Four worlds gratitude practice
Mishloach manot for me!

On obligation, opportunity, and praying with a cold

One of the unexpected upsides to being a congregational rabbi is leading davenen (prayer) even when I am sick. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it?

As a congregant, I always felt I had the option of davenen b'tzibbur (praying in community) -- but if I wasn't able to be there, that was okay too. I could pray on my own. I could shape my day, or my Shabbat, in whatever way was most conducive to connecting with God. But as the rabbi, if it's a weekend when I'm slated to be "on," then I need to be there. Period. Even when that means dragging myself out of bed with a head that feels as though it's stuffed with rocks, and leading services with a box of tissues by my side.

This past Shabbat was one of those times. I felt as though I were leading services from a slightly weird, cold-muddled dimension. As I strung the prayers together with connecting words, I made a few intuitive leaps which may have seemed odd to anyone who wasn't in my head. (For instance: I likened the alphabetic acrostic of the ashrei to "A, You're Adorable." In hindsight, I'm just glad I didn't actually try to sing it to that tune on the fly.)

But midway through the service I realized how glad I was to be there leading prayer, even if my body felt lousy. In my former life, on a germy Shabbat morning like this one, I would have stayed home and nursed my cold. This time, I had to rise to the occasion of helping others find their way into Shabbat, and because I felt obligated to them, I facilitated my own ascent into prayer, too.

This matter of chiyuv -- obligation -- isn't something we talk about all that often in the liberal Jewish world. It can be difficult to cling simultaneously to the religious value of informed choice and to a sense of religious obligation. (On this note, I can recommend Values and Ideals of Jewish Movements, which explores some of these issues from a Reconstructionist perspective; I also particularly recommend Reb Jeff's post Joy and Obligation, which explores the joy of obligation from a Reform point of view.)

I suspect that many liberal Jews who pray regularly would say that we do so because there is spiritual benefit, or because it connects us with God, or because it connects us with tradition, or because it helps us to be mindful and grateful, or because the practice changes us in positive ways -- not because we feel commanded or obligated per se. I don't want to take away from any of these reasons; but I do think there's a loss when we lose access to the sense of being metzuveh, commanded, too.

In a more traditional paradigm, Jews (read: men -- though there are also arguments for women's obligation, too) are obligated to daven daily, and there's also a strong sense of communal obligation to join in communal prayer. The obligation to pray daily exists because God is understood to have commanded it, and the obligation to pray in community exists because only with a minyan -- a quorum of ten adult Jews -- can certain prayers be said.

The deeper I go in my own Jewish journey, the more I feel both of these obligations. First, the obligation to connect with God every day, regardless of whether or not I'm "in the mood." (I try to tell my husband every day that I love him, even though he's heard me say it a million times before; I try to do the same with God.) And second, the obligation to the others who may be depending on me in order to recite mourner's kaddish with a minyan. I'm still trying to figure out how to make both of these ideas resonate for others who may feel spiritually allergic to the idea of being "obligated" to do anything, or who feel alienated by the idea of a God Who commands in a top-down fashion.

(That's a subject I'd like to explore further over time -- for now, let me just point to two links: Rabbi Menachem Creditor offers an audio lesson and a set of source texts on this question at new audio tisch: the Case for Commandedness, and Rabbi Samuel Cohon offers a sermon on parashat Yitro called Being Commanded for Reform Jews.)

Still, with a two-year-old who's decidedly not excited about sitting still, and a spouse who frequently travels, I don't often make it to communal prayer unless I'm leading. And I don't always manage to pray, even by myself, the way I want to do. I've often felt that it's my yetzer ha-ra -- my "evil inclination" -- which keeps me from prayer. "You're not focused enough to pray," it whispers. "You have so many things to do. Pray tomorrow, when you can really be present." Even though I know I shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, sometimes I am susceptible to these interior arguments.

When I'm only responsible for my own relationship with God, then that voice of my yetzer can pull me away from the prayer life I know I want to have. But when I'm responsible for others, that sense of responsibility trumps my laziness. And that's really good for me. Even when I have a cold.

Being obligated to show up and daven means that I show up and daven. And once I do so, it's always possible that I'll experience a real connection with God, with the liturgy, and with my community. Of course, it's also possible that I won't; that I'll be so lost in my own "stuff," or in the haze induced by my cold meds, that I'll just be going through the motions. But if I don't show up, I know I won't experience that connection; if I do show up, there's a chance the connection might spark to life. That's the hidden blessing of obligation: it opens the window a crack, and sometimes transcendence comes in.