Handwritten inscription to an English copy of the Holy Bible published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1939, given as a gift to the author of this poem by his friend in 1944:
The Old Prayer Book by Jacob Cahan
This book of prayers, old and stained with tears, I take into my hand And to the God of my fathers, Who from ages past has been their Rock and Refuge, I call in my distress In ancient words, peace, With the pain of generations, I pour out my woe May these words that know the heavenly path, ascend aloft unto God on high To covey to Him that which my tongue cannot express. All that lies deep hidden within my heart, may these words, simple and true, speak for me before God Entreating His mercy Perchance the Heavenly God who hearkened to my fathers prayers, Who gave them courage and strength To bear all of their sorrow and degradation Yet ever to hope for redemption — Perchance He will also hear my prayer and hearken to my cry, and be to me a protecting shield, For there is none to help or sustain me, But God in Heaven.
I have no words to supplement Cahan’s beautiful, heartfelt, incredibly personal prayer. This text, in the author’s own handwriting, was found inscribed in the front pages of a copy of an English Bible just saved from the geniza. I wonder – what other prayers, written and dreamed, have been buried among our sacred trash?
This morning, I jogged/walked the just-under-two miles to the Keyes Memorial Beach in Hyannis, MA. I hadn’t set out for it when I left the house, but when I ran into a road called “Sea Street,” knowing that I was close to the ocean, I figured there must be water at the end – so I decided to take an adventure. I’ll admit that I’ve never really been a beach person, and I wasn’t expecting to spend much time there – I expected to see the ocean, take a moment to admire it, and continue on my route back to the house. I miscalculated. Like the strong pull of an inward tide, I felt magnetically pulled down to where the soft waves were hitting the sand. Perhaps because it was a work day, or perhaps because the summer season hasn’t yet officially begun, or perhaps because it was 52 degrees Fahrenheit, I found myself alone on the sand. For a while, I walked just along the line where the wet sand turned dry. As I stared down, I saw some of the most beautiful, untrampled seashells.
After skipping over a number of large rocks in what appeared to be some kind of barrier for the creek leading under the road (shown above), I found one that was relatively dry and flat, and sat for a while. Staring out onto the horizon, I was confounded by the fact that I probably hadn’t seen the horizon in its unobstructed form, as is on the ocean, for quite some time. On land, we don’t see the true horizon much – trees, great buildings, roads, mountains, and other things all obscure our view.
At that moment, I was inspired to shevach – to praise God for His wonders. As I’m not generally the type of Jew who is inspired to Buddhist- or Hindu-style worship when I encounter nature, I turned to the b’rachot proscribed in the Mishnah.
ברוך אתה ה’, א-להנו מלך העולם, עושה מעשה בראשית. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who made the works of Creation.
And as I stared out onto the water, for the first time in a very long time, my mind went completely, blissfully, blank.
What is it about nature that so inspires us just to breathe? What is it about the simplicity and vastness of an ocean vista that inspires us to praise of Divine Creation? In this world where we are so attached to our “glowing rectangles” all the time, where we sit all day plugged into computers, telephones, mp3 players and other devices, an opportunity to just sit and feel a breeze blowing across our cheek is so rare that the experience becomes that much holier.
There has been a great effort recently to encourage young Jews to unplug, with a very American Jewish bent – not because “God or Religion Says So” but because it facilitates “the value of creating sacred ‘no connection’ time regularly” (SabbathManifesto.org). Current kudos go to Rabbi Danny Nevins, who published “The Use of Electrical and Electronic Devices on Shabbat” for Conservative Judaism’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, officially approved by the committee May 31, 2012 (the entire text is available by clicking on the title above). His teshuvah (responsum) expresses not only reasons not to use electricity on Shabbat, but also deals with specific issues relating to modern technology and modern uses of technology. Rabbi Nevins indicates that there are two separate issues at play: Melakhah, which he defines as “actions which result in a durable physical change,” and Shvut, defined as “actions and even thoughts which compromise the tranquility of Shabbat and erode the distinctiveness of the seventh day.” He beautifully concludes that “By desisting from melakhah, we begin to appreciate the natural resources of our remarkable world and become able to resist the temptation to define life’s value primarily in terms of our our own actions. By dedicating the day to tranquility, we dignify our lives and are refreshed for the tasks awaiting us on the six days of labor” (p. 58).
You might know that there are two versions of the Ten Commandments that appear in the Torah: one which appears in Exodus 20 (we read this on the first day of Shavuot and in Parashat Yitro in January), and the other which appears in Deuteronomy 5 (Parashat Va’etchanan). In each set, the commandment for Shabbat is the fourth. Interestingly, in the Exodus account, Israel is commanded to remember Shabbat because “in six days did the Lord create the Heaven and Earth, and on the seventh day He rested” (Exodus 20: 8-11). However, in the Deuteronomy account, the Israelites are instructed to keep Shabbat because “You shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The Kiddush for Friday night uses both of these motifs (Creation and Exodus) in its sanctification of the day.
I have always felt that the difference between the rationale for Shabbat in these two accounts indicated a flexibility of purpose: Shabbat will always be there, but in each generation it may serve a different function for its observers. In the immediately post-Exodus generation, Shabbat perhaps served as a reminder of the One God, that God was the god of their ancestors. They had not been allowed to take a break from slavery on Shabbat; but God, more merciful than their Egyptian masters, not only allowed rest but required it. These folks did not need a reminder of the Exodus; they had just experienced it. In the next generation, the generation who would be fighting for their land and their lives in what would become the Kingdom of Israel, was charged with using Shabbat to remember that they were once enslaved, and that God delivered them – as he would deliver them now.
Perhaps in our generation, we need Shabbat to serve its purpose for us as set out in Exodus (and as indicated in Rabbi Nevins’ teshuvah) – we need Shabbat in order to remind us that God created the Heavens and the Earth. We need a day to leave our harried lives controlled by computers and cell phones and create a space in time for ourselves to recognize the godliness in the natural world.
May we all have a restful, peaceful Shabbat. May we all find time, whether on Shabbat or during the week, to appreciate the world around us, to notice something that perhaps has always been there but we haven’t seen before. And may we carry this peace with us throughout the rest of our days.