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September 29, 1989 - Image 104

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-09-29

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L'Shona Tova

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Wishing. Everyone A Year Filled
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For Some, Prayer To God
Can Begin Inwardly


t was before the Days of
Awe, and he was troubled
about something. We ar-
ranged for a meeting.
"I must admit I find it
generally difficult to pray; but
more so on Rosh Hashanah
and Yom Kippur. It may seem
odd to you but during these
days when I feel most Jewish
because of the families that
gather together in the syna-
gogue, I feel least Jewish
because of the prayers in the
Machzor (the High Holy day
prayer book)."
His complaint was neither
with the length of the service
nor the content of the ser-
mons, but with High Holy
day liturgy itself.
"I am troubled by so much
heavy talk about God's judg-
ment and the litany of my
sins. Despite your emphasis
upon free will and the dignity
of the human being, the
prayers seem bent on reduc-
ing me to insignificance and
raising God to a Judge on
High. Am I truly as clay in
the hands of the potter, putty
in the fingers of a wholly
remote God, judgmental, pun-
itive, alienating?"
I pointed out the loving
forgiveness of God, explained
the drama of the High Holy
day service as a grand meta-
phor of a trial, translated into
less literal meaning the an-
thropomorphism of the
liturgy — King, Ruler, Judge
upon a throne, inscribing ver-
dicts in the Book of Life. But
he was unmoved by my efforts
at liturgical reconstruction
and returned to his initial
complaint. "Look at the text.
Why so much emphasis upon
guilt, such obsession with sin
and confession? Ashamnu —
we have trangressed — ten
time in 25 hours; al chet, the
enumeration of sins eight
Towards the end of our con-
versation that is going
nowhere, I take a different
tack with him. I propose that
for the moment he let his idea
of God alone. I tell him to
begin elsewhere. Begin with
the insight of the Baal Shem
Thy who divided the sentence,
-Da mah l'maaleh mimchah,
"Know what is above you,"
into two parts: "Know what is
above — from you!' Bracket
the wholly other above and

Rabbi Schulweis is spiritual
leader of Temple Valley Beth
Shalom in Encino, California.

begin with yourself below.
Pray not towards the heights
above but towards the depths
beneath. Begin not with the
"wholly other" but with the
"wholly same." Adopt the
dauntless audacity of the
sages in the Talmud Taanith
who counselled "one should
always consider himself as if
the Holy One were within
As text proof for their in-
sight they cite the prophet
Hosea: "The Holy One is in
you, in your innards!' Start
with yourself, with the rela-
tionship between you and
yourself. When you deal with

The wisdom of
the Baal Shem
Toy may suggest
an untrodden
path to prayer
and to God.

the Other you deal with your-
self. Ask not is He real but
whether you are real. Ask not
does He judge, but do you.
Ask not does He remember,
but do you. Not does He
forgive, but do you.
Tradition conventionally
divides fundamental human
relationships into two: Those
between God and person, and
those between person and
person. But less apparent the
relationship between person
and self.
I encourage my friend to
translate the other conven-
tional relationships with
others into those of self-
relationship. It is a notion I
adapt from some Chasidic
insights such as that of
Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
who typically interpreted the
verse in Deuteronomy 21:10
"When you go forth to war
against thine enemies" as
refering to "the enemy
within!' Such an internaliza-
tion of the verse may provide
the alienated with a bridge on
which to cross the chasm that
separates self from the Other
and places a stumbling block
before prayer.
Applying this method of
internalization to our .ques-
tioning congregant is to have
him see that sinning against
God is sinning against one's
self. lb confess to God is to
confess to yourself. To offend
God is to injure oneself and
that self-damage too must be
repaired by yourself. The al
chet litany is a confession of
self-injury, and teshuvah is
"But who in his right mind

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