Ain't nothing like the real thing
July 29, 2016
This is a short passage from Jewish With Feeling, co-written by Joel Segel and Reb Zalman z"l -- I reviewed the book here back in 2005. We talked about this passage a couple of weeks ago on the final day of Joel's Big Sky Judaism: The Everyday Thought of Reb Zalman class at the ALEPH Kallah.
I love Reb Zalman's metaphor of apples and prayer. When I moved to rural New England, I discovered that a honeycrisp apple picked right off the tree is mind-blowingly glorious! And it bears almost no resemblance to a golden delicious apple that's spent who-knows-how-long in storage. (If you don't live in a place where great apples are grown, extrapolate to something local and seasonal where you are.)
We all know that a factory-farm-grown piece of fruit that's spent ages in a refrigerator box doesn't hold a candle to something fresh and organic and picked right off the tree in season, in context, in the place where its roots have drawn sustenance. And Reb Zalman z"l recognized that the same can be said of the difference between rote unthinking prayer, and "the real thing."
The first thing that changed my life when I encountered living Jewish Renewal at the old Elat Chayyim on my very first retreat was Jewish Renewal prayer. (I wrote about that a little bit in a blog post in 2012 -- Ten years in Jewish Renewal.) That's where I first experienced contemplative chant-based prayer, where one takes pearls from the liturgy and sings them over and over, going deeper and deeper into the words and their meaning. That's where I first experienced ecstatic prayer, where one can get so swept up in the davenen and the melodies and harmonies that one enters another state of consciousness altogether. That's where I first discovered that I could talk not only about God but also to God. It's not hyperbole to say that my life has never been the same.
Reb Zalman used to talk about "freeze-dried" prayer. Our siddurim (prayerbooks) are like the dehydrated or freeze-dried food we send into space with our astronauts, but in order to be nourished, we need to add the "hot water" of heart and soul. We need to enter into the words on the page, to be willing to open our hearts, to take the emotional risk of speaking not about the Divine but to the Divine. And the difference between "wrapped and refrigerated" prayer and deep devotional davenen is as dramatic as the difference between a pasty pale wintertime grocery store tomato and a ripe, flavorful, spectacularly delicious heirloom tomato plucked from the vine and eaten before it's even cooled off from the August sunshine in which it was sustained.
When I write about prayer, I tend to write most often about joyful prayer -- like the Kabbalat Shabbat service with Nava Tehila at the ALEPH Kallah two weeks ago. But sometimes deep davenen comes from a place of grief and fury, and that too can be sustaining to heart and spirit. What heart and spirit need is full expression. Meaningful prayer isn't just about being clappy-happy -- it's about being real, and bringing your real self, your whole self, to your davenen. It's about opening yourself up. It's about seeking the real thing, and seeking to be the real thing, instead of settling for the out-of-season peach that barely has any flavor.
Here's one more pearl from Reb Zalman:
Experiences of God are not that hard to come by: all that's required is a little yearning, a little searching, a welcoming of God within. Va-asu li mikdash v'shochanti b'tocham, says the book of Exodus (25:8): Only set aside a place, and I will come.
May it be so. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate!