Sunday, October 5, 2008

As if prayer itself were not sufficiently demanding, leading the community in prayer, though also a great privilege, is even more of a challenge. For the prayer leader must, in halakhic terms, motzi et harabbim yedei chovatam, a phrase extremely hard to translate, but which may roughly be rendered as ‘enable the many to fulfil their obligations’. This applies not only on the legal, but also at the communal, emotional and spiritual levels.

On the halakhic plane, the matter is relatively straight forward. One has to have in mind that through the recital of the prayers, or indeed the blowing of the shofar, or the saying of a particular berachah, one intends to enable everyone present to fulfil his or her obligation with regard to this particular commandment. The key word here is ‘everybody’. The Shulchan Aruch specifically notes that one may not say to oneself, ‘I like all these people, except Shloimi in the corner, so there’s no way he should imagine I’m getting him off the hook with my davvening. He can jolly well go and do it for himself’.

Absurd as this sounds, it does present us with the real challenge, though again this is a privilege, of trying to fill our hearts with a bond of affection and appreciation towards each person, previous or present differences of opinion notwithstanding! This takes us to the communal and emotional level of ‘enabling people to fulfil their obligations’. It underlines why it is so deeply important that in all our services we embark upon the voyage of prayer in a spirit of tolerance, harmony and inclusion. Some of the issues are practical: I was horrified to learn from one lady in our congregation that she no longer comes to Shul because, afflicted with arthritis, it hurt her hands too much to hold a siddur and not one of our chairs available has a book rest on which she might place it. To my mind, the alienation of one single person for a reason of this kind amounts to the exclusion of the entire community from its own completeness. Then, of course, there is the endeavour to find a gracious mean between the needs of those whose hearing may have become less than perfect and the priority of enabling children to experience shul as happy and welcoming. I stress the word ‘gracious’ because, while we can’t hope to get everything right, we do have to maintain a welcoming heart and a friendly tone. The shammes, the rabbi, the shaliach tzibbur, the leadership sets the tone.

Then there is the question of spiritual inclusion. The shaliach/shlichat tzibbur prays not only from his or her own heart but uses melody and feeling to open the heart and help encourage and release the prayers of the whole congregation. What could be harder! One of the keys here is familiarity. The community often feels liberated by a well known melody, especially at this time of the year, especially if one does not come to shul all that often. Jews measure out their lives not in coffee spoons, but in the music of the great Kaddish before Mussaf and in joining in with the Melech al kol ha’aretz before its fourth berachah. Here leading becomes dialogue; leading is also listening. As a sermon giver, I associate this with my own struggles not simply to say from the pulpit what’s on my own mind, but also to try to listen to and articulate thoughts and feelings which are already there in the hearts of members of the community.

It’s because none of these are simple matters that our endeavours are rightly embraced by the quiet personal petitions, ‘God, open my lips’ and ‘Open my heart through your Torah’. God, please!

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