Reflections on 17 Tammuz
Off to smicha students' week!

Shacharit planning

I'm preparing, with two friends, to co-lead shacharit (morning davenen) next Wednesday morning at smicha students' week. Yesterday morning we spent more than an hour on the phone, talking through the matbe'ah tefilah (deep structure of the service), what we want to include, and how we want our service to feel.

Leading davenen can feel a little bit like a performance. I don't know what kind of space we'll be in, but odds are good we'll be at the front of the room. I hope we can arrange chairs and meditation cushions in something like a circle, and we'll be sharing leadership all the way through, but even so, we're still the folks in charge of steering the craft for the allotted hour, and there's some pressure there.

Of course, it can't just be a performance. We have to tap into the themes of the service, the praise and supplication and thanksgiving. Real prayer requires us to make ourselves vulnerable. If we don't, it won't work. If we're not willing to lay our hearts on the line, no one else will take the leap of following us into real connection. DLTI has taught me that. Only when we "go there" do we give everyone else permission to go there, too.

In Renewal we talk a lot about how the structure of the service fits the Four Worlds model. The opening songs and blessings are tefilat ha-Assiyah, the prayer of the world of action and physicality. We'll do some movement, some chant, hear a nugget of teaching as we get warmed-up. The songs and psalms of praise which follow (p'sukei d'zimrah) are tefilat ha-Yetzirah, the prayer of the world of heart and emotion.

(That's the section of the service for which I'm most responsible, and it's where I'm stretching the most. I hope to chant one of my own prayer/poem variations in the natural minor nusach used during weekday p'sukei d'zimrah. I've never done that in public before, and -- especially because these are my own words -- the prospect makes me nervous. But in my mind, my teachers remind me to "be shy on my own time!" Real prayer involves taking risks.)

The Shema and her blessings make up tefilat ha-Briyah, the prayer of the world of thought and intellect. We'll use a variety of melodies here too, including some written by one of my fellow leaders. And the central standing prayer (which we'll daven in silence) and the prayers of tachanun (supplication and repentance) -- those are tefilat ha-Atzilut, the prayers of the world of essence and deepest connection with God. These levels of prayer are rungs on a ladder, each one offering a spiritual challenge and a gift. During that hour, it's our job to move up that ladder, and then safely down again.

I've been rereading my journal from the second week of DLTI, reinhabiting the emotional rollercoaster of that week and remembering a lot of things about how this work works. Mindful of Reb Shawn's teaching that the tefilot (prayers) contain their own kavanot (intentions), we're keeping extra-liturgical direction to a minimum; especially in this crowd, we don't need to tell people how each prayer is supposed to make them feel.

Especially in this crowd. Right. When I think about co-leading this service, I oscillate between feeling energized and blessed...and quaking in my Birkenstocks. So many brilliant teachers and insightful mentors will be a part of our number; who are we to lead them in prayer? But of course, we're not praying for everyone; we're praying with everyone. And we're praying in continual conversation with the Holy Blessed One -- which is way more important than my flashes of ego-driven anxiety about making a mistake in front of, say, my dean.

It reminds me of the story of the man who carried two slips of paper all the time: in one pocket the reminder that he was dust, in the other pocket the reminder that for his sake was the world created. Leading davenen, like chaplaincy work, requires confidence and humility in equal measure. In the end, no matter how carefully we plan our service, noting melodies and stage directions and intentions for each piece, something will happen that we don't expect -- and that's the real prayer, right there.

When I consider the fact that planning and doing and thinking about this stuff is what I do -- not the extra thing I squeeze in around the margins, but actually my work, the thing I'm dedicated to -- I feel so lucky I can't find words.

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