Cantor Peicott's Shabbat Message - November 5, 2021

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"Prayer changes the world because it changes us"

 - Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks z”l

According to our tradition, we are supposed to pray three times daily: shacharitmincha, and maariv. During these prayer services, we offer a setlist of prayers such as BarchuShemaMi Chamocha, but the pinnacle of any prayer service is the Amidah, our standing prayer -- a moment for each individual to have their time with the Divine. A time to share their hearts' deepest wants and desires. A moment to be heard and acknowledged.

In this week’s Torah portion Toldot, we find one of the first examples of personal prayer. In the beginning of the Parsha, we find our matriarch Rivka (Rebecca), unable to conceive, and husband Isaac prays on her behalf. It must have been a pretty effective prayer because in the next verse we find out that Rebecca is finally pregnant...with twins!  

The Parasha quickly moves onto the story of twin brothers Jacob and Essau and a stolen blessing, which is about a million sermons in itself, but tonight I want to think about what it was that made Isaac’s prayer so effective. After all, I can’t even count the number of times that I prayed for a pony as a child, and surprise, I never got that pony…

Tracing the grammatical root of the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, is a subject of debate amongst scholars. The English word “pray” comes from the Latin precari—to beg, to beseech. This transactional notion of prayer is quite common; one desires a change in circumstances, and thus reaches out to a higher power to help realize this desire.

In Judaism, however, prayer brings about an internal transformation. In Hebrew, the word for prayer, tefillah, is described using a reflexive verb -- something that you do to yourself. This reflexive verb comes from the root palal (פלל), “to judge.” In the Jewish understanding, prayer is used more for internal growth and benefit, rather than to achieve the desired result. 

Some of you may know that my husband and I struggled for many years to conceive a child. After years of waiting and multiple losses, we were finally blessed with our son in 2019 -- after almost four years, and the miracle of modern medicine. While this timeline was minuscule compared to the almost 20-year wait for Isaac and Rebecca, the sadness and desperation we felt was no less. 

After my second medical procedure and a complete loss in faith that I would ever be a mother, a wonderful colleague, Rabbi Susan Goldberg, took me into our beautiful Magnin Sanctuary. Together we stood, a rabbi and a cantor, in front of the Torah, and we prayed. She prayed for me on behalf of Sarah, of Rebecca, of Rachel, and of Hannah; strong women of our tradition, who like me, silently suffered and prayed to be mothers.  

Feeling that support of her prayer, I temporarily forgot about the constant poking and prodding during the never-ending stream of doctors’ appointments, as well as all of the late-night research of the next steps in my fertility journey. In that brief moment, something changed within me -- I gave myself the freedom to be vulnerable and to acknowledge my pain. I allowed myself to stop thinking and for a moment just feel. As the surplus of tears streamed down my face, I felt relief. 

Four years of pain buried deep down inside had finally been acknowledged and validated. In that moment, I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders, and that relief gave me newfound strength. Strength that I needed to continue my own rocky journey, with my head held high, no matter what that outcome may be. This is the power of personal prayer.

This Shabbat, may you take the time to pray, whether in Temple for Shabbat services or in a quiet space of your home. May you utilize the sacred reprieve of Shabbat to stop and listen to your heart’s deepest desires. While I cannot promise that your prayer will come true, especially if it’s a pony…you might find the answer to your prayer in the most unexpected place...yourself.

Shabbat Shalom,  

Cantor Lisa Peicott