This week Jews around the world begin reading Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. The parasha opens with the command to make offerings to the SOURCE OF LIFE –either as a voluntary action or as a mandatory action in response to behaviors that are condemned. Each type of offering addresses the reality that our behaviors can distance us from the Divine and prevent us from recognizing the Divine essence within each human being. Without reflection, we are spiritually diminished. Action is required to restore our spiritual and ethical brokenness.
Our conscious engagement in ritual sacrifices restores fissures in our relationship with the Holy One and with each other. The mandatory offerings cover general and specific transgressions, taking from Temple property, when one is unsure if one has sinned, and for stealing from others. Rich and poor are equally obligated, but are required to given within their means.
There are also voluntary offerings. The Torah does not permit Israelites to atone for intentional or premeditated offenses by bringing a sacrifice. In these instances, the law deals directly with the offender, imposing punishments and acting on preventative reoccurrences. Restitution is required if another person has suffered any loss or injury (Etz Hayim Torah Commentary, p. 585.)
Prayer replaces sacrificial offerings
OK – so how does this “behavior modification” system pertain to us? And, more specifically, how do our prayers (the post-Temple replacement for sacrifices) achieve the same purpose? How does prayer transform us spiritually, ethically and behaviorally? How might traditional or spontaneous prayer restore the connection between each of us and Source of Life? How might prayer, in any form, inspire us to become better human beings – to treat ourselves, others, and all of creation, with a heightened consciousness of the sacredness of life?
“I’m not into prayer”
I have often heard people say they just aren’t into prayer. What does this mean? Regardless of whether or how one believes in “A Force Greater than Us”, isn’t it just sound spiritual sense to develop a practice that deepens our capacity to build meaningful relationships and make the world a better place?
The prayerbook(siddur) as a guide to spiritual and ethical values
By embracing the ethical and spiritual values articulated over and over again in the prayerbook, we draw out the Divine Essence within us and draw us closer to one another. What an incredible blueprint for repairing a broken world – for all people: secular, humanist, atheist, agnostic or the traditionally observant and the liberally observant! Here are some examples of the values you will find:
- Thoughtful speech
- Compassionate listening
- Asking for help
- Affirming the preciousness of life
- Performing acts of loving kindness
- Connecting the generations
- Pursuing justice
- Seeking peace
Mindfulness practices prepare us for prayers’ guided journey
Mindfulness practices such as yoga, meditation, and wilderness experiences, help us open our hearts and minds. They deepen our ability to draw near all that is sacred and prepare us for what comes next – prayer itself. Again, this prayer may be personal or communal. What is important is that it reminds us that we are not alone in the world and that we have a responsibility to heal, encourage, support and sustain one another. The rabbis, then and now, use scripture, poetry, and values to create a journey that leads us each day through themes such as:
- Gratitude for breath and body shapes our day-to-day experience.
- Blessings are really action steps for acts of loving kindness and social justice.
- Worlds are created and destroyed by words – use them carefully.
- Creation is awe-inspiring, humbling and a gift to be cherished.
- Torah is a vibrant loving source of wisdom and guidance that speaks to each generation.
- Our rescue from bondage demands that we take responsibility for our actions and rescue others.
- Our history matters and the merit of our ancestors paved the way for us.
- Healing is both physical and spiritual.
- Regret, teshuvah and forgiveness restore hope and possibility.
- Working for peace is a constant.
- Memory of those whom we lost reminds us of the power of love.
- There is a vision before us of a world in touch with Divine Essence and united by shared values and a vision of peace.
Held by a GREAT LOVE, a glimpse of eternity
Fully present in a moment of prayer, we may actually experience a glimpse a moment of eternity. Prayer opens our hearts to receive goodness and love. And, conversely, enables us to touch the darkest experiences of pain with forgiveness and compassion. Prayer reminds us that even in the face of our imperfections, we are loved by a “Great Love”. And, resting in the embrace of that Eternal Love, we are breathed by all that has been, is and will be. This Love may be strong and gentle, demanding and accepting, transcendent and within reach.
I am my prayer
Secure and held by a Love that freely flows into us as it also emanates from our hearts, may the words from our lips and the intentions of our hearts lovingly move us closer to one another through thought, word and deed.
Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi
8 Adar 11 5776/ 18 March 2016