‘Messengers’: grassroots prayer dynamics

A few words from one of your “messengers”

Shaliach tzibbur,” a Hebrew term for prayer-leader, literally means “messenger of the congregation.” As one of your messengers this year, I want to share a few reflections on being an oxymoronic Grassroots Leader…

We Jews rarely object to vicarious prayer experiences. From the “repetition of the ‘amidah” to the ubiquitous AMEN to another’s blessing, we commonly include ourselves in another’s devotions. The musical dimension of prayer, which fascinatingly has been the Jewish tradition most resistant to written codification, has also contributed to the emphasis on the singing voice of the prayer-leader—often to the exclusion of other very relevant considerations. What qualities should be important to us in one who would lead us or be our messenger before God? Whatever they might be, an operatic aria voice is unlikely to be high on the list.

My teacher Shlomo Carlebach used to say that he sang well enough for people to enjoy, but not so well that people didn’t feel comfortable singing along. That’s an ideal I embrace, and hope that it will be the norm for our Grassroots dovening leaders. Our goal should be to facilitate rather than to perform.

The High Holidays, of course, are so much about the melodies, old and new, that open our hearts. There are the melodies we chant together, and the sing-song, ad libidum improvisations on ancient themes intoned by the leader. The problem: for much of the service, it is actually all too easy to stop dovening and leave things in the hands, or rather voice, of the fellow front & centre.

Please don’t do this (too much)—if only for your sake.

The Holy Ba’al Shem Tov had a lot to say about prayer (and I heartily recommend the newly published collection of his teachings on contemplative prayer, translated and annotated by R’ Menachem Kallus from Grassroots Year I – available via http://goo.gl/LNKll). But he had remarkably little to say about the High Holidays, at least if we’re to judge by the very thorough anthology of his teachings as presented in the works of his disciples known as “Besht (=Ba’al Shem Tov) ‘al ha-Torah.” There is, however, a recurring motif in the teachings recorded by his disciples relating to these Days of Awe:

Don’t rely on the “ba’al tefilla” (“master of prayer”).

As the Besht saw it, the prayer leader was something of a heroic figure, akin to an über-warrior that an army might field instead of common foot-soldiers to rout a foe—a David or, le-havdil, a Goliath. The Besht called them “roshei anshei ha-milchamah she-raui she-yalbish shiryon” (“heads of the men of war, worthy of wearing armour”). While the Besht admitted that heroes could sometimes prove themselves worthy and achieve victory, he felt that generally they were a bad bet. His advice: don’t rely on ringers, don’t rely on “masters of prayer.” Instead, fend for yourself, do it yourself. More precisely, do it yourselves: with the strength of the entire community. (Note the telling absence of 1st person singular prayers over these holidays, as if to make it inevitable that we get the message: we’re in this together.)

This is the horizontal ethos of Grassroots. This year even more of us are involved in leading the services, thus bringing our core values to this critical dimension of the High Holiday experience more than ever. Although the executive decision to get more people leading has been taken, the true Grassroots decision to get every participant dovening him or herself into the Book of Life (along with the rest of us!) can only be taken by YOU.

Shlomo once said that it’s stupid to think that being written in the Book of Life (or the other Book) meant that a person would literally live (or the other option) the following year. Obviously big sinners who have to be in the other book enjoy long lives, and sadly we know all to many wonderful people who don’t. So what’s it all about? The Book of Life is about being truly alive, about being deeply connected to life, to love, to God. Our New Year is about finding our way back to that connection to Life, with an inner strength given to us as a gift of renewal…that could only come from Heaven. Lets find it on our own, together.



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