Blessings and Prayers…
Oh boy! There is nothing more exciting to a group of Jews than a sermon about blessings and prayers. 🙂
But I really do want us during our Holy Days together to think about opening ourselves up to the structures of Blessings and Prayers. It’s difficult, I know. I find it difficult too. We say a bunch of words and kind of wait for something emotional to happen, and it just doesn’t. But, honestly, isn’t it naive to think that we live in a kind of Harry Potter world where we can simply say a few words and expect some kind of spiritual magic to happen to us? Like anything else, spiritual connection takes practice and a willingness to be a full participant in the activity… just like painting, writing, or math, even becoming the first string Quarterback for the LA Rams (lookin’ at you Goff).
Of course, over the Holy Days we get lots and lots of practice saying blessings and prayers. But the openness to the experience is what I suspect we may continue to need to work on. And, believe me, I speak to myself as much (if not more) than I speak to you. Finding a connection to Blessings and Prayers can truly be a frustrating task.
So, why do we think prayer is so difficult? It is because we feel pressure to believe in something or not believe in something? Maybe, so I’m going to invite you to live in the unknown, to embrace the ambiguous. Connecting to a blessing or a prayer does not actually require belief in anything as we will see. So, if you feel like you aren’t ready to commit to a belief structure of any sort, don’t! But also don’t assume that blessings and prayers are beyond your reach, because they aren’t.
Perhaps part of our hang-ups is the ancient language, the prayer formula, we use in Judaism: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, Blessed are you, Adonai our God, King of the Universe… The Masculine forms of the words Blessed, You, and of course, King make God male. That can give some of us pause. So, maybe we switch it to the feminine? Baruchah At Shechina, Eloheinu Malkat ha-olam? Sure, that’s kind of nice. And now God is in the feminine. But then we have excluded half of the population again, and we have lost the connection we feel by uttering the same formula that has been used since Talmudic times. Perhaps it isn’t even the gender of God but this image of God as royalty ruling over us. Many of us don’t relate to that image. But, literal understanding of these words is not necessary or even encouraged to connect to prayer. Our ancient authors likened God to the most important human form they could come up with, not because it was to be taken literally. So, let’s move beyond the formula and know they did the best they could.
Maybe we just reject the words Blessing and Prayer on their own. Maybe they call up too many uncomfortable memories from negative experiences in a synagogue or a church or with some insensitive clergy. Maybe those words make us feel old or from another time. Plus we are back to the start of this conversation about belief. After all, if we’re not sure what we believe in, who the heck are we praying to??
We all struggle to varying degrees at different phases of our lives to get beyond all of these words and find a way to own them in authentic ways. And there is no way I can solve this issue for all of us during these Holy Days. But I do want to at least attempt to open up our minds a little bit, beyond word formulas and hang-ups, and I’ll start by showing you a photograph…
This is a photograph taken by the photographer Erik Castro, of a worker right after he finished his day in Sonoma County picking grapes at a winery, now set to return to his home in Mexico. This is one of many photos of Sonoma County grape-pickers taken by Castro and shown in his exhibition called “Harvester.”
I came upon this series of photos in the LA Times when it was reported that Governor Jerry Brown passed legislation that would gradually, by the year 2022, require farmworkers to receive overtime after an 8 hour day rather than after a 10 hour one, or after 40 total hours per week.
But what does this all have to do with prayer and blessings? Well, I figured, in an attempt to practice opening ourselves to prayer, we could start with one of the most well known and widely used blessings, the blessing over wine. Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam, borei p-ree hagafen. Blessed are You, Adonai, Our God, Sovereign of the Universe, creator of fruit of the vine. Easy enough to say. Harder to find a true spiritual connection to it. But when we say that blessing, we are blessing ALL that went into the cups in our hands. We are blessing the earth, the sky, the sun, the wind and the rain. We are blessing the soil, the seeds, and the many generations of seeds that came before. We are blessing the owners of the land and all that went into their being alive and able to own and cultivate that land. We bless the machinery, the drip lines, the tractor, the baskets, the stakes in the ground, and all that went into creating those supplies.
And, of course, we are blessing the hands that picked those grapes as well as the eyes and hearts and souls that belong to those hands. We bless their parents and grandparents who sacrificed for them, and we bless the spouses and children who miss them while they are away from home.
THIS is what a blessing is all about. THIS is what prayer is all about. It’s stopping time for just long enough to connect to an understanding that we will never, ever be able to appreciate enough every one, every thing, every accident, every happenstance that led to that single moment…. be it a moment of nourishment or drink or lighting candles or wearing a tallit or praying to the Unknowable. We are losing ourselves in gratitude and finding humility in this Great Dance. We are Blessing God as the source of all that got us to this time… so your God can be a king or a queen… or an energy, or light, or nature, or love, or space, or luck, or a dance… God is however you define the Source of that experience.
So, I’m going to invite you to view many images of those workers who head north from Mexico to Sonoma County to pick grapes so that the bottles of wine we bless may exist. While you look at each image, hear the blessing over the wine ringing in your ears.
May these faces find better working conditions with this new legislation, and may we think of them the next time the words Baruch Atah Adonai emerge from our lips. Let’s practice feeling how deeply a blessing can go.
View Erik Castro’s collection “Harvester” here.
Join Cool Shul for Yom Kippur by going to our High Holy Day page.