I am spending much of my summer thinking about the purpose of public prayer. What do we hope to accomplish when we come together and engage in worship?
As part of my summer reading, I just finished “The Art of Public Prayer” by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman (which is much more interesting than the dry title would imply). For Hoffman, one of my favorite teachers as a Wexner fellow, public prayer connects us to our past, enriches our present, and directs our future. Communal prayer reminds us that in our past our people were slaves in Egypt and a wandering tribe, and that memory informs our lives today. Our present lives are both enriched by our connection to those with whom we are praying and grounded by our awareness of God/Oneness/Source of Life. And our future, the world that we hope to bring about, is made real through our actions which are shaped by our past and our present.
At the end of June my mother turned 80. Our multiple generations gathered from across the country to celebrate my mother and her vibrant spirit. To paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel, my mother “prays with her feet.” Not much of a shul-goers an adult, she grew up in a synagogue full of form but bereft of spiritual content. She has spent much of her life protesting for change to create a more equitable world. From women’s rights and Vietnam to El Salvador and disability rights, my mom is either marching in the crowd or writing letters to the editor stating her views. I am my mother’s daughter, but in this arena of spiritual practice, she takes the lead.
As our family gathered to enjoy the warmth of each other’s company, to welcome in the sabbath, and to share our lives, we were acutely aware that not far away, protests were occurring against the current administrations’ immigration policy, that other families were torn apart and not together. Sitting on the couch in our vacation home grousing didn’t seem to be enough and so as a family, we chose action. We drove 20 miles and joined the protests in Watsonville, a small farming community nearby. It was a powerful moment for all of us. To know that we were standing up for what we believe, as a family, with our parents and grandparents, our children and grandchildren, our cousins, and our brothers and sisters. It was a moment where you could see that the lessons and values of one generation had been passed to the next, and now the torch was burning to light the way for the youngest in our family. M’dor l’dor – from generation to generation.
If public prayer reminds us our past and where we came from; if it enriches our present as we encounter community and Oneness; and if informs our future as we build a better world; then my family spent that Shabbat morning publicly praying in Watsonville, praying with our feet.
May the memory of our past, and the warmth of our community in the present, help us to build the world of our future, the world to come.