Aretha and Prayer

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, August 16, 2018 / 5 Elul 5778 

Summary: Rabbi Kosak reflects on some of the things that made Aretha Franklin so special and extracts some lessons about prayer that are relevant to us today.

Aretha died today.

You know you’ve touched a lot of lives when millions upon millions know you by your first name. It used to be an accomplishment that you earned because of the work you did. Now there’s fame without substance.

Aretha, though, earned her renown. Her voice is counted among the greats. And it’s not that she was always great. A fair bit of her work is hit or miss. But when she landed it? Unforgettable. She could pack so much emotion into a bar of music, so much soul. Indeed, another name she earned was Lady Soul.

Some of the songs she is most known for weren’t even written by or for her. Otis Redding’s “Respect” is perhaps the most obvious example. Yet no one would mistake her version of Respect for a cover song. She made it her own. By which I mean you could hear all of her life experience compressed into the same lyrics, and that completely changed the meaning—and the importance—of the song.

There are several lessons in that for us as we move increasingly quickly toward our Yamim Noraim, our days of awe.

First, we Jews are really good at fixed liturgy. Our tradition carries forward some of the world’s oldest prayers. They’ve endured because they are themselves quite powerful and elegantly constructed. The words of our traditional high holiday prayerbooks (mahzor) have moved through unbelievably different societies and times. There’s little writing that can claim that and remain relevant.

Still, the relevance of these prayers isn’t right on the surface. We have to work at them. Like Aretha, we have to make them our own. We need to make a relationship with them, just like we would with a person. What this means is that we have to make an effort to understand what makes a prayer work. Then we have to pour a bit of ourselves into the words so that we can meet the prayer where it is, but then raise it up to meet us where we are.

That may sound a bit esoteric. It really isn’t. If you have ever tried to sing a song, you’ve engaged in this process. The more you listen to a song, the more you begin to understand it—it’s rhythm and shifts, its lyrics, moods and energy. When I try to sing a song before I’ve gotten those elements down, I stumble on it. I’m not fluent, and don’t know where the song is headed. It just sounds off. After greater study, those early missteps disappear. That’s when the fun begins and you begin to use the song to express something that is true within you, and true to the song.

The second lesson is that in the realm of spontaneous prayer, we Jews aren’t as good as we are with our fixed prayers. We could learn from the Christians–especially many Protestant communities where spontaneous prayer plays a large role in their religious life. Yes, some formulaic phrases show up, but there is a beautiful way in which adept Christians open themselves up. Their humanity and their individuality flow into such prayer.

Third, we shouldn’t expect a platinum record every time we pray. Even within the silence of our own heart, not every prayer will have the power to genuinely move us. If the great Aretha had plenty of fails, shouldn’t we allow ourselves the right to lackluster prayer? Simultaneously, like Aretha, we should continue to pursue the purest expression we can muster. Why? Because we get changed for the better in the process.

During this month of Elul, I invite you each to set aside a few moments each day for private prayer and reflection. 

Since it’s not fair to place a moral or spiritual challenge on someone that you haven’t undertaken yourself, here’s a prayer I composed this morning for our local Jewish motorcycle group, the Star Cruisers. It’s been on my to do list for quite some time, but these spiritually heightened days of Elul finally gave me the push I needed. What will your push be? 

Shabbat shalom and a meaningful Elul, 

Rav D

תפילת הדרך עם נוספת לנוסע באופנוע

(מאת הרב דוד קשת עבדיעל, אופנוען)

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ

יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ וֵֽאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ

שֶׁתּוֹלִיכֵֽנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם

וְתַצְעִידֵֽנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם

וְתִסְמְכֵֽנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם

וּתְבִיאֵֽנוּ אֶל־מְחוֹז חֶפְצֵֽנוּ לְחַיִּים וּלְשָׁלוֹם

תַצִּילֵֽנוּ מִכַּף כָּל־אוֹיֵב וְאוֹרֵב בַּדֶּֽרֶךְ

ותִּשְׁמְרֵנוּ מכל מחשום ומכשול ותקלה

וממסלול חלקלק וממסמר המסוכן

וְתוֺצִיא רוּחַ טוֺב מֵאוֺצרוֺתֶיךָ

לְהַנְהִיג אֶת סְוס הברזל

וְחַזֵק כָּל אופנוען וְנוסעים שֶׁיַנְהִגוּ אוֺתָם כָּרָאוּי

וְתִשְׁלַח בְּרָכָה בְּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵֽינוּ

וְתִתְּנֵֽנוּ לְחֵן וּלְחֶֽסֶד וּלְרַחֲמִים בְּעֵינֶֽיךָ

וּבְעֵינֵי כָל־רוֹאֵֽנוּ

כִּי אַתָּה שׁוֹמֵֽעַ תְּפִלַּת עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּרַחֲמִים:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ שׁוֹמֵֽעַ תְּפִלָּה:

A Road Blessing for Motorcyclists

composed by David Kosak, the biker rabbi


May it be Your Will, Our God and God of our ancestors,

that You should guide our journey to peace

and that our footsteps should be toward peace.

May we be supported by peace,

reach our desired destinations for life and peace.

Save us from the grasp of every predator or bandit along the way.

Guard us from every roadblock and malfunction

from the slippery path and the dangerous nail

Bring forth a good tail wind from Your storehouses

to guide this iron horse

and strengthen rider and passenger alike,

according to their need.

May there be blessing in our handiwork.

May we be granted peace, kindness, and mercy in your sight

and in the eyes of all who see us.

For You listen to the prayer of your people Israel with compassion.

Blessed are You YHVH, who hears prayer.

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Many people are embarrassed to discuss their prayer life. Do you find it easy or difficult to talk about praying? If easy, who or what made it that easy. If difficult, what are some factors that make this challenging for you?
  2. Atheists, agnostics and those who struggle with belief have an equal human need to pray. If you have trouble with belief, how might you pray without calling God into the equation?
  3. What’s the deepest prayer you have ever uttered? What made it so?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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