Praying Wrong




A long narrative based in my first year of rabbinical school 



Jerusalem, 1993

Most of my classmates claim two qualities I don’t have. They feel a magnetic pull to the land, and they have heard “callings.”

I was never bitten by the Israel bug. To me, it’s a piece of land like many others. Interesting, to be certain, but no more magical than Istanbul or New York.

At that time, whenever asked about a calling, I say, “I think it must have gone to voicemail.”

A fellow student, Dave Burstein, and I form a bond because neither of us had attended Jewish summer camps. I found my tribe at magic camp, and Dave found his at Outward Bound.

We sign up together to be the b’alei tefilla—service leaders, literally service lords—for a Saturday morning service at the Hebrew Union College, King David Street campus.

Our classmates fill the front rows. A tour-bus load of overeager Christian tourists is in the back rows, voyeurs looking for Jesus in Hebrew prayers.

The thing is, Jesus never said any of these prayers. Jesus didn’t speak Hebrew.
Neither do I. Not fluently, anyway.
Dave announces: “pesukei d’zimra.”
I follow with the English translation: “Verses of singing.”
We improvise lyrics in Hebrew and English with the traditional words of a traditional opening, Psalm 96.

“A new”

It’s awkward as we continue the service with our rapid-fire translations. We read lines from Jonathan Livingston Seagull: “You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way.”

It bombs beginning to end. Nonetheless, like we both will do later in life as fully-ordained rabbis, we stand at the door, shaking hands with those exiting.

The only ones remaining are the dean of the school, Shaul; a favorite teacher, Moshe; and our tefillah (prayer) instructor, Ezri.
Shaul motions for me to close the door behind me.

A merciless critique follows.
Moshe (favorite teacher): “There were people who came this morning who had wanted to pray, and you denied them the opportunity with your theatrics.”
Shaul: “What you did was appropriate for a college student. Not here.“
Ezri: “Richard Bach is not a Jewish teacher.”

Dave and I share the immense shame and then avoid each other the rest of the year.

Three months later, still in Jerusalem, it’s my turn to give a Friday night d’var torah—a teaching of torah. I am supposed to expound on the section about Nadav and Avihu, the two oldest sons of Aaron, who bring an “alien fire” before God, who promptly smites them.

Standing behind the sabbath candles, I say, “We need no longer be afraid of bringing before God alien fires.”
I quote a classic line from the prayer book: “Superstition shall no longer enslave the mind, nor idolatry blind the eye.”

Now comes a bit of theatrics from my many years performing magic tricks.

I raise my voice dramatically, “There is no reason for us to be afraid of different paths to the holy. There is no one path. There are no alien fires.”

In swift succession, I blow out one of the shabbat candles, touch the smoldering wick with a piece of flash paper, throw the resulting flame away from me in a large arc, and then point at the relit candle.
(Flash paper relights a smoldering candle.)

“The fire of truth is an eternal flame,” I say.
“The fire of truth is never extinguished.” I end, pointing to the rekindled flame.

Moshe dashes from the room.
I wonder if he’s violently ill, or if I did something terribly wrong again.

I hope he had to puke.

The next day I see his face. I know it’s bad.
He tells me he has never seen anything so disrespectful, such blatant irreverence.
Throwing fire on the sabbath.
Blowing out the sabbath candles.
Re-lighting them.

He tells me he went home and cried to his wife, telling her he could no longer teach at this liberal school if students fail to honor tradition.
I wish I had the wisdom at the time to say, “Moshe, I’m not so powerful. I’m a first-year student.”
Instead, I went to the bathroom and threw up.

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