A recent Facebook meme goes, “Religion is a person sitting in a church (substitute “synagogue”) thinking about kayaking; Spirituality is a person sitting in a kayak thinking about God.” During the course of my work as a rabbi starting back in the spring of 1974, I’ve heard so many times, “Rabbi, I just don’t enjoy coming to services! For one, they’re too long; I mean, three hours?!”
And yet, when I reflect on the essence of what makes a synagogue a synagogue, I would have to say, it’s the fact that it’s a place where people can create a community to share common spiritual goals.
Examining the words that inhabit the pages of our Siddur, the Jewish book of prayer, provides a unique opportunity for people:
To gather together to find expression of their deepest spiritual, emotional and intellectual selves and grow through the worship services.
To meditate on the spectrum of existence; examining any element of reality with a sense of wonder and awe at its beauty, complexity or manifestation; from the microcosm eg that a spider is able to perform amazing feats of engineering to the macrocosm: the vastness of our universe.
To discover a sense of perspective. How do I view myself, my life, my successes and failures in the light of infinite time and space?
To develop a sense of duty. How do I account for my presence in this world as I stand before the Force through which I came into existence?
To feel a sense of hope (despite all the challenges to our sense of well-being), that the Universe is in the ultimate control of a Power well beyond our brief sojourn or our ability to comprehend.
It affords the opportunity to shed feelings of loneliness by sharing moments spanning grief through celebration, surrounded by a loving community.
Attending services provides the space and time to give voice to ideas that transcend space and time.
In engaging these ideas and being open to the challenge of combining old and new meanings, the words in our Siddur speak to our own needs.
The ideas above represent one of the approaches we practice here at Beth Ami. It could be termed contemplative or meditative.
There is another approach within the walls of this sanctuary which complements the meditative, we could call it the ecstatic. It involves all kinds of expression. It leans heavily on how the sounds of music speak to our emotions; how it’s capable of lifting our spirits or calming us down.
In this sense, we can observe that even regular spoken language creates a unique set of sounds; over and above the actual denotation of the words. It is another way that people who enjoy our services find great satisfaction in hearing the Hebrew being chanted or sung. They may not understand what the individual words mean, but they are sensitive to the atmosphere; the emotional content of the sounds; the way in which it has been able to survive the millennia; the way it connects us to people recently and long departed. This approach has appeal precisely because of its visceral nature; it speaks in a unique way to our emotional side.
In the ecstatic process, a person tries to lose themselves in the feeling. In the contemplative approach, a person tries to lose themselves in the thought.
Ironically, in losing our ego-selves in these ways, we discover a totally different side to our human personality. In engaging with open hearts in this process, we can approach a profound sense of who we really are—our true inner being. This is where we have the chance of finding purpose and peace.