Breaking out of our comfort zones and into prayer

Rabbi Justin Goldstein
September 5, 2013
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A few years ago I heard a story from a rabbinic intern in LA that the not-so-young rabbi went into the full prostration during Aleinu, he paused there for what seemed to many as a long time. Many people present became concerned and someone came and checked on him and by doing so pulled him out of his prayerful moment. Now, I’m not trying to insinuate that being concerned for an older person prolonged in face-to-the-floor prostration is misplaced, but it is interesting to explore what happens in a moment like this – someone (or multiple someones) become uncomfortable and need to bring themselves back to their comfort zone and as a result preventing themselves and another from a meaningful moment.

For me, even in so called “dry” or “boring” Yom Kippur services, the Avodah service can be one of the most visceral experiences in a day full of sitting in a synagogue because it can so easily take me out of my comfort zone. Even with 15 years as a vegetarian, it was never really the animal cruelty component that has made me uncomfortable with sacrificial ritual. It was even still during those 15 years that I became incredibly interested in the Temple services and even, for a time, believed I might not be opposed to the restoration of such services would the opportunity of a new Temple come to pass. For me, it is the foreignness that is so uncomfortable. The not knowing why, the not understanding how. Why do we do it? How does it work? Why would a human being even think of doing something like this? How is it so widespread and prevalent in ancient cultures? Why am I sitting here reading this? How have we just read this for so many generations? Why? How?

Back to the full prostration for a moment, and why and how it makes some people so uncomfortable… Vulnerability is a key component to prayer. Notice the words we pray, an under-riding theme throughout prayer is a recognition of vulnerability and an expression of intention and faith that despite our reality of immediate and severe potential harm, we can feel safe, protected and assured. Life is filled with triggers that have the potential to cause us anxiety and when faced with such experiences we gain the equal potential for incredible transformation. Lying down flat-faced on the ground makes us uncomfortable for so many different reasons: it’s not physically comfortable, it looks silly, it feels dirty, we might rumple our dressed and suits (one great reason to wear a kittle…), it just feels different. Likewise, I believe for me and I presume for many, sitting and reading lines of words which deal with little more than lists of animals to be slaughtered and their blood flicked around in various sequences can be an endeavor that in a certain way feels uncomfortable, silly, even dirty and certainly different. Many people sitting in synagogues opt out of both of these practices, and other rituals that might make us feel uncomfortable in different ways: brit milah (circumcision)/hatafat dam brit (ritual drawing of blood in the event a male was previously circumcised or born without a foreskin), pidyon ha’ben (the giving of symbolic silver to a kohen in the name of redeeming one’s son from the Temple), bat or bar mitzvah, tefillin, shabbat, you name it. These are all things that in a very real way make some of us very uncomfortable, and that can be an avenue to accessing meaning in the act just as acutely as it can be cause to disengage.

The truth is all prayer can make some of us uncomfortable and the truth also is that the act of doing something uncomfortable can lead to very unexpected results (one of my most engaged moments of prayer was at 7am at a rest area on I-80 in the middle of Nebraska) which bring us to a place of awareness of ourselves and our surroundings, and this is one of the most significant purposes of prayer (or any form of meditation) in my opinion.

Yom Kippur is designed like a day out of time. Even for Jews who pray each day, Yom Kippur is a foreign experience. It is supposed to be a foreign experience. All that makes us physically comfortable – water, food, bathing, sex, leather – is taken away for a day. Its prayerfulness can be explored through that discomfort in ways that staying within our physical and emotional comfort zones cannot. The Avodah service, in my experience, provides an opportunity to enter a world not my own. Not unlike a book or a movie, it is a temporary departure from the reality in which I am comfortable. In life it is precisely those moments that so intensely draw us outside of our comfort zones from which we grow the most. Just as we can throw ourselves into a story which simply makes us want to turn away, we can enter the world of the ancient Temple and experience it through a suspension of disbelief no different than a movie or a novel and through that journey we have the opportunity to learn something about ourselves. We learn deep truths about ourselves by experiencing things which, in a certain way, we’d rather not face – even in the safety of a book, even if that book is a prayer book.

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Rabbi Justin Goldstein Ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA, Justin serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, NC. Rabbi Goldstein was selected as a 2012-2013 Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders. His writings can be found in various books, at the Jew and the Carrot - Hazon's blog at the Forward and at On1Foot.com . Find Justin at rabbijustingoldstein.com, on Twitter @RabbiJDG and at facebook.com/rabbiJDG

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