It’s mid-July as I write from Jerusalem. In this city that evokes so much passion, the dusty summer air is filled with an indescribable mix of loveliness, holiness and some craziness. For many secular Israelis who live beyond this city’s hills, Jerusalem is symbolic of conflict – between secular and religious Jews, and between Israelis and Arabs. But I love walking Jerusalem’s streets and breathing its impassioned air.  It is especially sweet on Shabbat, when quiet descends on the city once the shops and restaurants close early on Friday afternoon. The peacefulness is prayerful.

I find that coming in and out of Jerusalem sharpens my perspective on Jewish religious experience.  In Diaspora synagogues like ours, we pray eastward, toward Jerusalem, historically to face the Temple Mount — now as an expression of the solidarity of Jewish peoplehood.  By contrast, the secular Israeli community Beit Tefila Yisraeli, which meets for prayer in the summer at the Tel Aviv port (the capital of secular Israeli culture), faces the Mediterranean as the sun sets on Friday night, greeting Shabbat symbolically away from Jerusalem. God does not “reside” on the Temple Mount any more or less than God “resides” in the sunset over the sea; our spiritual compass has multiple directions. Prayer at the walls around the Temple Mount has a unique, symbolic power, but the Negev desert and the lush hills of the Galilee breathe their own holiness with their beauty and rich Jewish history.

I take spiritual nourishment from the ancient hills on which our ancestors forged a sacred path.  Jewish prayer started here, traveling through our Diaspora as we learned to seek God wherever we are. Along the way we brought the experience of the mountains, the ocean, the forest and the field, with collective memories of ancient Temple worship. The words and choreography of Jewish prayer draws on these experiences, leading us on a spiritual journey to sustain and guide us as a holy people.

A prayerful heart can be evoked in nature’s beauty, through music, or in the quiet in which we can hear “the still small voice.”  Jewish prayer is a complex tapestry of experiences.  Our prayers are transformative if we have been moved to peel away the layers of everyday distraction to open our hearts.

It is from this place that our Congregation BEth Hatikvah’s High Holy Day services are being re-imagined. We are seeking to capture more of prayer’s essence—a soul-journey of multi-layered experiences inspired by our ancestors, and reflecting contemporary culture.

During my July studies I have reflected a great deal about these ideas with my colleagues at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  As a group of us sang Kabbalat Shabbat with Beit Tefila Yisraeli at the Tel Aviv port, I marveled at the power and beauty of the experience.  The Mediterranean sunset and crowds of families enjoying a secular Tel Aviv Shabbat could not have been more different from the religious atmosphere prevailing over Jerusalem. I hold them both in my heart.

It is that multi-faceted, heart-touching experience that we are seeking to evoke for the upcoming High Holy Days.  The coming weeks will allow us to share kavannot (spiritual intentions) in preparation.

An opening kavannah, a poem from the great Spanish Jewish poet and philosopher, Judah Halevi, (11th century Spain):

Where Shall I Find You? 

(edited, AJS)

God, where shall I find You?

Your place is lofty and concealed.

And where shall I not find You?

The whole earth is full of Your Glory!

You are praised by Your hosts

But all praises You surpass.

 

The sphere of heaven cannot contain You,

Temple chambers, how much less.

 

Your Presence I have sought,

Calling out from the depths of the heart.

When after You, I went forth resolutely

There I found You, on Your way to me.

Can the Infinite One dwell within finite creation?

 

What can human minds conceive, creatures of humble station?

Yet You, Holy One, make Your home amidst their adoration.

 

Even when You rise above Your hosts on a throne, high and exalted,

You are nearer to them than their own bodies and souls.

Their mouths attest that they have no Maker except You.

Who shall not fear You? All bear the yoke of Your kingdom.

And who shall not call to You? It is You who give them their food.

I have sought to come near You, I have called to You with all my heart; and
when I went out towards You, I found You coming towards me.

I look upon Your wondrous power and awe.

Who can say that he has not seen You?

The heavens and their legions proclaim Your awesome presence — without a sound.

 

(These poetic metaphors are symbolic of our spiritual journey.)

 

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