My experience as a leader of Jewish worship is that prayer is most meaningful—and joyful—when it is connected to people's lives outside of the synagogue. If worship is just a ritual people go through, without any reflection or relevance to their daily lives, then it will wash away from their awareness the moment it is done and it will never really have the power to engage or move them. The challenge for the worship leader always is to connect the worshippers—to each other, to God, and to their own lives.
Here are some specific techniques I've tried that seem to work:
1) Make each aliyah in the Torah service an invitation to self‐reflection. I first saw this technique in the Renewal Movement and it seems to be spreading. Each aliyah is a group aliyah in which the gabbai (the person leading the Torah service) announces a theme connected to the reading. For example, on this coming Shabbat, there will be an aliyah in which we will hear a description of the Urim and Thummim, the ritual objects used by the ancient High Priests to discover the hidden will of God. This aliyah might become an opportunity to invite to the bimah "those who are struggling to find out what God wants from them right now." In this way, the experience of the aliyah becomes more personally meaningful and it becomes an opportunity for the worshipper to connect his or her worship experience to the events happening in his or her life.
2) Use the blessing for the month as an opportunity to reflect on the last month and on the coming month. There is a traditional prayer recited during Shabbat morning service when the new moon will occur during the following week. The words of the blessing wish the community a month of happiness, prosperity, reverence and well‐being. I take a moment before the blessing to ask people to silently reflect on their experiences during the past month before we bless the new month. Those thirty seconds of silence give people the chance to think about what is happening in their lives in the context of holiness. It also makes the blessing that follows more meaningful, because it lifts it out of the realm of abstraction and drives home the idea that the blessing actually refers to the real‐life experiences they anticipate in the coming four weeks.
3) Take a moment after group study to use Kaddish DeRabbanan as a meditation on the coming week. I conduct a text study immediately following services every Shabbat morning. I always end the study with the recitation of Kaddish DeRabbanan—the traditional prayer for the conclusion of study. Before we recite the prayer, however, I ask the congregation to think about our learning together as if it were an offering that we have placed upon the altar to send upwards. In return, I say, we are blessed to receive from above a touch of divine energy (shefa) that will sustain us through the coming week. Our challenge is to take that energy away from the study table and to use it in our daily lives. I ask the members of the congregation, each in his or her own heart, to decide on one thing they will do in the coming week—something that they had not already planned on doing—that will make the meaning of the words we have studied come to life. We stand in silence for a moment before reciting the prayer together.
I should add that, while many Jews are familiar with most of the Aramaic words Kaddish DeRabbanan--its beginning and ending are nearly the same as the Mourner's Kaddish (Kaddish Yatom)—there is one paragraph in the middle of Kaddish DeRabbanan that is unfamiliar to many. For this paragraph of difficult Aramaic, I substitute an English translation that allows people to focus on the prayer's message of sanctifying the act of study. You can download the version of Kaddish DeRabbanan that I use from the "Resources" page. (Props to my teacher, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky for this idea.)
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These are just a few of the things that I've done to keep prayer connected to the realities of people's everyday lives. I am very interested to learn about the experiments in meaningful worship that other people have tried (and, I presume, so are you). Please think about your best worship experiences and the specific techniques or intentions that have helped you connect your prayers with your life. Please, share them in the public comments below. (You can also leave me a private comment on the "Contact Reb Jeff" page, but then I'm the only person who gets to see it!)
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The idea of keeping worship connected to life is reflected in this week's Torah reading. Parashat T'tzaveh begins with a commandment about the ner tamid (eternal light) that was lit in the Mishkan (the portable tabernacle that the Israelites carried through the desert). Moses instructs the priests to keep the light burning continually. To the masters of the hasidic tradition, the eternal light of the Mishkan was connected to the light of our own souls. We are commanded to keep the fire burning within ourselves, not just when we are praying, but throughout all of our busy days.
This is how it is expressed by the earliest hasidic masters (Likutim Yekarim 15b, translation by Rabbi Arthur Green in Your Word is Fire):
A person at prayer is like a bed of coals,
As long as a single spark remains,
a great fire can again be kindled.
But without that spark there can be no fire.
Always remain attached to God,
even in those times
when you feel unable to ascend to God.
You must preserve that single spark--
lest the fire of your soul be extinguished.
As prayer leaders, we have an obligation to tend to the fire of people's souls, just as the priests tended to the ner tamid. Our obligation extends beyond the time that they are sitting in the synagogue, and, to do this, we must make sure that the worship experience is something they will carry into the stretches of time between their visits to the synagogue.