By Reb David
As Rosh Hashanah nears, this week’s paresha (Ki Tavo) prepares our ancestors to enter the Promised Land, much as today we now undertake the preparation to re-enter our own inner Land of Promise at Rosh Hashanah. The two preparations – one ancient and past, one modern and present – speak to each other in profound ways.
Before our ancestors could enter the Promised Land, they received not only a lesson in gratitude but also specific words to speak in a scripted liturgy of thanksgiving. Torah records (Deut. 26:1-10):
When you enter the land that YHVH your God gives you as a heritage … you will take some of every first fruit [that] you harvest from the land, put it in a basket and go to the place where YHVH your God will choose to establish God’s name. Go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him: “I make known this day before YHVH my God that I entered the land that God swore to our ancestors….” The priest will take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar…. You will then recite as follows before YHVH your God:
“My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt in meager numbers and sojourned there, becoming a great and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor on us. We cried to YHVH, God of our ancestors, and YHVH heard our plea and saw our plight, misery and oppression. YHVH freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm, with awesome power, by signs and wonders. God brought us to this place … so now I bring the first fruits of the soil which You, YHVH, gave me.”
These words and practices of gratitude are Judaism’s first-ever recorded liturgy – scripted words and behaviors of communal prayer. They appear in the Haggadah, the annual book of the Passover seder, but they originate in this week’s Torah portion. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, the very idea of scripted liturgy can be traced back to this place and time in Torah – long before prayerbooks, long before what today we would call “prayer.”
Modernity has no lack of liturgy (the High Holy Day machzor fills hundreds of pages), which begs a key question: what is the role of liturgy (versus prayer) in spiritual life generally and High Holy Day observance in particular?
For those of us who ever were bored in a house of worship, this question is vital. Even more vital is this question behind the question: what do we imagine liturgy accomplishes? This question is even more poignant because Jewish tradition – which has no lack of words! – specifically enjoins not to “fix” one’s prayer (Mishnah Avot 2:13). In Jewish wisdom, prayer is to be heart-centered, personal and intentional. The story of Hannah (1 Sam. 1:1-2:10), which we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, is the very paradigm of personal prayer without scripted liturgy. All of this begs the question of why we should care about liturgy at all.
I understand liturgy to be like a cookbook. A cookbook can instruct, but can’t feed. Only our own effort to add ingredients, mix and cook can convert cookbook to nourishment. As for cookbooks and food, all the more for liturgy and prayer: liturgy can organize and instruct, but only one’s personal effort to make prayer can nourish the heart and soul.
Describing this difference between liturgy and prayer, my teacher, Rabbi Sami Barth, offers this poem written by his teacher, Dr. Jonathan Magonet:
Liturgy defines the Community that prays ;
Prayer is the offering of each individual .
Liturgy affirms the values of that Community;
Prayer sets those values on our lips and in our hearts.
Liturgy unites those who share a tradition;
Prayer connects us to all who pray.
Liturgy describes the boundaries of a community;
Prayer locates us within creation as a whole.
Liturgy offers a language for our prayer;
Prayer reaches out beyond language.
Liturgy places us within a history;
Prayer opens us to the future.
Liturgy invites our emotions;
Prayer refines our emotions.
Liturgy begins with the world we know;
Prayer suggests worlds to be explored.
Liturgy provides a place in which to pray;
Prayer tests the truth of what we pray.
Liturgy seeks to bring God into the world;
Prayer helps make room for God in our lives.
Liturgy provides security, continuity and certainty;
Prayer disturbs, challenges and confronts.
Liturgy without prayer may become sterile;
Prayer without liturgy may become selfish.
Liturgy is an event. Prayer is a risk.
Liturgy sets limits. Prayer offers space.
Liturgy asserts. Prayer expresses hope.
Liturgy is the motor. Prayer is the fuel.
Liturgy is the vehicle. Prayer is the journey.
Liturgy is the companion. Prayer is the destination.
We embrace liturgy because we belong to a specific people with a history, language, context and value set all its own. And, we embrace prayer because we belong to a humanity called into constantly deeper communion within, among each other and with the One transcending all particulars. Liturgy reflects collective memory, prayer expresses and nurtures humanity. Liturgy is the holy cue, prayer is the holy act.
Following liturgy’s script is only as spiritually nourishing as our intention and authenticity. Liturgy can cue and invite our gratitude, but the rest depends on us. So too for entering into the Promised Land; so too for entering into our inner Land of Promise; so too for entering into the New Year ahead. May both the liturgies and the prayers of our teshuvah (return) bring us with joy into the boundless promise of the New Year. Shanah tovah.