So, one afternoon in Camden, Don and I wandered into the great little local coffee shop that’s tucked into the back room of a fantastic local used book store on the main street going through town. We’d ordered our coffees and I must have mentioned something about having had my guitar lesson across the street. To which the morning barista, who was still hanging out there, pointed at me, mouth agape, and cried out, “Oh, you must be the rabbi!” Such was my 15 minutes of fame (no more than that) during winter sabbatical.
I’m used to female rabbis still being a novelty, 45 years after Sally Priesand was ordained in Cincinnati. But a rabbi (stam) being in town is still fodder for local gossip in Camden, South Carolina. Apparently my guitar teacher, Rusty, joins a group of men-of-a-certain-age (who are basically now my age) for a chat session and a cuppa joe every morning. And when he shared the news with the group that he was teaching a rabbi – “well the heck you say!” was pretty much the communal response.
The response was the same at the hair salon and the furniture store. With the requisite follow-up question: “So…you’re Jewish…???”
Of course there’s not much call for a rabbi in Camden, South Carolina. To say there is a handful of Jews it town would be, as we were told by one of them, a ‘generous count.’ There’s a beautiful little Temple building – just a chapel, really – that is only open for lay-led worship on the High Holy days. But in a town that is still “highly churched,” as they say, a rabbi is a novelty worth talking about.
Which may be why I spent most of my time at home.
Thanks to your generosity, I had the opportunity to spend four months at our Camden home, studying, reading, writing, and synthesizing texts that ranged from ancient to modern, from famous to very obscure, and from clear to “what in the world is that?” The only break was to fly to southern California for a few days, to be Don’s cheering section as he graduated from Concord Law School in late February. Have I ever mentioned how proud I am of him? No? Well, I am.
And while Don was studying to take the bar exam that week, I was able to get about 140 pages into dissertation, finally seeing a light at the end of a tunnel that has taken me 20 years to travel.
First, let me tell you a little bit about my topic. In Hebrew we call it n’filat apayim: the prayer act of falling to the ground, face on the floor, in complete physical supplication. I know, not a Reform Judaism thing. But a very Jewish thing from the time of the Bible onward.
I’ve always been interested in how we offer supplications before God. Asking for God’s mercy is often considered the purest form of prayer. And it turns out it doesn’t need a single word to be spoken.
In the Tanakh we see encounter many situations, from Abraham to Joshua, where God appears or speaks to a chosen person, who is so overcome by the experience that all he can do is fall on his face, often unable to say a word. It’s a posture of a human before a god, of a slave before a master, of a subject before a ruler – one that was common throughout the ancient world. It was adopted by those who crafted the stories in our Bible – as a way to say, yes, we too fall before our sovereign. But our sovereign is God, and God alone. And we believe that when we prostrate before God in all sincerity, God will grant our request.
The physical act of prostration IS a form of prayer – one that is important, one that works.
And so it became part of the formal worship of God after the close of the Hebrew Bible. At the Temple in Jerusalem, every day when the offerings were made on the altar and the incense was lit, not only the priests but also ordinary people seeking God’s favor prostrated themselves. Here’s what we know from the Mishnah:
“When they [the Levites] reached the end of a chapter [of Psalms], they would blow [a set of blasts] and the people [as a whole, ha-am] would bow in prostration. At the end of every chapter, they would blow a [set of blasts], and at the end of each set of blasts [the people] would bow in prostration.”
At Qumran, where the sect known as Essenes had removed themselves, to purify themselves for a coming apocalypse in which they alone would be spared, their so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls” record their prayer services. And the instructions to the prayer leaders remind them that n’filat apayim – the stance of supplication – is a crucial element of worship each and every day.
The Mishnah and the Talmud, written and redacted in the centuries after the Temple was destroyed, are inspired by the prayer prostration of priests but also of prophets. The daily prayer routine the rabbis created was based on the daily routine of the prophet Daniel, who was sent into exile and feared for his life. Here’s what the Book of Daniel says:
“So when Daniel learned that the decree had been drawn up, he went into his house, where the windows of the upper chamber opened in the direction of Jerusalem and where, three times each day, he bent down on his knees and prayed and gave thanks before his God for all he had received, as was his custom to do. Then these men gathered and found Daniel praying for mercy and supplicating himself before his God.”
This is essentially what became daily prayer as we know it. By the time the first actual prayer books were put together in the early middle ages, the act of n’filat apayim – of falling on one’s face and pleading with God – was already an established part of community worship. After we recite the Amidah, we are told to fall on our faces, say our own private prayers, and recite psalms and prayers of supplication with the congregation.
The mystics of the late middle ages took n’filat apayim even farther. They believed the worshiper should be so deep into the physical act of supplication that emotionally, it would be a near-death experience, bringing you closer to God.
Now, I know this seems really foreign to most of you. Me, too. The only time I’ve ever seen a full prostration in a Reform congregation was during Yom Kippur in Jerusalem, when we moved all the chairs out for the afternoon service – and when we came to the three recitations of the prayers of the priests at the Temple, everyone went down flat. I understand from Annette Shaw that you did have an interim rabbi once who did the same thing. And I gather it somewhat took you by surprise.
But here’s what I find so interesting. Movement – gesture, posture, dance, waving, stomping – and, yes, prostrating — is an important part of so many religious traditions today. Movement is central to the way black Baptists pray. And Muslims. And traditional Jews. The only way Reform Jews experience it is at Jewish summer camp, when they’re encouraged to experiment with prayer through movement and music. Prayer with no words. Prayer with intent. Prayer with purpose.
I’m not suggesting every Shabbat here should be like summer camp, or that we clear the chairs on Yom Kippur afternoon.
In fact, you may have noticed that I kept things pretty comfortable tonight, for our first Shabbat together in four months. But what I am suggesting is that maybe there’s a way to explore different ways we express ourselves to God on Shabbat. Maybe it’s movement. Maybe it’s music. Not to take away from our prayers – but to enhance them.
Thinking outside the box, and outside the walls of this sanctuary – that’s why I’m studying and writing and synthesizing. It’s not just an academic exercise for me – although it’s one I’d certainly like to finish up this summer. But I want the end of reading and writing to be the beginning of questioning and experimenting. We’ve got a wonderful group here tonight. But we don’t, always. I’m glad to think this means you missed me. But I don’t want us to slip back into old routines.
Thinking outside the box, and outside the walls of this sanctuary – that’s what sabbatical was really about. Not everybody has the ability to take four months off and do something completely different. But deviating from routine is a good thing. It’s a form of self-care – and that, I highly recommend.
Yes, I spent a lot of time at the computer or with my face in a book. But I also balanced that with eating well, walking often, honing my guitar skills with a great teacher, getting a good haircut, and meeting people at the coffee shop tucked inside the book store, all with a unique story to tell.
Each of us can find rejuvenation and inspiration in unlikely places and situations. But we need to open ourselves to that. Deviate from routine, have the courage and determination to take the time for sabbatical, no matter how long and no matter how far.
Passover is the perfect time to start. It’s about our physical redemption, from slavery to freedom. But it’s also about emotional release, too. Of no longer being a slave to routine and tradition. Of being unafraid to walk through the river bed to whatever waited us on the other side. If our ancestors had not had the courage to take that chance, we would not be here today, remembering the gift of freedom they have given to us. The freedom of sabbatical takes all kinds of forms. The fifth question for this year’s Seder might be: What’s yours?
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will. Let us enjoy a meaningful Passover. And let us say together: Amen.
© Audrey R. Korotkin 2017