The Work of Giving Up

Cheryl Goldstein
September 28, 2013
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While I was studying rabbinic literature, I attended daily minyan with the rabbinical students, but I frequently felt frustrated. I realized I have a very ambivalent relationship with prayer. When I described my concerns to a senior rabbi he responded my telling me that there are three paths of devotion: prayer, study, and service in the world. Most people have one path that they prefer, some two, and the exceptional person all three. If study was my path of choice and the way that I felt I would do my best work and provide the greatest contribution, then I should study.

I was grateful and relieved by that conversation. Instead of feeling as though prayer should somehow spontaneously move me, I could come to it prepared to learn and see where it took me . At times this might involve a close reading of a particular passage, appreciating the structure or diction of a prayer, or focusing on the repetition of particular themes within the service. My objective was to maintain an active relationship with the t’fillah, to be aware or “thought-full.”

Yet every year, the Avodah service brings me up short. Every element of the service feels amplified and intense. The piyuttim are structurally intricate and verbally complex, taking me from Creation to Sinai with a swiftness and intensity that sweeps me along, preventing me from getting my bearings. The prostration of the hazan and fellow congregants brings a physical aspect to prayer that concretizes supplication and worship. It is an intimate moment in public view, and I wonder whether I could ever be comfortable enough to touch my head to the floor in prayer. And the aspects of sacrifice described in the service of the Kohen Gadol and in the narratives of the ten martyred rabbis speak to form of service and action in the world for which I have no experiential reference. These are descriptions of a form of offering I don’t really want to imagine.

Where are the familiar components of the Yom Kippur service when I need them? It is early in the afternoon, and my throat is dry. I’m a little hungry and occasionally light headed. Confronted by the Avodah service, I feel inadequate and well outside my comfort zone. The Hebrew is difficult and unfamiliar. The images are disturbing. I don’t fall to my knees in prayer and supplication. In fact, I begin to find the service alienating. I can feel myself intellectualizing, creating rationalizations for sacrificing animals, developing an explanation that reads the martyrology metaphorically….

But maybe it is supposed to be exactly this way. Rather than entitling me to a sense of understanding, my studies — my devotional work, my avodah — has prepared me to remain present with not knowing. And the Avodah service offers us this possibility as well. When the Kohen Gadol pronounced God’s name in the Temple on Yom Kippur, he uttered a sound that no one else could speak or dared to hear. In our modern world we associate knowledge with power and freedom, but the work of devotion, may very well reside in our willingness to submit to what we cannot know.

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Cheryl Goldstein Cheryl Goldstein got her Ph.D. from UCLA in Comparative Literature and works in the areas of literature, psychoanalysis, and Jewish identity. Currently an Assistant Professor of Comparative World Literature at Cal State University, Long Beach she is also a student research clinical psychoanalyst and has a Masters in Rabbinic Literature.

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