DAY 564: Praying Is Not Just For Shul

January 15, 2014
By bethmordecai
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DAY 564: Praying Is Not Just For Shul

Dear Hevreh,

In most sanctuaries, there is a verse from scripture placed above the ark. Residing at eye level with the ner tamid (eternal flame) this scripture is a meditative piece to remind the worshippers in the pews of the intention behind our prayers. One of the most popular phrases to adorn the top of a sanctuary is an adaptation from a Talmudic phrase: דע לפני מי אתה עומד — Know Before Whom You Stand (Masekhet B’rakhot 28b). We worship before a God, a Presence, so much greater than ourselves, and when we stand in worship, we must be aware of that powerful Presence.

The Talmudic source for this quote indicates that it came as Rabbi Eliezer was on his death bed and his disciples were asking him for final pieces of wisdom. Interestingly, Rabbi Eliezer specifically says that the moment we must “know before whom we stand”, is at the moment of prayer: “וכשאתם מתפללים, דעו לפני מי אתה עומד — when you pray, know before whom you stand.”

Well, what about when we’re not praying? When we step out of the sanctuary, do wenot need to know before whom we stand? Is Rabbi Eliezer (implicitly) teaching that there’s a difference between the act of prayer and the rest of life we live in between? Perhaps that powerful Presence in shul is too great (or perhaps too weak?) to be experienced away from the ark and the sanctuary in which It dwells, so while we may be pious Jews for an occasional two or three hours in shul, outside of shul anything goes.

That’s where Monday’s Martin Luther King Celebration is so important, because it’s a reminder that prayer and God don’t just exist in a sanctuary. When the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in Selma, Alabama hand in hand with Dr. King, he famously remarked that he felt he was praying with his legs. It’s as if the modern Rabbi Heschel was extending the instructions of the Talmudic Rabbi Eliezer: When you pray in the shul, in the streets, in the world around you, know before whom you stand.

In honor of Dr. King’s birthday, we are co-sponsoring a wonderful joint adult learning program on Saturday Night at 7 pm (at Temple Emanu-el) with Temple Emanu-El, Neve Shalom, and the JCC of Middlesex County for a night of learning about Jewish takes on Social Justice — the Jewish act of praying with our feet. Among others, I will be giving a lecture on The Meaning of Tikkun Olam, Rabbi Zelizer (Neve Shalom) will be speaking about Reflections on Abraham Joshua Heschel and MLK, and Rabbi Vaisberg (Emanu-El) will be talking about Tzedek and Tz’dakah as well as a keynote address by Reverend Mark McReary (Second Baptist Church, Metuchen).

Hopefully by the end of the night we will all be reminded that we can pray anywhere and everywhere we feel that we are standing in the Presence of God.

Kol Tuv,

Rabbi Ari Saks

P.S. Please see attachments for a flier and program description of Saturday night’s program

P.P. S. In keeping with the MLK theme, We are postponing our Day of Service with St. Peter’s Church, originally scheduled for Monday. Please stay tuned for more details.

Photo courtesy of Associated Press

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