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Meditations on mincha

I think I remember reading a blog post some years ago -- I'm pretty sure it was by Rabbi Jill Jacobs (who was recently named Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights North America) -- about davening mincha (afternoon prayers) at her office. I've tried to find the post in recent days, to no avail; perhaps I'm misremembering? Anyway, what I remember reading in the post was the author saying that one of the joys of working for a Jewish nonprofit was that it was a workplace where she had the ability to close her office door every afternoon to daven mincha, and everyone understood why that mattered.

The service derives its name from the offerings of grain once made at the Temple in Jerusalem. There's not much to it: the ashrei, the amidah (that central prayer in which we stand before God), the aleinu ("it is incumbent upon us to praise the God of All...there is none else.") In some communities, after the amidah comes tachanun, a series of penitential prayers aimed at reminding us to do daily teshuvah. (On Shabbat, tachanun is omitted but a prayer called uva l'tzion is added.) On Shabbat, Torah is read during mincha -- in the presence of a minyan, of course. Without a Torah reading, mincha takes about fifteen minutes.

There's something artificial about mincha. Shacharit, morning prayers, are a natural extension of the awe and mindfulness with which we want to begin our days; maariv, evening prayers, are a natural extension of the gratitude and hope for God's overnight protection with which we want to end our days. But mincha, coming as it does in the afternoon, doesn't map neatly to an everyday occurrence the way the other two services do.

Some argue that this is exactly what gives mincha its power. Davening mincha requires making a conscious choice to step away from the vagaries of the workday -- to pause, no matter what's on your to-do list, and connect with the Source of All, and offer praise. Of course, like most things, this is easier to do when one's working at a desk than when one's chasing a rambunctious toddler around a playground or trying to keep said toddler entertained indoors on a rainy day. (See my wrestlings, last spring, with time-bound mitzvot.)

On Drew's daycare days, I get a taste of my "old life" -- little luxuries like sitting down at my desk with a mug of steaming hot tea, like getting caught up on my correspondence, like a long conversation with a friend. But when I'm on toddler duty all day long, none of those things are necessarily in the cards. And neither is the luxury of pausing to daven mincha -- unless I can get him to go down for a conveniently-timed afternoon nap!

Sometimes, on days when Drew is in daycare and I have a little bit of breathing room, I call up my hevruta partner on the phone, and we each open our siddur, and together we daven over the phone. (This isn't my first experience with tele-davenen, but I'm grateful for it.) And for days when I don't have that luxury, I've been tinkering with a mincha playlist. Drew is always happy to have music on; I figured, why not put together a few songs I could listen to, fifteen minutes of music with which I could occasionally sing along while Drew and I play? I'm still trying different things out, but here's what I've currently got:

  • For ashrei: Hanna Tiferet's "Ashrey" (which you can preview and buy on cdbaby or on iTunes)

  • For the amidah: something wordless, so that I can try to offer my own prayer. I am especially fond of Rinde Eckert's brief a cappella track "Clean Out of Churches."

  • As the closing blessing for the amidah, Nava Tehila's "Oseh Shalom" [YouTube]

  • For tachanun: Reb Shlomo Carlebach's "Shomer Yisrael;" the version in my iTunes playlist is by Moshav (I love their harmonies) but here are two different versions online sung by Reb Shlomo himself: a live one and one which is more produced [YouTube]

  • For aleinu: Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu [YouTube] -- or Shayndel Kahn's beautiful "It's Upon Us" (which you can preview and buy at cdbaby, recorded by R' Shawn Zevit)

Mincha can be like a spiritual coffee break in the late afternoon -- a chance to pause whatever is happening in the day, stand before God, and give thanks. If the traditional liturgy speaks to you, wonderful: it's right there for the taking. (And if you don't know the traditional liturgy, and are looking to encounter it in English, check out 3xdaily, which I just discovered last week and is an excellent resource.)

But if the traditional words don't speak to you, I wonder: what kind of spiritual break could you give yourself in the afternoon, what kind of offering might you yearn to bring? Done with mindfulness, how might even a literal coffee break (step out of your office, breathe the fresh air, engage in walking meditation on your way to the coffee shop, offer a wordless prayer of gratitude when the latte touches your lips) act as a kind of mincha, a chance to offer awareness and gratitude?


Remembrance

Birkenau, Poland, Jewish women and children on the platform waiting for German orders after getting off the train, 27/05/1944. Image courtesy of the digital photo archives at Yad Vashem.

 

Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I want to bear witness, but the words don't want to come.

Everyone I know who is descended from Eastern European stock lost family in the Shoah. As a girl I became obsessed with Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, reading and rereading it so many times I practically had it memorized. I would lie in bed at night imagining what I would try to bring with me if we, like the Frank family, were forced to flee in the night.

Many years ago I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. Before we entered, our guide reminded us that while the photographs we were about to see were black-and-white, the reality of the Shoah was in living color. The skies over Auschwitz and Birkenau and Theresienstadt were blue. The emaciated figures in the photos weren't greyscale shadows: they were real people in three dimensions who were herded into cattle cars and into camps ravaged by disease and famine -- if they weren't gassed and burned. The old photos and jerky newsreel footage had been comfortably distancing, but those words from our guide unlocked something in me which made the unspeakable horror newly-real.

I'm not always comfortable with what's done in the name of the six million or with the ways in which their memory is used. But as Emily Hauser notes in her post Holocaust Day 2011, Yom HaShoah isn't the day to make that critique. It's a day to remember, and to mourn.

And now -- the day after that remembrance day -- it's time to once again shoulder the burden of trying to create a better world, a world in which this kind of atrocity is unthinkable...for us; for anyone.