Penpals and A New Look at an Old Prayer by Rabbi Jack Riemer
One never knows how connections between people begin. A few months ago Rabbi Jack Riemer was on the Kehillath Israel website and came upon one of my poems. He got in touch with me and asked if he might use one of my poems as the basis for a Shabbat Shuvah Drash. It came as a surprise to me that Rabbi Riemer, who along with Rabbi Sylvan Kamens , authored the well known poem "We Remember Them" (see link below) as well Finding God in Unexpected Places: Wisdom for Everyone from the Jewish Tradition (see link below), would be reading my poetry, but indeed he was.
Rabbi Riemer had one poem in particular in mind and I happily agreed to allow him to use it for his Devar Torah. I was intrigued by what Rabbi Riemer would do with this humble poem. I was so excited to read what he had written. When he sent it to me it was humbling to see how he had and see how he used my poem as a base and elevated the words and ideas to a new level. My poem now held new meaning.
For the past few months Rabbi Riemer and I have been in regular communication via email and I like to consider him an email penpal, but more than that, he is a mentor to me and I am grateful for this new relationship with someone so wise.
With Rabbi Riemer's permission, I am copying his Shabbat Shuvah Drash here. It is a long piece; much longer than most of the pieces that appear on this blog, but it is written in a way that makes it an easy and meaningful read. I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did.
Wishing all of you a sweet year, a healthy year and a year where words and actions will indeed have wings.
A NEW LOOK AT AN OLD PRAYER
Temple Adat Shalom Parshat Parah Rabbi Jack Riemer
Thank you Rabbi Adler for your gracious hospitality and for your kind words.
My sermon today is going to be a little bit different from the sermons that I usually give on this day. It is going to be different in that I am going to take my text today not from the sedra as I usually do but from the siddur instead. The reason I am going to do this is because we say the words in the siddur so often and yet we seldom pause to think about the meaning of the words that we say. And therefore I believe that it is only right that at least once a year if not more often we ought to study a page of the siddur.
The page that I want to study with you is the prayer on behalf of those who work for the synagogue that is found in our siddurim on page l48,
Will you please open your books and read this prayer to yourself.
And as you do, ask yourselves these two questions.
The first one is: this prayer is at least a couple of hundred years old. Is there any line in it that you feel is outdated???
And the second question is: if you think that there is any line in this prayer that is outdated, what would you put in its place.
Did any of you find any passages in this prayer that you feel is outdated?
If so will you tell me what they were.
Please understand that I mean no disrespect when I ask this question any prayer that is more than a few hundred years old is bound to have some words or some ideas in it or to refer to some customs that we no longer observe.
And so feel free to tell me if you find any customs in this siddur that we no longer observe.
I only found two.
The first one is: may God bless all the people in this congregation who donate ner la moar. Which means May God bless all those who people in this congregation who donate candles to this synagogue so that we can have light by which to read the service and by which to see each other.
Do you know anyone who has ever donated candles to a synagogue so that we will be able to see each other? or so that we can read the words in the siddur. I am not talking about Chanukah or about Tisha b’av we light candles on those nights for a different reason, what I am asking you now is do you know anyone who has ever donated candles to a synagogue to be used on a regular shabbas?
Why do we no longer donate candles to the synagogue like they used to do a couple of hundred years ago when this prayer was written?
The answer is because now we have electricity.
Every synagogue that I have ever been in has electricity.
And so this line that asks God’s blessing on those who donate candles so that we can see during the service is clearly outdated.
Now let me show you one more line in this prayer that I believe is even more outdated than this one is.
Do you see the prayer that asks God’s blessings on those that provide pat li orchim utsedaka la aniyim
May God bless those people who provide a loaf of bread to the wayfarer and who give tsedaka to the poor.
What does pat l orchim mean?
Literally the word Pat means a loaf of bread
But what it really means is a meal.
In Hebrew as in English bread is a symbol of the whole meal. And so if you say to somebody come let us break bread together you don’t mean that you want to just eat bread with him. It means that you want to have a meal with him.
And so this phrase pat l orchim means the same thing. It asks God to bless those who donate food to the synagogue, That phrase is not out of date we still do not. many of us have donated a kiddush to the synagogue or even a whole meal.
It is the second word in this phrase that is out of date.
Who are the orchim for whom we donate food?
Does anyone know who the orchim were?
There was a time back when this prayer was first written several hundred years ago when people would travel from city to city whether because they were on business or because they were raising money for tsedaka or for whatever reason
And when they arrived in your town you would put them up in the synagogue. Every synagogue in those days probably had cots or beds in the storeroom which they would take out when a traveler came to town and they would invite this traveler to stay overnight in the synagogue.
Let me ask you do you know any synagogue in our time that would do that?
If a stranger were to come to town today and if he walked into this synagogue and asked for housing we would either give him a few dollars and house him at a nearby hotel
Or else we would take him home and give him a meal and a room to sleep in for the night in one of our houses.
But to the best of my knowledge there is no synagogue in this country that would house a traveler overnight in the synagogue itself?
Have you ever seen a synagogue that does that today?
I guess that It is a good thing that we don’t do that anymore. Can you imagine how uncomfortable it would be to sleep in this sanctuary?
Would you like to sleep overnight in our sanctuary where there are only seats and no benches?
Would you like to sleep all night in one of our seats?
I don’t think so.
And so if there is any line in this prayer that is outdated it is this one.
And now let me ask you one more question.
We have all agreed on the two lines that should be taken out because they no longer apply but if you were on the committee to write a new version of this prayer for our time what words would you put in their place???
Who are the people whom we should ask God to bless for all that they do for us today?
Does anyone here have any suggestions?
I have a friend in Boston who raised this same question. Her name is Leann Shamash and she is a very talented poet. Every week on Wednesdays at the end of the morning minyan at her synagogue she reads a poem that she has written that week.
And this poem usually deals with the sedra of the week. But a few weeks ago she wrote a poem about this prayer.
And in this poem she listed all the people who do good deeds for the synagogue today and she asks God to bless these people for what they do.
Listen to her list;
May He who blessed our ancestors
Abraham Isaac and Jacob
Bless those who come to the morning service first
And who put on the lights
And turn up the thermostat
And brush away the snow
So that those who come in after them
Will find a warm and bright place
Waiting for them..
And then she goes on to list some more people
Who do good deeds for the synagogue in our time
And who do these good deeds not for pay and not for publicity
But just because somebody has to do them.
May God’s blessings be given
To those who make sure that the Torah is rolled to the right place before we get to the point in the service when we read it.
And to those who change the lightbulbs when they burn out
And for those who come to shule with a screwdriver in their pockets
And fix the things that are broken
That the rest of us never notice need fixing.
And then she mentions my favorite volunteer of all.
For those who give out candy to the children.
Was there somebody in your shule who gave out candy to the children when you were young?
There was such a person in my shule when I was a kid
And to tell you the truth
When I was five or six years old I didn’t come to shule in order to hear the rabbi’s sermon and I did not come to shule in order to hear the chazen sing. I came to shule because of the man who gave out candy to the kids.
And I confess that when I was a child I never stopped to ask
How did this man get this job??
Was he elected????
And if so did he campaign against somebody else in order to get this job?
And who paid for the candy that he gave out on Shabbas???
Was it the dentists who paid him because giving kids candy was good for their business?
Or was there a line item in the synagogue budget marked: Children’s Candy Fund????
Or did he pay for the candy himself?
I have no idea where the candy that he gave out came from.
But this I know. But this I know. If you want to know who deserved the credit for bringing in the children the candy man surely belongs on the list of those who did their share to accomplish this goal. And we should thank him and ask God to bless him for what he did.
And then her list goes on
And she asks God’s blessings
On those who innovate
And those who dedicate
And those who sponsor
And on those who say to the ones who want to innovate:
Wait a minute! How do you know that we can afford this innovation?
For both of these groups are needed.
For if we did not have the people who want to innovate we would become a museum and not a living synagogue.
And if we did not have the people who say: wait…how do you know that we can afford this innovation?
We would soon be bankrupt
And then she writes:
May God’s blessing be given
To those who teach
And to those who learn.
And when I read that line, I sat up and realized a truth that I had never thought about before
Which is that I teach in my synagogue---
But where would I be
If there were no one in the synagogue who wanted to learn?
People thank me for teaching
But nobody thanks the people who come to study
And yet without them there would be no classes.
And so Leann Shamash is right in asking God’s blessing on both those who teach and those who study.
And then she goes on and asks God’s blessing:
For those who scrub and clean
And for those who cook and bake
And for those who serve the food that others bake.
And for those who serve in so many other ways as well.
for those who give their money
And for those who give their time,
For those who lead
And for those who follow
For those who stand guard
And for those who greet people at the door.
Think about that last line with me for a moment,
There are some people who come to the door of the synagogue who have never been here before
And some of them are not really sure why they have come
And some of them are not sure whether they will be welcomed here or not
And when they come in someone meets at the door
And takes them to an empty seat
And shows them which is the blue book and which is the red book
Have you ever stopped to think what a great good deed the person who meets people at the door every week does?
And have you ever stopped to think about the person who says to the stranger at the kiddush: won’t you come and sit at our table?
These are the people who make the synagogue a warm and a welcoming place?
And then Leann Shamash finishes up her list with these:
May God’s blessing be granted
To those who read the Torah when the Torah Reader is away
And for those who blow the shofar,
And for those who teach the kids how to blow the shofar
So that the art of shofar blowing will continue into the next generation.
And for those who put up the Sukkah
Which lots of people volunteer to do
And for those who take down the sukkah
Which not so many people volunteer to do.
For the one whom you can always call on
If you need someone to be the tenth so that we can have a minyan.
And for the other nine without whom there would be no minyan.
And for those who stand up and lead the service
And for those who answer amen
For those whose voices raise us up
And for those who just show up
And for those who would stand up
If only they could.
For those who have to daven sitting down
And yet come faithfully and do their best.
And she ends her poem with the same words with which the traditional prayer ends:
Hakadosh Baruch hu
Yishalem et sicharam
Vayasir mayhem kol machalah
Viyirpeh lichol goofam
V’yislach lichol avonam.
May the Holy One who is blessed
Reward all of these people
And remove from them all illness
And heal them from all of their injuries,
And forgive all of their sins.
And to this, let us all say amen.
Do you like this poem as much as I do? I hope you do.
I like this poem because it takes the old words of the traditional prayer
And applies them to the people who work for the synagogue today.
And I like this poem because it reminds us to be thankful to these people too
And it reminds us that without these people the synagogue simply would not be.
I share this poem today as a way of saying thank you to all those people in this congregation who do the sacred work of polishing the silverware and cooking and baking and fixing the things that get broken and changing the light bulbs that wear out and welcoming the stranger and all the other tasks that you do without pay and without praise but on which the welfare of this synagogue depends.
May God bless each of you for the work that you do.
And let me close with one more thought:
Which is if there is anyone here
Who does not do any of the things on this list….
May I suggest that you give some thought to choosing and doing one of them
For if you do the synagogue will be strengthened
And you will be too.
And to this let us all say Amen.
Rabbi Jack Riemer has taught rabbis at sermon seminars throughout North America. His prayers appear in the High Holy Day prayer books of the Conservative and Reform movements. He has published two collections of his favorite sermons: Finding God in Unexpected Places: Wisdom for Everyone from the Jewish Tradition and The Day I Met My Father Isaac at the Supermarket: And Other Encounters with Biblical Tales. (taken from the Reform Judaism website)
Link to We Remember Them
Link to Finding God in Unexpected Places: Wisdom for Everyone from the Jewish Tradition
For a link to the original poem, please see: https://www.wordshavewings.net/post/for-those