Delivered on Kol Nidrei 5783, October 4, 2022.
Maybe you know this experience: You walk into a toy store with a child, or you turn onto the cereal aisle in the grocery store pushing a kid in the cart. The child begins to reach for all the various boxes at eye level saying, “I want that! Oh! I need that!” Somehow when you get to the check-out line, you have four boxes of Pop Tarts, a box of Fruit Loops, and a bag of Twizzlers that you swear you never put into the basket.
When the child has earned a prize, or has an allowance to spend, it can be exciting to take them to a toy store to pick something out special. Although try walking into a store to pick out a gift for another child, or try to get through your weekly shopping trip with a kid in tow, it can be frustrating. When I take my kids on a Target run, I am always amazed at the surgical precision with which toy companies have the biggest boxes put at the children’s eye level. It is like they know what they’re doing.
For our kids and for us, it can be hard to distinguish needs from wants, and wants from needs. When catalogs come to the house I dog-ear pages. The L.L. Bean sweater for next season, new bedroom linens, or some other unnecessary tchotchkes: it is all so enticing. In every marriage, one partner is the natural spender and the other, a natural saver. In my marriage, I am the spender. I love to shop, especially online.
Much of what shows up on my front step daily from Amazon or Target are everyday items: Tide pods, paper towels, and the like. Yet, there are things that can now come by mail or that we can seek out that fall into the camp of wants, not needs. It is easy to convince ourselves that our wants are our needs. The new iPhone looks so shiny, but the battery on the old one works just fine; that shirt fits so well, but you have another just like it.
Still, we have real needs. The house needs a new roof, the car needs gas, we need access to health care, and food to put on the table. Needs are needs. Wants are wants. And when we spend our money, we are saying what matters to each of us, individually and as households. How we use our money speaks to what we value.
Recently, I was talking with a rabbi friend of mine. She and I hop on Zoom every once in a while to catch up, and to support one another, talking through what’s going on in our rabbinates. Despite what you might think, rabbis don’t constantly talk theology and prayer, but in this instance we did. Just as a therapist needs a therapist, rabbis need their rabbis.
The last time I spoke with this colleague, she jumped right in: “So, how’s your spiritual life?”
“What spiritual life?” I replied.
You see, as of late, who among us has been at our best? The regular work-a-day responsibilities have gotten the better of many of us, the ongoing stresses associated with COVID, the pressures of young children and the obligations of parenting, making it all work, have taken their toll. Who has time for spiritual practices? Blame the pandemic, blame the kids who don’t sleep through the night, blame middle age and not being able to sleep through the night anymore, blame work stress, blame anyone else except ourselves. Still, tonight is about fessing up and owning it.
My friend asked another question: “So what do you need, spiritually?”
We are entitled to having spiritual needs. We have spiritual needs. When we slow down, take away all the other mundane things that eclipse our attention from the sacred, I wonder: what spiritual needs remain?
If you were to take a moment and consider your spiritual needs, what words come to mind? I asked this question online yesterday, and the responses were both predictable and profound:
I need the carousel to slow down, one friend wrote. I need community, said many. I need time, rest, quiet time without my phone attached to my hand, I need reassurance that given all that is going on that things will be okay, I need permission to put my needs first, I need discipline and commitment, I need to finish my kid’s science fair project before midnight tonight….
In other words, we want to know that our kids will be okay, that our families will stay healthy. We need more ease in our lives. We are in need of forgiveness, strength, kindness: each of these are spiritual modes that are so dramatically needed.
It can be hard to ask for those things, hard to slow down the carousel ourselves, hard to stop and notice what we lack, and then hard to choose do something about it. I read a book recently called Stollen Focus. The author, Johann Hari, writes that we are living in a society that is designed to steal away our focus. Perhaps you’ve heard of the attention economy, that the devices in our pockets and the apps that live on them are engineered to keep our attention glued to them, rather than on our surroundings. It’s why Candy Crush and Instagram are both so addicting. Rather than describing this situation in terms of the marketplace, Hari puts it differently, saying that our lack of attention is a public health crisis, that we are living in the midst of a distraction endemic.
And the crisis isn’t just a matter of physical or mental health, it impacts our spiritual lives too. We have filled our hours with things that distract us from what really matters. When you sit down at a table to a meal with a friend, what do you do with your phone: leave it face up on the table? Flip it over to show that you’re paying attention? Leave it in your bag or your pocket? We live in a distracted world, which continues to beg the question: What do we need, spiritually?
One answer is to experience some freedom from the distractions that otherwise eclipse us from what’s most important. What is most essential, what we need spiritually, are the people who fill our lives with worth. To quote Martin Buber, “All life is relating.”1 So in this crazy world in which we are living, we have to find ways to regain and narrow that focus to the spiritual needs that draw out worth, meaning, and holiness.
One of the best ways we can do that is through prayer, especially tonight and tomorrow. We need to pray, we need to hear one another pray, and we need to pray hard. But, as I said to my friend on that Zoom call, this rabbi has a hard time with prayer.
Here enters one of Hevreh’s newest additions, Peri Smilow, our artist-in-residence. If you haven’t met Peri yet, Peri is a Jewish musician and songwriter with four albums to her name. She has been leading prayer and Jewish music around North America for the last several decades, and has done much for the Jewish community to re-invigorate Jewish spiritual life. Before Peri came on board, we were singing many tunes that she, herself, wrote. Peri has a long history with the Berkshires, especially with her family; her parents have a house in Lee and are members here at Hevreh.
In late April, shortly after Rabbi Everett Gendler’s funeral service, Peri emailed me. The subject read, “Can we talk?”
We set up a Zoom call, and Peri shared with me the experience she had attending Rabbi Gendler’s funeral remotely. Tuning into the service that took place in this sanctuary, Peri felt something move within her. She realized she needed something, spiritually, to be in a community where she had the space to be herself, where she could explore her relationship with God, and share her talents and perspectives with others. “I have a crazy question,” she said, “Is there a place for me at Hevreh?”
Peri was voicing a spiritual need, which resonated. Just as Peri described her needs and the way she felt moved, I feel something shift within me. For a good long while, with Zoom services and then even back in the sanctuary, when it comes to pray-ing, I have been distracted, only occasionally have I felt God’s presence here. Because the distractions were getting the better of me.
So, Peri and I, along with Rabbi Gordon once she was back from Sabbatical, asked one another what we spiritually needed and what this community needs. We decided to give it a go, to create an artist-in-residence program, where Peri would join us for half of the Shabbat services over the course of the year. Larry Frankel and our Board of Trustees also agreed to this vision of prayer at Hevreh. And I am grateful to those who underwrote the program, enabling us to engage Peri this year.
At Peri’s first Shabbat service, I felt that shift again. I needed to pray, and the space around me that allows for prayer to flow began to loosen up. It was like a brick had fallen out of a wall. Peri has been helping me start to pray again, and I hope over the course of this year we will be able to continue down this path together. Come to services this next Friday night and let us see if we can meet your spiritual needs.
It feels good when we are able to turn over the prayer-engine. It’s like the first couple of days when a new, healthier pattern of eating starts to work, or when an exercise routine becomes just that, a routine.
So, let me ask you again. What do you need, spiritually? Care and comfort, courage and support, kindness and forgiveness. Whatever is on the list, it is welcome here. You are where you need to be on this Kol Nidrei night. Because if you cannot say what you long for here on this night of all nights, then I don’t know what we’re doing.
Yom Kippur is a sanctuary in time built to hold sacred desire. We clear away all the distractions, even deprive ourselves of food and other necessities for just one day, and make our hearts the focus of our attention. We started tonight with Kol Nidrei on cello, a musical setting that has nothing to do with the liturgy itself, but whose wordless tune prompts reflection. We make our way through a litany of prayers and meditations that turn our hearts toward penitence. Are you there yet? Are you focusing on what you need, spiritually, out of this day? Perhaps you’ve already been thinking tonight of what you need, maybe we’re just now getting around to it. That’s fine, because there’s time. The gates have only just now opened.
Speaking of opening things up, let me invite us to turn to page 98 in your machzor. There is the prayer, Sh’ma Koleinu: Hear our call, Adonai our God. Show us compassion. Accept our prayer with love and goodwill…
Of all the prayers we recite over Yom Kippur, Sh’ma Koleinu is an invitation to say what we need. As the commentary on Page 99 reads, “In Sh’ma Koleinu we hear a voice—perhaps our own—calling out from the winter of the heart, an inner landscape of loss and uncertainty about the future.” We plead that God will hear us out, to pay attention to our needs, and to respond to them. The spirit of this prayer, and the force of the music as we’ll hear in a bit, is determined: We need to be heard.
In hearing us out, we pray God will be compassionate. We need a God who listens with both ears, like a teacher who does not solve the problem for the student, but guides him through it. We need our loving Eternal Parent to show us some goodwill. We need to say Sh’ma Koleinu, so we can say, Please God, hear us out. Hear me out. Another way to think about praying on Yom Kippur is that God has your back. God wants us to transform.
Giving voice to our needs has long been one of the main functions of prayer. Asking for help is nothing new. Moses needed help when his sister, Miriam, was struck with leprocy. He cried out to God saying, El na r’fah na lah, “Please God, heal her!”2 As we read on Rosh Hashanah Morning, Hannah went to the Temple and prayed for a child. Tomorrow, we read Jonah, who when swallowed up by a whale begged for release:
I call out from my troubled narrow place to the Eternal, and God answered me.
From the depths of the belly, I pleaded,
And you heard my voice.3
If praying to be freed from the belly of a whale isn’t praying for what you need, I don’t know what is.
When you pray for help, what are you asking for? Again, the prayer Sh’ma Koleinu gives one answer: “Receive our prayers willingly with compassion.” We just want God to hear our deepest yearnings. God, I have needs, and I need you to hear that I have needs.
We are no different from our forebears. And we have permission to pray like them, to ask for things from God, to say what we need. These last years have been rough, if not downright brutal. And so, to say we need grace and kindness, for compassion and forgiveness, seems reasonable and fair.
Each of us has spiritual needs and spiritual wants, yearnings long to be shared, desires for a world more whole and at peace, comfort for family members who struggle, more ease at home, relationships to be healed, more predictability and reliability to our days. I don’t know if we will really obtain those things, we have to mind the gap between physical and spiritual needs. But in prayer and in spiritual exploration we give all of our needs voice, gifting us perspective.
Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that prayer may not work in the expected ways, but prayer works. Praying for an A on an exam won’t make it happen. “But prayer can water an arid soul and mend a broken will.” God responds with Presence, with strength and resolve, courage and love, creating the spiritual space for each of us individually to move forward to meet our needs.
On this Kol Nidrei night, What do you need?
1 I and Thou.
2 Numbers 12:13.
3 Jonah 2:3.