Sunday, October 17, 2010

Amud Ettiquete Part I

Any davening community needs a plethora of shlichei tzibbur (public emissaries who lead the t'fillot). Assuming the role is not a responsibility that anybody should take lightly, as you are literally representing the congregation before God. Additionally, you are leading the community in prayer, and must be sensitive to their needs if you hope to lay the groundwork for meaningful prayer. I'll just share two recent davening environments that were damaged or enhanced by the shaliach tzibbur.

The first was on Yom Kippur. Last month I wrote plenty about Yom Kippur, and even touched briefly on the musaf service itself. The gentlemen who served as shliach tzibbur on that day had such a command of the t'fillot, and such presence in the room, that it did not matter that his voice was neither cantorial nor particularly melodious. Rather, he knew the nusach, he knew what should be extended in the form of communal song, and what areas of the service are better suited for chanting in the traditional nusach. I left musaf overflowing with the emotions of Yom Kippur as well as with reverence for this congregant who had just stood before God on my behalf.

For the final mincha service of sukkot, I attended davening in the same synagogue as on Yom Kippur. The acoustics were the same, room set-up the same, and my location within the room, more or less identical. The man who ascended to the amud began Ashrei (Psalm 145, plus two additional opening verses)with a booming voice, full of character and emotion. However, it became fairly apparent that he did not know the appropriate nusach for the festival, and was unfamiliar with the arrangement of the festival amidah. And while I certainly do not fault him for trying, I was a bit dismayed at the fact that he had not prepared properly.

I hope that this is just the beginning of the conversation, Part II is coming later this week.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Prayer in Sports

For this post I want to take a bit of a detour into the world of athletics, perhaps in an attempt to meld two areas of interest that are equally important to me.

For me, prayer in sports continues to be somewhat of an enigma, it goes without discussion, as a communal activity it is rarely witnessed, but we are privy to brief peeks at it through the actions of the (usually) men who are competing at the highest level in their respective sports. Common "peeks" include a football player dropping to one knee following a touchdown reception, a baseball player crossing himself before at at-bat, or even during an at-bat, pitchers taking a knee behind the mound before taking to the mound. Players in other sports may point heavenward as an acknowledgment of some higher power, or deceased relative who provided significant inspiration. One comparison which I will allow you to evaluate, is the waving of the lulav on Sukkot as a way of recognizing God's presence and athletes pointing heavenward.

However, group prayer, a common Jewish practice, does appear to have a unique place in sports. For example, when watching films that recap the great seasons of a given team, sometimes footage of the team kneeling in prayer before the ultimate game of a season finds its way to the surface. Similarly, following a football game, a number of players often gather at midfield, while one, presumably more senior player, delivers a benediction. Some teams even employ chaplains who regularly visit with the players.

So what is it about athletics that fosters a sense of God? It could be the "no atheists in foxholes" mentality. In other words, those about embark upon, or those who have concluded a trying experience rely upon God. I don't mean to suggest that we need to hit the court, field, or ice in order to have meaningful prayer.

My whole point of taking you through this journey was to provide an opportunity to think about what it means to approach God in times of trial and tribulation as well as in times of plenty. Perhaps we can learn something from our athletic colleagues while still realizing that God is available to us even when we are most satisfied. The mode in which we approach God may differ depending on the circumstances, but that's for another discussion.