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Shaarei T’filah – The Gates of Prayer

On Yom Kippur, three Hevreh members shared their perspectives and their stories on the Gates of T’filah (prayer), T’shuvah (Repentance), and Tzedakah (Justice). 

The following is the reflection on the Gates of Prayer, by Jim Shoshana Goldberg.

A few days ago Rabbi Hirsch extended this invitation to participate in the afternoon Avodah Service. He wrote: This year’s theme is on the gates that we walk through in the liturgy of the High Holy Days — the gate of t’filah (prayer), the gate of t’shuva (repentance or renewal), and the gate of tzedek (justice). I would like to invite you to share your reflections on the gate of t’filah.

My honest first thoughts were: why that one. I’m not very good at prayer. Each year I want to send a prayer for the New Year to everyone, I just don’t know what to say. But I let myself sit with this for a moment. For me, I think prayer has been a bit like Jacob’s moment of realizing he was in the presence of the God. Paraphrased “God is in this place and I did not know it” or to paraphrase for my situation “t’filah has been an integral part of my life but I didn’t realize what to call it”. And as I sat quietly, some moments came to mind that I did want to share; a few stories and some thoughts about the gate of t’filah (prayer).

My earliest memory is the time of my great-grandmother’s funeral. I say the “time of” because while I begged to attend, it was decided that I was too young to attend the funeral and the family gathering. I was very close to my great-grandmother, she lived with my grandparents and I spent quite a bit of time with her. She taught me to cross-stitch and embroider and even a little knitting. I would sit by her and watch her gnarled hands weave the most beautiful designs. I wanted to know she was OK and to be sad together with my family. Instead, I had to stay home with my little sister and a babysitter. Even today, in moments of despair I often find myself standing in the door of my bedroom, with my forehead resting on the side of the door frame. That is how I spent much of the time the day of my great-grandmother’s funeral. Standing in a “gate” – that liminal moment between her life and her death; the time between the sense of loss in my love for her and before the comfort of my memory of her. I can still see myself as a small child standing in that doorway, that gate, with a wordless prayer of the heart and soul.

In my early twenties I spent a summer as an English teacher for a summer immersion program for Taiwanese university students in Taiwan. This was the summer of 1976, the Bicentennial Year and my students thought it was really “cute” that a country would celebrate being so young. It was also the year that the US government was considering whether to continue to recognize Taiwan as the true China or to change its recognition to the Peoples’ Republic of China. Politically, it was a bit dicey for us to say the least. We had to be very careful about anything that could be remotely considered political, not just for our own welfare (that is, those of us teaching and running the program) but especially for the welfare of our students. I was with two other US students, we were all in masters programs from different places, they were from the Midwest and also considerably more politically conservative than me. Earlier that year I had been jailed for civil disobedience, and frankly – I was amazed I was able to get a visa to Taiwan. We knew we were bugged and we had at least one spy in our midst, but we were having a wonderful time. Students and their families were incredibly gracious. But at the end of our seventh week, it was an 8 week program; the Secret Police came with the car with the black curtains and announced that they were taking the teachers. To be clear, at that point we were helpless, we didn’t know the language, how to use a phone … nothing. Our students were there and hearing what was happening, two of them took the lead answering any questions and somehow convincing the Secret Police to simply leave. Our supervisor, his family (wife and two young children) showed up a few minutes later and within three hours we had everyone and everything packed up, on bus, and began an impromptu weeklong tour of Taiwan. Just like that! Different students’ families arranged for places for us to stay, they fed us and sheltered us at considerable risk to themselves. Towards the end of the week, we were traveling on very narrow, winding mountain pass and ahead we saw a police checkpoint. After a moment of sheer panic on my part, gentle hands started moving me to a spot under the seats as luggage and jackets surrounded me. The bus was boarded and we passed the checkpoint unscathed.

The bus traveled for a while and when it was deemed safe, stopped so we could get out for a walk and to see some of the beauty that the coast of Taiwan is known for. The view from high up on the coast looking down into the sea can only be described as “majestic”. Maybe it was the adrenaline talking, but after the terror of seeing the checkpoint and fearing the worst, then being hidden by my students, their love and courage – overwhelmed by their care and protection – and then … the over-whelming beauty of creation – my heart expanded beyond the bounds of myself … and I knew that if I died .. at this moment … I would have lived a fulfilled life.

Having just experienced the breath-taking beauty of Creation and the Courage and Absolute Generosity of the Human Spirit shown by my supervisors’ family and my students… I was grateful to have more life to live but also knew that there was – a moment of completion here…in this very moment.  A heart bursting with a prayer of gratitude.

Many years later my Mom (z’l) died in June of 2006. Mom’s death was sudden and the last time I saw her was about six months earlier – she had been living on the West Coast with my sister and her family; Mom was coming back East when she died and I was really excited to see her soon. I really felt lost and a deep emptiness in my life.  My Dad had died many years before when I was in my 20’s and I felt that loss of ancestral home now with both of their passing. And, the community I had been a part of for many years had gone through a tumultuous change and I felt adrift there as well. I felt dry, spiritually bereft and without a home. I loved my husband and enjoyed my work but was missing a huge part of life … community, inspiration, a home for my soul.

Larry Bronstein had invited us to Hevreh a number of times and our friend Nan Futuronsky’s father had just died and she was standing for him at Kaddish; and invited us to join her and her wife that evening. We came that Friday night in the Fall of 2006; the Torah portion was Lech L’acha, I know because the closing song was Lechi Lach and that song was speaking of/to me.

I also remember the time of Silent Prayer at Hevreh; silent prayer … murmurs and sacred space … I felt enveloped by the space and the prayers of others – a place to rest, carrying my sorrow, in the midst of so many others carrying their own sorrows and worries and concerns. Finding the strength to know that I am loved and not alone; I experienced a deep sense of my soul being “home”. I stood and spoke my mom’s name and her relationship to me during Kaddish and felt a deep kindness and comfort.

Ron and I continued to celebrate Friday Night Shabbat at Hevreh from time to time and then we came to services more of the time and then moved to most of time. Eventually joining the community.

While I was receiving so much from the community and felt confidence and purpose when we were together, I felt like I lost a lot over the week and was missing a kind of buoyancy in my life.

Of the many treasures found, you all included, was this prayer, the words of Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, which is found at the beginning of Hevreh’s Friday Night Oneg Shabbat Siddur, speaks of prayer in a way that often expresses my experience:

Alone, I cannot lift my voice in song.

Then you come near and sing with me.

Our prayers fuse, and a new voice soars.

Our bond is beyond voice and voice.

Our bond is one of spirit and spirit.

Over time, getting to know some of the people, learning some of the prayers and songs and taking time to enter into Hevreh’s sanctuary of community and sacred space… Life began to take on a different rhythm … with time to reflect, shift/change and be renewed; to be inspired to be my best self and to do my best throughout the week. To open my eyes and ears and respond to those messages. Some weeks were more successful than others. I found myself a better person for having been immersed in the experience of Shabbat than I was/am on my own.

And then, discovering Saturday morning services was like discovering a dessert buffet table for the longings of my soul. Friends, Community, song, inspired readings and prayers…and Torah – participating in and continuing a legacy that began before history as we know it. With this, the texture of the week became more intricate and varied. I found myself more able to be strong in my vulnerability and less fearful in my day-to-day.

The “less fearful in my day-to-day” was life changing for me. Through a previous series of difficult situations, emotionally and physically, I had become somewhat agoraphobic and it was difficult for me to leave the house by myself, I was fine if I was with someone. Luckily, Ron and I worked at the same place and he was also very much a part of Hevreh, so I was able to get by pretty well. But Saturday mornings didn’t always work out for Ron; so I gathered up more courage than I knew I had – and started coming to Saturday services by myself when he wasn’t able to attend.

That Shabbat opening prayer gave me hope and courage. This prayer – and the way in which it is embodied at Hevreh – guided me through layers of grief and shame and fear… having lost my voice for years, finding it again. Having lost my ability to be independent, then moving back into community from a place of joy and gratitude.

Alone, I cannot lift my voice in song.

Then you come near and sing with me.

Our prayers fuse, and a new voice soars.

Our bond is beyond voice and voice.

Our bond is one of spirit and spirit.

Finding my voice, so many of the prayers were my prayers – I just didn’t know the words to pray … at least at first, but as we read them aloud and sang them week after week, they took on a depth and variations and a life of their own. An invocation, of sorts. It is as if through prayer, I become semi-permeable to an experience that is past/present/future time. Semi-permeable to the people and events around me. Semi-permeable to allow a sukkot shalom, a canopy of peace, to protect and shelter me; to protect and shelter us … and a prayer that our canopy of peace will extend from our hearts/our community out to all people in all lands.

Our bond is beyond voice and voice.

Our bond is one of spirit and spirit.

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