Rav Bar Oz* (From Strength to Strength)
Becoming a Soulful Congregation
by Rabbi Jeremy Barras
Before I was ordained, one of my professors warned our class that we needed to keep studying, that our education didn’t end with ordination and that in many ways it was just beginning. He added that there are only so many times “you can teach your thesis” before you need to learn some new material to teach. I have made learning the backbone of my rabbinate, but permit me now to tell you a little about my rabbinic thesis.
I wrote about the Transition from Temple and Sacrifice to Synagogue and Prayer as reflected in rabbinic literature. The goal was to describe the innovations the rabbis created to maintain Judaism in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple. Once sacrifices were no longer permissible after the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis decided that communal worship would replace sacrifice as a method of communication with the Divine. The principle of sacrifice was to actually make a sacrifice — to give of oneself, to seek blessing in the hopes that G-d would allow the goodness that one experienced in life to persist. Each day, three times a day, sacrifices were offered on behalf of the Jewish people for precisely this purpose.
In a post-Second Temple world, the rabbis felt that prayer was the most efficacious form of worship because the community could perform it together, at the same time, and in the same place. Their goal was for the Jewish community to unite three times a day with a specific purpose. The goal was that in the morning (shacharit) Jews would mentally set out their goals for the day through worship. In the afternoon (minchah) they would begin to reflect on their performance thus far, and then in the evening (maariv) they would sum up their daily accomplishments and give thought to how they would make the next day meaningful as well.
I believe that the message of the ancient Rabbis has been lost over time. Today, many Jews do not seek to pray regularly, if at all, and are missing out on a couple of key components of Jewish living. The first is that they are not utilizing the biblically inspired liturgy at our disposal to guide our days toward real meaning. The second is we are not using this sacred time to be together. Our services are beautiful and we will continue to work hard to inspire and elevate. But the beauty is not necessarily the point. The point is the camaraderie of the community and the uplifting spirit that pervades when we come together to offer sacred prayer in our holy space; as we sing so often, hinei mah tov umahnaim shevet achim gam yachad — "how wonderful it is when we sit together as brothers and sisters.”
I have witnessed in many ways how our community is warm and embracing, how it is generous and kind, how it thirsts for knowledge and takes seriously the dictums and instruction of the Torah. Now I am looking for an elevation of our soulfulness, of a commitment to prayer and Shabbat, and to being together at sacred times and offering prayer for the right reasons. I yearn for the day when we are not distressed by one tune or another, where we fret about what we could be missing if we attend Shabbat services, where we plan our schedules around prayer, and not plan prayer around our schedules. I pray for the day when we ask each other, not what are you doing this weekend, not even if you are going to Shabbat services, but rather which service are you attending? This will be the day in our future when we will have rediscovered what the word “sacrifice” really means, and we will begin giving of our hearts and souls in the ways that our ancient sages imagined.
* The Barras family name was created during the Ellis Island Experience. Originally it was Bar Oz, meaning strength in Hebrew.