Kula, Waking a Sleeping God, and Difiant Mezuzot


This past Sunday morning, we had the first of a year long series of conversations on Rabbi Kula’s ideas about Jewish practice. To recap: Rabbi Kula taught us that we should stop worrying about Jewish identity and Jewish survival. Instead, we should focus on the question: what is the job of Jewish practice?

He used the analogy of taxis and uber. The job of taxis is to get us someplace as efficiently as possible. We use them because they help us, not because our ancestors used them. If uber is doing it better, the community doesn’t say: how will we insure the survival of taxis? And, if taxis want to survive, they will have to find a way to do the job as well or better than uber. Similarly,if a Jewish practice is ‘doing its job’ – then Jews will want to do it. The challenge is to frame the job in an attractive and compelling way. When it comes to many of our core Jewish practices, we either don’t know what the job is. Or, we don’t see really believe that the practice is capable of doing the job it is supposed to do.

For example, many thousands of Jews who aren’t attracted to prayer do yoga or meditation every day. They engage in a spiritual discipline daily, but it’s not a Jewish one? Why do people do yoga? Because they know what job it is supposed to do, and it gets the job do. The job might be decreasing stress in our lives. Or, it might be keeping us in good shape. But, we don’t do yoga because our ancestors did it, or because God commands us to do it.

Jews are more likely to pray regularly if we saw some benefit in it, that is, if it did a job for us. If we believed prayer benefited us as much as yoga, we would pray more. Does it? I think it does. But, for us to get some value out of prayer, we have to know what we’re looking for in this experience. We have to ask: what is the job of prayer?

If we ask that question, we might be surprised at what we find. Prayer is not always what we expect. For example, we might expect prayer to be an experience in which we express our devotion to God. But, there are some prayers we say daily which are a protest to God. For example, right before the daily Amidah (page 105 at the bottom in the Siddur Sim Shalom), we say this prayer:

Tzur yisrael, kumah b’ezrat yisrael.

Rock of Israel, rise up to Israel’s defense.

When we say kumah/rise up to God, we imply that currently, God is lying down, even sleeping. What a chutzpahdik thing to say to God! Of course, that is very Jewish. The rabbis even had a phrase to describe it. They called it ‘chutzpah klapei maalah’/audacity towards Heaven. And, they thought it was a good thing. When we say these words, we might reflect and ask ourselves: what is there about life in the world today that could possibly make us feel that God is lying down on the job, that God is asleep?

There is a scene in the Book of Jonah where Jonah is asleep in the hold of the ship while the boat is tossed by a violent storm and in danger of capsizing. The captain of the ship is astonished at Jonah. He shakes him awake and he says: How can you sleep at a time like this! Kum, kra el elohecha/Rise up and call out to your God!

When we look around the world, when we watch the evening news, do we ever feel that the world is like a ship at sea about to break apart from the ravages of a violent storm? If we do, saying kumah/rise up to God would feel right to us.

We might conclude from this little exercise that one of the jobs of prayer is to rouse God, to wake up a sleeping God. But, we can say much more than that. While we say these words, we actually rise ourselves. We get up out of our seats. We go from a passive state to a more active and alert state.

We go from a state of dormant potential to a state of higher energy and actualized potential. So, at least for this particular line of prayer, we can say this. The job of prayer is to actualize our potential. Let’s imagine for a moment that this were the only prayer we said for the day. Here are some things we might think about and reflect on as we say the word kumah/rise up, and actually physically rise up out of our seats:

  • In what way is my potential unfulfilled? What is asleep inside of me that needs to be woken up, roused into action? In what areas of my life have my actions been lackluster, lacking energy and passion?
  • If we see a great sports play, or an outrageously unfair call by a referee, we leap to our feet. What would get me up out of my seat? What’s out there that is so exciting that it makes me want to leap out of my chair? What makes me so angry that I naturally want to rise up out of my seat and protest?
  • Prayer is an uprising. What uprisings in the world have inspired me in the past? What triggered them? What would trigger me to lead an uprising right now?

The way we frame the job of prayer will determine whether it is attractive to us or not. Our expectation is that prayer is about loyalty to God or submission to God’s will. It is these things, too. But, it is not only these things, or even primarily these things. Perhaps our generation would be more likely to pray if we understood the job of prayer as uprising and as being about actualizing unfulfilled potential.

This is not some contemporary idea imposed on prayer. It’s all over our Tradition. Here is another example. When Rabbi Kula was here, he gave us a beautiful kavanna (reflection) to accompany the kissing of the mezuzah as we enter our homes. He suggested that this might be a Jewish practice for us to study and then try out for 40 days in a row. So, here is another way of framing mezuzah, in line with what we have just learned.

The first mezuzah was actually a symbol of defiance. While we were still in Egypt, God told our people to slaughter a sheep, an animal that was sacred to the Egyptians. We were then to take the blood and smear it on the mezozot/the door posts of our house and the lintel above the door. When the Angel of Death would see the Jewishly marked houses, he would ‘pass over’ them and our first born would be spared.

To mark our doorposts with the blood an Egyptian sacred animal was an act of great courage. It showed that we were not afraid of the Egyptians. Even though we were technically and physically still slaves, inside of our hearts, we were already free.

It is not a coincidence that the mezuzah which we affix to our doorposts is in the same spot where our ancestors smeared the blood to mark their homes Jewishly. The blood on the doorposts of Egypt was a way for our ancestors to say: We commit our life’s blood to serving God and not Pharoah. We are publicly protesting the tyranny of Egypt.

Our mezuzah contains the words of the Torah (the Shema), and not blood. But, the meaning is the same. What if we were to reclaim the original meaning of the mezuzah? What if we were to see the kissing of the mezuzah as an act of defiance against the tyranny of the world? Prayer doesn’t have to be long to be effective. The kissing of the mezuzah is the shortest prayer in our Tradition. We don’t even have to say anything! The whole act takes only a few seconds. But, if prayer is about uprising, then the simple act of kissing the mezuzah can be a powerful statement on our part. Here are some things we might think about as we kiss the mezuzah:

  • I proudly and openly and defiantly affirm to the world that I am a Jew in a world where it is often dangerous to be a Jew in public. I am aware that for Jews in France and other places in Europe, public identification as a Jew can be a danger. I protest that. I am aware that there is a tremendous resurgence of anti-semitism in the world in the form of anti-Israel hatred. This is true even on the university campuses in America. I protest that. By kissing the mezuzah, I affirm my love for the goodness of our Tradition which for some mysterious reason continues to arouse such hatred in hearts around the world. I pledge to use all of my powers to overcome that hatred and to defeat it.
  • I kiss the mezuzah, just as my ancestors marked their doorposts with blood while they were still in Egypt. That means I am still in Egypt. There is slavery and oppression around me. The world is in need of redemption. There is injustice in the world that has not yet been remedied. By marking my home, by kissing the mezuzah, I protest the injustices in the world. I pledge my full life’s energies to overcome the tyrannies that still exist. And, I pledge my loyalty to the community of freedom fighters (the Jewish people) who want to eliminate cruelty from the world. (If there is a specific injustice that comes to mind that rouses our passions, that’s even better. This past week, I read about children trying to escape to freedom who are then sold into slavery. Kissing the mezuzah could be a statement of protest against a world in which such things happen, and the first step in changing that reality).

To Sum Up:

Here are some things we can try this week as a way of beginning to reframe and reclaim the spiritual discipline of daily prayer as an act that leads to human flourishing.

  • Kiss the mezuzah on your door at least once a day when you enter or leave the house. When you do, do it as an act of defiance. Do it as an act of identification with the uprisings for freedom in history and today – those of our own people, and those of all peoples. Do it in the spirit of those who sang “We shall overcome.”
  • Say the following prayer once a day for a week: Tzur yisrael, kumah b’ezrat yisrael/Rock of Israel, rise in defense of the people Israel. And, when you do, physically stand up, as you reflect on the parts of you that need to be woken and brought to fuller potential (see above for more detail).

And, come join our discussion on the re-framing and the re-claiming of all kinds of Jewish practices.

Sunday mornings, 10am-11:15 am, in the board room
May 10, 17, 31
June 7, 14