concludes with the haunting words, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome Day of Adonai; and he will return the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents.”

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Time and Eternity on Shabbat Morning (Part 2)

Time and Eternity on Shabbat Morning (Part 2)

Mar 19, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

Here is a parable for worship from the experience of my wife, a management consultant. A professor comes into class at Harvard Business School with a glass bucket, which he places on the desk. He then takes some large rocks from under the desk, places as many of them in the bucket as will fit, and asks the class if the bucket is full. The students (of course) reply that it is. He then takes out some pebbles and pours them into the bucket until it overflows, and, upon being questioned, the students again affirm the bucket is full. A bag of sand is then procured and poured into the bucket, followed by the same question, and finally water—each of these examples drawing some suspicion and hesitancy from the students. The class is then asked the point of this exercise, and a couple of bright ones who have read The One Minute Manager reply that it’s always possible to squeeze a little more into the day, to achieve one more small task. The professor replies, “The only way to get the big rocks in is to put them in first.”

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Time and Eternity in Shabbat Services (Part 1)

Time and Eternity in Shabbat Services (Part 1)

Mar 11, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

I remember well a warning from one of my teachers in rabbinical school (for me, the Leo Baeck College in London). We were discussing Shabbat morning services, and the warning was to young(ish) rabbis and rabbinical students that if we “indulge ourselves too greatly in liturgy, the result will be that the ovens of our congregants will come to be the homes of a new generation of burnt offerings.” The message was quite clear that these burnt offerings would be desirable neither to our congregants nor to God.

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“Light and Dark, Peace and . . . ?”

“Light and Dark, Peace and . . . ?”

Mar 5, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

Many regular shul-goers are familiar with the two blessings that precede the Shema’ in the morning service (whether on a weekday, Shabbat, or Festival). The first (Yotzer) addresses God’s role in the natural cycles of creation and the physical world, and the second (Ahavah Rabbah) speaks of God’s love for Israel, manifested in the gift of Torah. After the opening blessing formula, Yotzer continues, “yotzer or u-vorei choshech, oseh shalom u-vorei et ha-kol” (God forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates everything; Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat, 107). The text has a poetic balance and engages with familiar metaphors; it is no surprise to learn that this line is based upon Isaiah, as much of the text of the siddur is based upon biblical sources and allusions.

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On Doubt and Prayer (Part 4): “Soul” of Prayer

On Doubt and Prayer (Part 4): “Soul” of Prayer

Feb 19, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

In the preliminary section of the morning service, the siddur guides us through some of the most basic concepts of our existence. We ask each day, “Mah anu? Meh chayeinu?” (Who are we? What are our lives?), and I confess that I always wonder if the questions are rhetorical or if they demand from us, each day, an answer. Each day, we also turn to two paragraphs that address the core nature of every human being: the siddur invites us to affirm that we are more than “a body with vessels and glands, organs, and systems of wondrous design” (Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays, 4), and presents the challenging, inspiring, and even comforting words, “Elohai neshamah she-natata bi tehorah hi” (My God, the soul You planted within me is pure). Very starkly, the soul is identified as a gift from God, created by God and “breathed into us,” that will one day be taken from the body. Unlike Descartes, who in his Meditations on First Philosophy reflects extensively on where precisely in the body the soul is to be located, the siddur does not deal with this question.

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On Doubt and Prayer (Part 3)

On Doubt and Prayer (Part 3)

Feb 11, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

The droughts experienced recently in California and Israel became so severe that religious leaders of many faith traditions called for special prayers for rain. In the context of the history of Jewish liturgy, this is especially resonant, for much of our earliest data about rabbinic liturgy is based upon the detailed description of prayers for rain in the Mishnah (see Mishnah Ta’anit chapters 1 and 2, and extensive discussion in the Gemara). However, prayers for rain, especially in modernity, also bring us immediately into some of the most challenging contemporary reflections about prayer and ritual: “Does it work?!” Even though meteorology is far from an exact science, I suspect that there are few (if any) climate scientists who would include ritual gatherings, no matter how sincere, among the variables that determine the likelihood of rain.

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On Doubt and Prayer (Part 2)

On Doubt and Prayer (Part 2)

Jan 29, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

Dan Savage offers a reflection on prayer that is both humorous and poignant, noting that, as a self-identified “lapsed Catholic,” he prays only when he feels his life is in danger (in planes and when driving with his partner), and then never follows up, making him “not only an ingrate, but also a hypocrite” (see full video). Perhaps this is an updated version of the old adage, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

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On Doubt (Part 1)

On Doubt (Part 1)

Jan 22, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

There are many texts found in the siddur that are not easily planted in our mouths, minds, hearts, and souls. For example, how might a person say with integrity, “My God, the soul You have given me is pure” (Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays, 4), while intellectually struggling with the existence of soul, and beset by uncertainty about the presence of God in the world?

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Shabbat Eve (Part 3): “Sit in the Dark, or Light Candles”

Shabbat Eve (Part 3): “Sit in the Dark, or Light Candles”

Jan 15, 2014 By Samuel Barth | Commentary

Lighting candles at home (and in some synagogues) is a deeply rooted practice among the Jewish people all over the world. A pair of candlesticks is often identified as among the most precious (Jewish) possessions of a family, and many people speak of the sense of ethereal peace that descends upon a household (or community) as the flames of the candles come to life and the blessing is chanted.

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