Prayer of the Heart

Avram Mlotek
October 14, 2012
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12am comes and goes.  1am arrives and we’re still outside.

“When do slichot begin?” someone asked.

“Whenever you let them,” another answered.

Slichot are a collection of penitential prayers and poems recited in the period leading up to the Yamim Noraim, the days of Awe: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  Tonight we’ve gathered to hear Reb Yehuda Green lead the Carlebach shul of the Upper West Side in song-full prayer on the first night of Slichot, but the doors are still closed.  We’re waiting for the shul with the larger holding capacity to finish its services before we enter, as the Carlebach community is expecting about 1000 people, too large a crowd for its regular home on 79th Street.  What is it that draws so many people together?
Finally, the doors open and we make our way inside.  The crowd is a conglomeration of Jews: Hassidim, yeshiva students, all different colored kippot and no kippot.  Both the men and women’s sections are overflowing with congregants.

At 1:30pm, Reb Yehuda begins.  Guitarists and a violinist support him, singing, along with a sea of voices.  What are we, each one of us, praying for?

I stand towards the middle, in the thick of the crowd, but am quickly overwhelmed.  It’s not being pushed and carried by the sweaty masses that challenges me.  It’s the spiritual intensity that the moment brings.  I know why I’ve come tonight, or least I think I do, but how do I begin to reflect on the past year?  Where do I even start?

I walk towards the side of the room where I have a panoramic view of the sanctuary.  The ground is shaking from feverish dance.  Suddenly, I’m caught.  “U’le’shavat khinunam, al taalem aznecha…lishmoa el harina - Don’t disappear.  Don’t hide from our cries.  Listen to this song.”  This is our call to God, to each other on this Slichot night.
Slowly, I make my way back to the middle of the room.  I embrace the unknown and uncertainty of the new year and try to let go as I hold on to the strangers and brothers around me.

This month, as the Sh’ma community discusses synagogues and spiritual communities, independent minyanim, and creating sacred spaces, let’s remember Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s and Joel Segel’s words:

“Beliefs are the language of mind.  Prayer, on the other hand, begins in the heart — not the muscle but the metaphor, the realm not of cardiologists but of poets. Real prayer — davening, as we Jews used to say back in the old country — is not a rational matter. It’s a romance. Prayer is the language of the heart.”
For a glimpse into Slichot 2012 with Reb Yehuda Green and the Carlebach Shul:

For R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Joel Segel’s full article on prayer:

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Avram Mlotek is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and performs regularly with the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene Center for Performing Arts. His writings have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Forward and The Jewish Week. Avram was recently named in The Jewish Week's "36 Under 36" as a leading innovator in Jewish life today. He lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and daughter.

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