26 Av 5781 / Wednesday, August 04, 2021 | Torah Reading: Re'eh
 
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I don’t want to date myself, but these lines brought me back to my rebellious high school days as a post Bar Mitzvah teenager in Southern California...

 



I don’t want to date myself, but these lines brought me back to my rebellious high school days as a post Bar Mitzvah teenager in Southern California, who couldn’t find a more perfect expression of his disdain of organized religion than the second side of Aqualung.
 
 
There’s a Talmudic expression called girsa d’yunkasa – referring to the learning of our youth, when our learning remains with us and is not easily forgotten. It’s also a colloquialism used in Yeshivot to refer to those memories that remain jumbled in our brains, as when my Talmud Rebbe (teacher) sheepishly described the couches in Megillat Ester: “The kind of thing Cleopatra laid on in those movies when the servants dropped grapes in her mouth!" … What? Girsa d’yunkasa!  
 
Riding on an Egged buses often catapults me into the past. My ears perk up, as I hear the radio start playing music from the raucous rock band of the seventies, Jethro Tull:
 
"You can ex-communicate me on my way to Sunday School/ and have all the bishops harmonize these lines/.../I don't believe you, you got the whole damn thing all wrong/ He's not the kind you have to wind up on Sunday." Another girsa d'yunkasa! 
 
I don’t want to date myself, but these lines brought me back to my rebellious high school days as a post Bar Mitzvah teenager in Southern California, who couldn’t find a more perfect expression of his disdain of organized religion than the second side of Aqualung.
 
Although the local Reform congregation we attended generally made do with “winding Him up” once or twice a year on the High Holidays, Jethro Tull's message remained the same. And of course, being of a family of those Temple faithful who attended services virtually every week, even when we didn’t know the Bar Mitzva boy, Friday night seemed to me as legitimate an object of resentment as Sunday did to Ian Anderson.
 
What would Ian have said if he knew about Torah Judaism’s commitment to attending the synagogue three times a day? For those individuals with strong prejudices against organized religion, communal prayer presents a strong obstacle. How can prayer be meaningful if everyone has to recite the exact same words? How can the prayers be fixed at certain times? Are we supposed to open up our hearts to God like clockwork?
 
The crux of these questions is a basic misunderstanding of the Hebrew word tefilla, inadequately translated into English as ‘prayer’. The verb l’hitpalel — ‘to pray’ — is a reflexive verb. Obviously, ‘reflexive’ does not mean that we pray to ourselves, so why should the verb ‘to pray’ be reflexive? The root of the word hitpalel is pillel, which means ‘to judge.’
 
To understand the connection between praying and judging, we must understand the deeper function of a judge. A judge takes conflicting evidence, disunion, and injects into this situation of confusion the clarity of the Divine Truth of the Torah. This Truth penetrates to the very heart of the opposing views, the quarrels and dissention, and creates a new unity on a higher level.
 
Similarly, when we pray, we infuse ourselves with meaning and content of the great ideas composed by the prophets. We ask ourselves, how do I measure up to these principles? Am I concerned about redemption, justice, insight, repentance, and a host of other cosmic ideas that get muffled in the busy maelstrom of our daily lives?
 
Prayer is reflexive because it brings us face to face with the great harmony at the core of our existence. In other words, tefilla is not an outflow of emotion: it is an influx of Divine energy, a prescription for the soul formulated by the greatest physicians of the soul – Chazal – the Jewish spiritual masters.
 
There is a place in Judaism for the outpouring of the soul, called Hitbodedut. In addition, there are times of techina – ­beseeching and siach – conversation. These aren’t necessarily what we do three times a day in tefilla, though, because tefilla is nourishment for the soul, and we need it three times a day, like clockwork.
 
I keep a one hundred year old gold watch, which belonged to my grandfather, next to my state-of-the-art laptop, to remind myself of a lot of things: Where I came from, the benefits I enjoy from the incredible progress of technology, and the amazing craftsmanship of yesteryear (the watch works well, will my laptop work even ten years from now?) I enjoy winding it up, it gives me a good feeling.
 
Maybe, if it was explained carefully, even Ian Anderson could understand that we’re not “winding Him up;” we’re the ones who need to be “wound up.” And maybe, if it was explained carefully, that young rebellious teenager would finally understand.




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