The great difference between traditional Jewish prayer and prayer as Christians know it is that Jewish prayer is scripted: Instead of composing prayers for ourselves in our own heads, the emphasis is on reciting words written in a prayerbook that was composed hundreds and thousands of years ago. On weekdays, for example, the tradition demands that we say the exact same 19-blessing prayer three times a day.
The words of this central prayer -- called the Amidah -- are not left to us to change. But there is no limit on what we can think or feel when we recite them. And what I love so much about the familiarity of the Amidah is that each of the 19 blessings can all of a sudden become an unexpected opportunity for a sudden, deep outpouring of a certain kind of emotion. It's as if you drive past a beautiful lake every day. Most days you might notice it and its beauty, but seeing that is really no big deal. But every once in a while, for some reason, it strikes you just how truly incredible is the vista of this blue water with the light playing upon it and something incredible rises up in your heart that would never have happened if you did not drive past this lake every day.
Yesterday afternoon it happened on the blessing that we call על הצדיקים/Al HaTzadikim -- "about the righteous". Many times I just run through this blessing quickly, reciting its words without thinking much about them. But when I came across the words "about the righteous", yesterday, an image of Art Green came into my head. It has been, as I wrote recently, a dream of mine for so long to have the privilege of studying at the feet of this גדול הדור/Gadol HaDor ("great one of the generation"). And this week -- amid five days of learning with other rabbis here in the woods of New Hampshire -- I have had that opportunity.
I especially thought of Green when I came across the words על פליטת סופריהם (about the remnant of their scribes), which my prayerbook explains as meaning "about the wise ones who remain in Israel." This concept of a "remnant" runs strong in Judaism. There is a sense that -- amid our long and tortured, often deeply painful history -- so much has been lost. And, that it is our wise ones -- our Sages -- who remain with us that perform a great Holy task by helping preserve that which makes us "us" despite those loses.
Green is definitely one such great Tzadik of this generation, and it was such a pleasure to finally have a chance to hear some of his wisdom. One piece of that is what was chosen as the topic of this retreat: It's been about miracles, miracles and the wonders of that which God creates.
But this has been anything but an abstract discussion. It's been clear from the beginning that we're talking about miracles and wonder because of their potential to help sustain us through the challenges of our work as rabbis, especially the work of accompanying people amid great grief and loss. In other words, we've been talking about how our faith can be an element of self-care that can sustain us and allow us to keep caring for others.
This emphasis on the importance of self-care -- and the pursuit of ways of doing it from within our holy texts and tradition -- is so important, but so often neglected. It's a sign of Green's wisdom that he is willing to put so much energy into this pursuit. And, so I felt such gratitude yesterday afternoon when the image of Green came into my head. What a gift from God to bring such a Tzadik in the world and then to actually arrange things such that I should have the opportunity to learn with him! I hope it is the will of the Blessed Holy One that Green should have yet many years of teaching before him and that many students can bathe in the light that he brings us.