Intown Jewish Preschool: Prayer’s Feminine Touch

Intown Jewish Preschool: Prayer’s Feminine Touch

Guest Column by Dena Schusterman

It has been a politically eventful summer, and just as our Jewish holiday season comes to a close, our country may find itself with a new glass ceiling shattered and a woman in the highest office of the United States of America. The times they are a-changin’.

Dena Shusterman
Dena Shusterman

The United States is a little slow in this area: Most other developed countries had women at the top of government decades ago. Not only do women make incredible political leaders, but they also bring a unique feminine energy to everything they endeavor to do.

Rosh Hashanah is sometimes referred to as “G-d on the campaign trail.” This raises two questions: What is G-d running for? And why are we expected in synagogue for his campaign?

If you ask a person of (any other) faith as he is leaving his house of worship, “Do you believe in G-d?” he is surprised by the question. He responds, “Of course. Why else would I be here?”

If you ask the same question of a Jew leaving the synagogue on the High Holidays, he will look at you quizzically and respond, “Me? I don’t know. That’s a question for the rabbi.”

You might prod on, “Are you religious?” and his response is hearty laughter: “I am the furthest thing from religious.” So you ask him, “Why are you here?” He tells you that belief in G-d doesn’t have anything to do with going to synagogue on the High Holidays. “I’m a Jew, and even if I don’t believe in G-d and am not religious, a Jew belongs in shul on the High Holidays.”

This seeming contradiction is the essence of being Jewish. It is what makes us who we are. It shows how unique we are in our relationship to G-d. We don’t know if we believe in Him, and we don’t want to be religious. But on Rosh Hashanah we show up because that is where He wants us to be.

During the days of the Jewish month of Elul preceding Rosh Hashanah, we are mostly preparing. Maybe we are preparing ourselves spiritually or planning menus, organizing synagogue tickets or making Tashlich plans with friends.

Then when the holiday arrives, we go to shul and do a lot of eating. The ratio of praying to eating should have praying as the higher number, but for many of us, it’s simply not that way.

The prayers are long, and they are tedious, and what are we praying for or about? I showed up; isn’t that enough? And as the previous humorous anecdote tells us, it really is. If you show up and hear the blessings and the sounds of the shofar, your holiday is complete.

But is it enough?

Showing up on Rosh Hashanah is so essential and so basic because it is the foundation of our relationship with G-d. A relationship that supersedes our practice and our commitments, our prayers and our piety. It is establishing the Jews as His people and G-d as our king.

That is what all of Judaism is about. G-d’s raison d’etre.

The relationship between G-d and the Jews is described many ways. Sometimes it is defined as a marriage, teacher-student or parent-child. But on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year, we have new opportunities to grow, prosper and change. This is when our relationship with G-d takes on the imagery of kingship.

We envision a benevolent king under whose protection we find ourselves, a king who will only take the throne at the request of His people. Thus our job on Rosh Hashanah is to crown G-d as king. And that is why we show up. No matter what we did all year, and no matter how much we really believe in it all, we don’t want to miss the coronation: the shofar blast.

But as long as we show up, we may as well pray. And here is where it gets personal. We often do it in a group, but really it is about the individual’s faith vulnerability.

Extending meaning to Rosh Hashanah beyond the shofar and the food to prayer brings us back to women as leaders because everything we know about how a person prays the Jewish way is from a woman, a prophetess, named Chana.

We read about Chana in the haftarah on Rosh Hashanah because her story took place almost 3,000 years ago, on this very day. Her story is fascinating, with many Midrashic details. I encourage you to find it and read it.

Chana was the ultimate feminist, a timeless heroine. There is much from her story that is relevant to us today. Chana was childless, and as was the custom, she traveled with her husband, Elkanah, to the mishkan in Shiloh, the portable temple of the time, to offer a sacrifice to G-d. But instead she approached the sanctuary and poured out her heart to G-d. Her prayers were answered.

Until that point in ancient history, most supplication and connection to G-d happened through animal or flour sacrifices. It took a woman to create the best practices for prayer as we know it. These include the Amidah (standing in prayer) and silent prayer while moving your lips. Before her supplication, the common practice was to pray aloud, announcing the intent. From her we learn that silent prayer alludes to our recognition that G-d knows us from the inside.

She went to Shiloh with an entourage, gathered stragglers on the way north and brought them all to be part of the community. Partly from this merit her prayers were answered. From this we learn how meaningful it is to pray with our community. (This does not preclude solitary prayer.)

She prayed for her own want and desire, not just in praise of G-d, yet she prayed from a place of helplessness and vulnerability, not from depression and anger, and she prayed with tears. An authentic state of being.

She offered praise, her request and then her thanks in advance of her vow to do good. This is how formal prayer is set up to this day.

Furthermore, she created the space to have this type of relationship with G-d. She was the first person to converse with G-d in a way that our sages deemed most appropriate and effective and therefore the norm for what you will recognize as tefillah.

What was so special about her prayer? She called out to G-d with a humility and sincerity that have not been experienced since and thereby opened the supernal gates of faith, from where all of our faith and supplication flow. It is this female faith energy that she brought forth that we can all tap into, especially while we sit in services for hours on the High Holidays.

Try it. On Rosh Hashanah, if you follow the prayer book, you will be busy praising and crowning G-d. But on Yom Kippur, after you have asked forgiveness, you can then ask for all of your personal needs. And who among us cannot muster up the imagery to envision all the goodness we need and want from a higher place?

Our health, our livelihood and world peace!

This year, if you are asked, “Do you believe in G-d? Are you religious? Why did you come?” perhaps you can take your Rosh Hashanah journey a step further and use this uniquely feminine talent of deep faith and prayer and tap into it. It is there for the taking.

Happy crowning and happy praying.

Dena Schusterman is the director of the Intown Jewish Preschool, a service of Chabad Intown.

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