Az Yashir – The Reconstitution of Freeze-Dried Prayer

Az yashir Moshe u’vnei Yisrael et hashirah hazot vayomru leimor: Ashira ladonai ki ga’o ga’ah…

Thus Moses and B’nai Yisrael sang this song: I will sing to the Eternal, for God has done mightily.

On this Shabbat Shirah, I have been wondering why we call this day “Shabbat Shirah.” After looking into this matter, I have found that this week’s Torah reading gets to the core of a question that I often hear: Why pray?

It is a good question, and it gets to the heart of what Shabbat Shirah is all about.

Lately, I have been reading the book “Starting with Why,” by Simon Sinek, who has a good TED talk on this topic. In “Starting with Why,” Sinek begins with the assertion that most people do things in response to two main questions: “What do I do?” and “How do I do it?” Most people don’t act based on the most important question: Why? Why do I act?

The siddur, the Jewish prayer book, which is an evolving body of work, gives us a lot of What? and How?, but what we need is to get back to Why?

Why pray?

A major part of my personal journey as a Jew and as a human being has been my ongoing relationship with prayer, and in particular Jewish prayer. It is not something that I was taught how to do as a child, and then just kept on doing, like tying my shoes or riding a bike. One thing that I have learned is that prayer is about much more than the skills to do it or the performance, saying the words correctly, as fluently and often as rapidly as possible. Much more.

Tefillah, Jewish prayer, is one of the pillars of Jewish life, and has been for thousands of years. Worship in Jewish life has undergone centuries of revolution, evolution and development. What we have today is a far cry from the animal, grain and oil offerings of our ancestors, which they offered in both Temples in Jerusalem for centuries.

We have in our hands this siddur, our prayer book, a document whose various components span thousand of years, with texts and sources that go back to our earliest moments and memories as a people and as a human species. The passages range from the practical to the sublime, written in stunning beautiful Biblical and later versions of Hebrew. The ideas and values enshrined in these pages represent some of the most profound religious thinking that humanity has ever created.

All of this is well and good, until one comes into a sanctuary, picks up a siddur from the back of the room (because that is what we do), opens it up, and is supposed to do something with it. But what?

When we encounter the siddur, what often happens is that we are confronted with a sea of words, swimming across the pages, half in a language that almost none of us speak, let alone can read with serious comprehension, and the other half in a translation that may or may not speak to us today.

The good news and the bad news is that the siddur is not prayer. The siddur does not contain tefillah. To rephrase an old koan, if a siddur is opened in a forest, with no one around, is anyone praying? Of course not. Better yet, if there is someone in a forest, who is praying with all their heart, mind and soul, but does not have a siddur, are they praying? Of course. Is that Jewish prayer? It depends.

There is something in the relationship between the one praying and the siddur in hand, a symbiosis. Authentic Jewish prayer involves a relationship, the interplay between the individual and the siddur.

Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi thought of the siddur as freeze-dried prayer. Like freeze-dried coffee, it has almost all of the ingredients of tefillah/davening/prayer: the words, the ideas, the thoughts, feelings, and hopes, but it is all missing one final component: hot water.

I suppose that one could take a spoonful of freeze-dried coffee and just eat it, but something tells me that the experience would lack many of the qualities of a hot cup of coffee, with steam rising and the aroma wafting out of the mug. One could also sip a nice big mug of hot water from a mug with nothing else in it, but again, that would lack many qualities of a cup of coffee.

The siddur needs something to come along and activate it – to make it live again, to make the words on the page come alive, and dance in our hearts, minds and souls. This ingredient is who we are in this moment.

In rabbinic terms, we call the parts that are freeze-dried, (the What and the How) –  Keva, meaning all of the fixed forms and details about Jewish prayer – everything from the times, the body movements, down to the words. The hot water (the Why) – is Kavannah. What Jewish prayer needs is the hot water, the Why, the Kavannah.

There is one word in this week’s Torah portion that is perhaps the best one word summary of what kavannah is all about: Az, Thus. Such a short word, but it is no small word. The Rabbis see in this word a great deal about the meaning of prayer.

Rashi sees in this word, not an introduction to the Song of the Sea, but rather a word that creates a bridge between the experience of the past and the moment of the Song. He comments that: “Az / Then” when Moses saw the miracle, he decided that “he would sing.” What Moses brings to his song, which becomes the song of the entire people, is the full impact of the experience that they have just gone through. In this case, it is the quintessential experience of walking through the Sea of Reeds.

Nachmanides adds another dimension to the the word Az/Thus.

“It is a phenomenon of language that a narrator places himself at whatever point in the story he wants: sometimes in the present, “Then Israel sing this song,” as if they were singing in front of him; sometimes in the future, to confirm that something will happen by treating it as if it already has.”

Nachmanides sees Az as the worlds’s smallest linguistic time machine. When we read the Song of the Sea, we become the narrators, and place ourselves in that moment in time, and it is if “they were singing in front of us.” I would take it one step further and say that when we become the narrator, we also become Israel-in-that-moment and we are the one who cross the Sea of Reeds, and we are the ones who step into the experience of the Exodus.

And at the same time, Az also points to this moment and to the future, and confronts us with the question of what this moment from our past has to say to us today. How have we experienced the Exodus in our days and in our lives? Perhaps it is a personal exodus from something that enslaved us during the week. Perhaps it is the passing of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Perhaps is anticipating an Exodus for the Jews of France from a year filled with fear and hate.

Az is the bridge between the experience and the song. Az invites us to enter into our own moments of liberation, the exuberance of knowing that a period of oppression and pain has come to an end, and that you are now taking the first steps into the rest of your life, and to bring them into service, and then to sing, as they sang, as we sang at the edge of the sea. This is what Reb Zalman means by adding the hot water to the freeze-dried coffee. It is the interplay between our lives brought as an offering into the service and the siddur that leads to the song.

Az reminds us to bring our all of our own experiences, be they joy, gratitude, regret, liberation, grief, worry, hope, into the moment of tefillah, to this place, and to sing, with our whole bodies, like the psalmist says: Azamra l’elohai b’odi / I will sing to God with my Od. The rabbis understand Od to be the wholeness of the self, one’s entire being. This sanctuary is a place that we make safe to be ourselves, to bring those experiences in, and to sing.

Another dimension of Az is that it reminds us that every part of the siddur came from someone’s immediate experience, either an individual or a group. In some sense, the siddur is an elaborate game of Jeopardy. Every part of the siddur is an response, an answer. Our task is to discover the Az, the experience that led to the expression of song. What are the stories behind the songs? What is the memory, the feeling, the recollection, or the direct experience that led to that prayer. What recovery from illness led a rabbi to compose the blessing that thanks God for the miracle of the human body’s functioning? What experience near death experience led someone to compose the blessing Mechayei Meitim, which thanks God for reviving the dead? Once we discover those stories behind each tefillah, we can then find our own similar stories, our own Az, that connects us to the siddur. Az is the pouring out of the soul into the freeze-dried words of the siddur. When we find our own sources of heat, light and light, our own hot water, our own kavannah, we bring that tefillah back to life. And then we sing!

To answer the question: Why pray? To pray is to embrace every moment and aspect of life as sacred, to see in all of those moments opportunities to serve. We pray because we are alive.

Shabbat Shirah Shalom