Our parashah is called Va’Etkhanan, literally translated “I beseech.” Moshe is recounting to us how he begged G*d for the one thing he could not have: the ability to cross over the Jordan River with the People of Israel into the Promised Land. Moshe our leader was denied the satisfaction of crossing the finish line himself. Although he was allowed to see it from afar, G*d made it clear to him that he would not enter.
This type of prayer, from the root kh.n.n, is familiar to us: we call those prayers Selikhot, and recite them every year at the time of Atonement. So it seems that our parashat hashavua acts for us as an early warning system. Yom Kippur is coming! From Shabbat Va’Etkhanan it is a bit less than eight weeks in the future.
There are many words for prayer in our sources. An ancient commentary on our parashah offers that
“prayer is called by ten names: cry, howl, groan, song, encounter, stricture, prostration, judgment, and beseeching.” (Midrash Rabbah)
It can be startling to consider how many of our acts are actually a form of prayer. Now we can see why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that when he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, he felt that his feet were praying. But which form of prayer did he mean?
It would give us a pretty picture to contemplate if we consider that he meant “encounter” or even “song”; indeed, the famous photograph gives support for that reading. But as we in our community grapple with our responsibility as part of the White community of the United States of America, and keep tripping over our vulnerability as part of the Jewish community of the world, we may find ourselves more able to relate to more painful moments of prayer:
Stricture: we may feel confused, and constrained in our ability to act meaningfully.
Groan: more and more people tell me that they are no longer watching the news, for it is too painful.
Prostration: this is a posture of helplessness in the face of overwhelming anxiety.
Rabbi Heschel’s statement offers us a way to explore this idea further: it seems that the Jewish concept of prayer covers much human territory. More, it does so by offering context out of Jewish history, culture and ethics. To pray, for Jews, is sometimes to sit in meditation on the words and what they mean; but more often, it is to act in full awareness that by our acts we carry out the words and their meaning.
It can be a perfect circle: the words help us find meaning, and we instill meaning into the words by carrying them out.
So this is what Rabbi Heschel might have meant for us by his marching in Selma, and calling it prayer: each of us Jews becomes the best possible White citizen of the U.S. when we are empowered by the awareness that our lives are prayers, and when we know what that means, and can mean, for us.
We are now entering a time of focus upon beseeching G*d for clarity, for understanding and for mercy, preparatory to and part of the atonement process. May you find your own way into all ten expressions of Jewish prayer and may it empower you to see all your life as one great prayer, in every moment. There is much crying, much howling, that is a true expression of our day. May there also be much opportunity – made by our efforts – for song.