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Tachanun: The Story Of A Prayer That We Will Try To Skip

In just a few days, we’ll be back to saying tachanun. 

I hear myself groan. 

What is it about tachanun that we all try to get out of saying it?

We drag in new grooms so we can get out of it.*

We hope there’s a bris in shul so we can skip it.* 


What’s going on here? 

What can we do with our avoidance?

Tachanun for sure deserves a bit of respect. 

The Rambam (Hilchot Tefilla 5:11-13) tells us that following the recitation of the Amida, we are to kneel and then prostrate on the ground as we offer personal prayers to God. 

The Tur (Orach Chaim 131) fills in some of the ‘why’ to this: by standing, bowing, kneeling, and falling to the ground we mimic all of the poses used by Moses in his dialogue with God. 

Of course, nowadays we do none of this.

Due to secondary concerns, nowadays we ‘make do’ with leaning on our left arm. 

These personal prayers have evolved into the standardized text which varies from community to community. 

So sure, tachanun deserves some respect. 

But why is it so hard for us?

Obviously, a lot has to do with the fact that most of us are very much in a ‘just let’s get it over with’ mindset. 

We have jobs to get to, errands to run, and a to-do list up the wazoo. 

All good. 

Our default position then is that anything that shaves off a minute here is welcome. 

So bring in the groom and have the bris. 

But to me, it’s not just about the extra minute of saying tachanun that weighs on us. 

Maybe it’s those heavy declarations which weigh heavily. 

I’m nusach Ashkenaz and my tachanun begins with ‘And David said to Gad; I am suffering greatly’.

My nusach Sefard friends start their tachanun with, ‘please Hashem, I have sinned’.

Neither nusach brings a positive, feel-good vibe. 

Who wants to get wrapped up in such negativity?

So off we go. 

Totally understandable. 

Personally though I cannot make peace with that attitude. 

If I’m going to have something as sacred as tachanun in my siddur then I expect myself to not just say it but to say it with the respect it deserves. 

This is how I lean into tachanun:

Yes; tachanun is hard. 

It really is a speed bump on the way to the rest of the day. 

But I need a speed bump. 

Maybe in my running off to some errand or ‘whatever’ important task I’ve got going on, I’m gonna forget something vital to my success. 

Tachanun reminds me that I can succeed and enjoy my life by letting Hashem be the Boss. 

Yes; I am suffering. 

Yes; I am full of doubts. 

Yes; I am full of misconceptions and hopes and dreams and in all honesty I have no real idea if what I want and what I think is worth my energies. 

When I fall to the ground-well, now I just fall on my arm-I‘m surrendering to Hashem and His wisdom. 

In the humility of kneeling before Him, He becomes not just my Boss but my collaborator and guide. 

And that’s when the magic begins. 

The Spiritual Lessons Of My Seasonal Flu

Let’s start with the unadulterated truth: I’m a big fat liar

And at this rate, I’ll probably go to my grave a liar. 

But the good news is that I’m a little less of a liar today than I was yesterday. 

From the looks of it, I’m on the other side of the flu that’s been going around. I’m no longer feeling wasted and feverish. My energy is returning. I’m no longer yearning to go back to my default setting: napping on the living room couch. 

Which brings me to reflecting on the oddest dimension of being sick for two weeks: I got really depressed. 

As in: I got suicidal and dark. 

Just to be sure, it’s not like my baseline state is happy-go-lucky; I battle the noon-day demons of dysphoria and depression on a near constant basis. 

But suicidality? 

Not that level of darkness!

I mean what was up with that?

Now I’m sure there’s a whole body of literature on the affect of the flu on mood. I’m sure that some of the over the counter meds that I took may have played some role in screwing with my mood and and my mind. Who knows? Maybe I was a bit dehydrated and had a bit of a fever induced delirium. 

All of that may be true but I prefer to consider a different possibility: I was in a state of spiritual listlessness and that freaked me out. 

You see, I’m a student of Victor Frankl, the psychoanalyst and holocaust survivor who wrote, Man’s Search For Meaning. For me, Frankl’s most important thesis is that Man is in a constant state of searching for the purpose of his existence. Once that purpose is found, Man will invest his or her energies into the service of that purpose. He or she will go through thick and thin in their devotion to it. 

As per the book, I designed and engineered a life around the purpose that I determined was worth the investment of my life’s energies: living in accord to my understanding of what is asked of me as a Jew: to go to shul, to pray, to work, to study Torah, to be a kind and devoted husband and father. 

My brief foray into the land of seasonal flu destroyed a lot of that. There was no way that I was going to shul. Prayer was absentminded mumblings which I hoped to get over with before exhaustion dragged me back under. Study? Who are we kidding? 

Of course I don’t feel guilty about any of that. I’m mostly ‘done’ with the sado-masochistic god of my youth.  My Higher Power is fun and compassionate. He engages with me and I know Him well enough to know that the flu is a good enough reason to let a few missed trips to synagogue and missed days of Talmud study slide. 

This depression, this darkness, this collapse, though, felt much more like something in me. So I sat with it and this is what I came up with: 

in my pursuit for meaning I had lost the value of meaninglessness. 

Let me put it this way: my investment in meaningful life has been in some small measure a way of beating back the lurking shadow of ‘what’s the point?’ Yes; the life I’ve chosen makes sense to me in a logical kind of way. But it also is a kind of distraction from some of the never to be resolved existential questions such as what is the purpose of life, what is death, and when will I die. Like the rest of us religious folk, I’m so busy going to shul and doing mitzvahs I don’t have time to think about the dark side of the story. 

So all this doing and chasing has created a chasm of dread and alienation between me and purposelessness, especially the kind of purposelessness that comes with the flu. There’s nothing like feeling like ess-aych (it’s a thing; I just don’t like writing the word, ‘shit’) to flood me with all of insecurities both both big and small. 

Now my spiritual faith teaches me two things: the first ‘thing’ is that holiness and wholeness are the same thing. If I want to feel holy, which I definitely do, then I must be willing to embrace the whole of me. And that includes the dark, insecure parts of myself. That includes the parts of myself and of existence that frighten me, to brings me to my knees, that wreck me. The blessing of my trip down the flu was to meet that part of myself that in all of my hyperness of mitzvas I was running from. 

The second ‘thing’ that my spiritual faith taught me is that my ego was hiding in all of that religious fervor. 

Let me put it this way: my mother obm had a Toyota Prius Hybrid. For the uninitiated, the car could run off a regular gas engine or off a battery. Now imagine two kinds of energy sources as metaphor for the hybrid human self. Instead of engines though we have a soul and we have an ego. We can be driven by our ego or led by our soul. 

Without going into the whole story of ego and soul, the central idea is that while the soul is seeking the sublime beyond, the ego is seeking to fit into the crowd, to get a leg up, and most importantly, to not die. The soul, as long as it can plumb the endless possibilities of the here and now, is always ready to have a good time. Or to chill. The ego needs an audience and measurable objectives to make it feel at home. 

Now I can be a sweet, devoted fellow and you would almost never know whether the inner propulsion system was my ego or my soul. From your human perspective, Josh goes to shul, Josh studies the Talmud, Josh gives charity and you have no idea what his motivation is. In fact, I’m Josh and I didn’t even know what the source of my motivation was! 

The only way then for me to know my motivation was to deny me the ability to ‘perform’ my religious devotions in the public arena, to put me in a place where no one could see me. Not only could no one clap for me but I couldn’t even clap for myself. 

So in the flu, God, revealed me to me. He showed me that what I thought was pure was anything but pure. He showed me that my devotion was as ego-driven as if I was running for President of the United States. And the good news, heck!, the great news, is that I can still make a course correction. 

And now I’m a little less of a liar. 

And that made the flu totally worth it.

Why Do I Say Yehay Shma Rabba The Way That I Do?

You’ve probably noticed that I have a distinctive way of saying Yehay Shemay Rabba. 

Some people have told me that I yell it. 

Others have told me that it’s bothersome to them. 

So the question is why do I say it the way that I do. 

What do I hope to accomplish by saying it as I do? 

Is it worth bothering people?

The story goes back to an early experience that I had with someone (he’ll remain nameless here) widely considered to be a paragon of devotion, simplicity, and sincerity. 

He was a teacher at the yeshiva high school I attended in my junior year of high school. 

Despite the dismal experience that I had there, he, this teacher, remains to this day one of the bright spots. 

And he yelled yehay shemay. 

He YELLED it! 

The words erupted out of him. 

I wasn’t so much impressed as I was stunned. 

Stunned out of my shyness.

Stunned out of my numbness. 

Here was a man, a fearless courageous man, willing to debase whatever social capital he had, to praise God. 

He set the bar for me. `

In my journey for authenticity his yehay shemay remains a reference point to aspire to. 

So in salute and solidarity I do the same. 

To this very day. 

While that’s the majority of the story, there’s more to it. 

I’m not going to spill all of my secrets here but let me touch on a couple that are relevant to this question. 

The first is that I’m wired to handle the muddied conflicts of life poorly. 

I supose that there are those who are not bothered by the injustice and suffering of the World. 

I suppose that there are those who have made an internal arrangement that allows them to keep the sadness and confusion at arm’s length. 

I just cannot. 

I go about my very middle class life, earning my keep, thank God, raising my family, living within the lines of normative society as though everything is fine. 

But it’s all an act. 

It’s all a costume. 


Inside I’m going crazy. 

Inside I’m boiling over with longing and agony. 

To paraphrase Cat Stevens, I just can’t keep it in. 

My outlet is yehay shemay rabba. 

That’s my release valve. 

That’s my space where I can reveal myself to my self and remind my self that my heart still beats and that my blood remains red. 

That I am still part of humanity and not some numbed out drone who ‘lives’ the schizoid life of modernity. 

The second reason goes to my long term depression and anxiety. 

God has cursed me and blessed me with depression and with anxiety. 

Cursed me for the obvious reasons: it takes me three times as long to do anything that a non-depressed, non-anxious person can do in a snap. 

I have loose, wobbly, disorganized neurotransmitters and it takes me a long time to get them in order so they can do things like get out of bed in the morning, get up and go to the store, or write a blog post. 

But He’s blessed me with chronic depression and anxiety because these experiences have brought me into contact with so much of Life unnoticed by the happy and the naturally serene. 

He’s also given me a way to explore depression and anxiety in such a way that I can discover things that help others who also suffer from depression and anxiety. 

Like the blessing of pattern interrupt. 

Without going into the whole backstory, pattern interrupt is a behavioral technique to disrupt habits, patterns of behavior, and moods. 

Instead of trying to hit a grand slam homerun to rid myself of depression and anxiety ONCE AND FOR ALL, I’ve developed a whole list of interruptions that compel me to be my best, my most joyous, my most un-weighted down self FOR ONE MOMENT. 

Yehay Shemay at full tilt is one of those pattern interrupts. 

Whether you call it singing or yelling or screeching or saying it loudly with verve and joy, yehay shemay is a moment when I am out of depression and anxiety. 

It’s a moment of blessed release from the heaviness of mood and doom. 

Before I get to the problem of other people and bothering other people, there is one other ‘part’ of the backstory: 

Jewish History, especially the Shoa and terrorism..

There is not much that I can do to right the wrongs of those who have been murdered. 

I am not Superman or God. 

I am not a solider or an analyst who can locate a monster planning an abomination on my beloved People. 

What I can do is to hold these hold Jews in my consciousness and in my heart. 

What I do is to give them voice and represent them in the way that I live. 

Yehay shemay is not so much a battle cry but the last word in the dialogue between Jew and monster. 

And who doesn’t want the last word?

The monster may touch the body of the Jew but the Spirit, that growing, gathering, eternal Dynamo of the Jew, only gets stronger. 

And it finds expression through my voice. 

Now about those other people:

First of all, I’m not stupid and I’m not cruel. 

If I’m a shul or place (like a shiva minyan) where the decorum and vibe is somber then I keep my voice in check. 

(But then I try to make a point of davening in places more hospitable to my deranged, chassidic, fiery way of prayer.)

But if it’s a shul where I’m comfortable enough to be myself then I let it roar. 

Shuls are not supposed to be libraries. 

Or funeral parlors. 

They are spaces for spiritual renewal. 

They are like gyms. 

If you go to a gym, you expect to sweat, to get sore, to maybe even get high. 

That’s what shul is. 

At least to me. 

If you go to gym and you don’t sweat then most likely your workout wasn’t worth too much. 

(And I could ask what the point of going is; but I won’t because it’s better to go to the gym even if you don’t break a sweat and it’s better to go to shul to mumble and grumble through the words than not to)

I go to shul to get high. 

To get closer to God. 

To reach for the Heavens. 

And if people are bothered by that then I wish them well and I invite them to contact me for a professional consultation. 

Or better yet: join me!

The Rebbe My Small Appreciation On His 27th Yartzeit

As we all travel through that vector known as Gimmel Tammuz, the day that the Rebbe, left this world, my thoughts come forth in the form of a brief appreciation:

I share them with you in the form of a short list

  1. The Rebbe’s death and life, redefined death. And life.  While I have little doubt that the Rebbe’s body is interred a burial plot of ground in Queens, New York, he still lives on. In fact, I don’t know if he will ever die. Or, perhaps he’s transmuted into some other non-corpereal form, into an idea or a paradigm that lives on in all those who changed by it. His infusion of renewed life into the world pulsates ever stronger every day. He occupied a space inside a physical body, but his spirit seems to seek connection in every milimeter of everywhere I go much the way it did when I attended those Farbrengans so many years ago. Even stronger in fact. 
  1. The Rebbe created a sustainable vision of Man and Judaism for the generations after the Holocaust. Through his unflagging joy and devotion to the Jewish idea, he not only breathed life into a broken Jewish world, he redefined what the Jewish future should look like. As Jews were fleeing their Judaism through assimilation or were retreating into walled off enclaves, the Rebbe went on the offensive. This offensive continues to this day; more and more of us, in the farthest flung places, are touched and inspired by the Rebbe’s soldier-emissaries and their sacred mission. 
  2. The Rebbe brought Judaism down to human level. While there has never been a shortage of great minds, the Rebbe’s brilliance was in insisting that Judaism not be an intellectual aristocracy but rather a human centered collective. His Judaism and the Judaism that he taught was not meant to clever or ‘up there’-it was meant to be down here, in the total human experience so that every part of who we are, including our broken and taboo parts, could be elevated and loved. 
  3. The Rebbe introduced The Engineer’s Mindset to Judaism. The Rebbe was trained in engineering, a discipline that brings together sciences to serve a practical purpose. At a time when science and philosophy in the form of psychology and politics mushroomed in so many different directions, the Rebbe never let us forget that all of ‘this’, this conquering of so many areas of the Universe, must all come together to form a productive sustainable whole. Physicists, psychologists, scientists, and all the others, may come up with new ideas but those ideas must serve wholeness. For the Rebbe, God’s word was that wholeness. That wholeness becomes manifest in the transformation of Mankind. 
  4. The Rebbe redefined God and Godliness. With the Scientific Revolution, Man got heavily ‘into’ reductionism, of delineating ‘this’ from ‘that’. And Halleluyah for that; as soon as we could unpack the opaqueness of a cough or a fever or a tumor, we could take the next step of controlling phenomena that were previously thought of as untameable spirits and luck. In our hyper-technological, dehumanized modern society, god was cast, much like everything else, as something separate from everything else. The Rebbe however taught us that God and Godliness is everything, that He joyously waits in hiding behind every human thing, to greet us with an ear to ear smile, a heartfelt l’chaim, and the hug of a Father who rejoices at being reunited with His most beloved child: each one of us. 

The Rebbe may have left this world (and I say may because who truly knows), but he lives on in all of us as we go about the mission of bringing Light into the Universe.

What happens when someone is traumatized?

Long ago, when I was still in graduate school. one of my professors used a metaphor that has stayed with me to this day.

Imagine, she said, a pool of water.

It’s still and quiet.

The water is clear.

Then someone throws a large stone into the middle of the pool.

A large plop noise starts a rippling out of waves and stirring up the water and silt.

Depending on the size of the rock and the size of the pool, the ripples eventually peter out and the water returns to it’s former state of stillness.

Now to be sure, people are not pools of water.

We are infinitely more complex, what with our social connections, our moral ideals, our bodies, our feelings, and all that makes us human.

In a sense, and like that pool of water, a traumatic event disrupts our selves and our lives and ripples out, disturbing everything about ourselves.

But there are many many differences between us and a pool of water

For one thing, the pool of water will return to it’s former state.

The water will calm down and the disturbed silt will clear.

In a few minutes the water will appear as it did before: pristine and still.

For us though there is no going back. We are people and we are constantly adding new chapters to our unfolding lives.

While the water will appear as though nothing happened to it, we will carry the wounds of trauma forward and they will seep into every nick and cranny of who we are.

While there is no way to turn back the clock, there is still hope.

Recovery from trauma allows us to take back control of our lives and to live them in the light of our deepest dreams.

Why is sexual abuse like murder?

We commonly speak of sexual abuse as murder.

Some perhaps go even further: they say that sexual abuse is WORSE than murder.

That’s because in the case of physical murder the victim, now dead, no longer suffers the ignominy of the crime committed against them.

In the case of sexual abuse, the victim goes on living but with all of the psychological and social damage hobbling them.

The parallel of murder and sexual abuse is drawn from the Bible.

In the discussion of sexual violence in Deuteronomy 22 we find these verses:

25 But if a man finds the betrothed girl in the field, and the man overpowers her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die.
26 Whereas to the girl, you shall do nothing the girl did not commit a sin deserving of death, for just as a man rises up against his fellow and murders him, so is this case.
27 Because he found her in the field. The betrothed girl had cried out, but there was no one to save her.

This parallel is compelling.

Speaking for myself, it makes me wonder about life and what it means to be alive.

And by extension it makes me think about what is destroyed when a woman or man is sexually violated.

Look at it like this:

If you were to ask anyone what is it to be alive they would probably say that it means to have a heart beat, to show signs of physical life.

In all honesty, I wouldn’t say that they are wrong.

But the Bible is placing in murder and sexual violation in one category.

Pretty shocking, no?

It would seem that the commonality between the two is that there is denial of self determination.

To be robbed of agency is to die.

It would seem then that to be alive is to be able freely determine where one wishes to go and what one wishes to do.

To be able to chart the direction of one’s life.

Having worked with victims of sexual abuse over the past thirty years this kind of murder is real.

These victims are caught in a web of shame, powerlessness, fear, and confusion that denies them the ability to live joyfully and powerfully in their own lives.

Their hearts may still beat out a normal sinus rhythm but their spirits, like a corpse, are dead and buried.

But that is what makes their resurrection so much more amazing and miraculous.

This week we read of the splitting of the Red Sea and the Manna that fell from Heaven.

Pretty heady, wild stuff.

Just so that we can look at ourselves in the twin mirrors of rationality and magic, let’s remind ourselves of some important words:

A miracle is a noticed moment that blasts apart our ideas of what is and what can be.

Science is the endeavor to figure out what lies before us based on what is already known.

Or more accurately, assumed to be known.

As one who loves science and the scientific method, all I can have is humility before the Cosmos.

That’s because in between the lines of what I know, is that which I have no idea of.

Is it possible that a gigantic body of water split open just at the right time?

Is it possible that Manna, that magical sustenance that fell from the Heaven each day of the journey through the desert?

Sure! Why not?

What are kinot?

As of this moment, come this Saturday night many of us will be sitting on the floors of synagogues reciting kinot. Someone long ago translated kinot as elegies for the tragedies that have shaped and punctuated the unfolding of Jewish history. While the word elegy seems about right as translations go i think it obscures the deeper meaning of kinot.

Kinot (or kina in singular) is a word repeated throughout the book of Jeremiah. That’s Jeremiah the prophet (not the frog) who tried and tried valiantly to get us to clean up our act only to watch us spectacularly blow it.

It’s a unique word for a prophetic vision or speech especially when so many other words are available to describe what Jeremiah had to say. So it’s introduction begs the question of what does it mean? What idea does it introduce?

The word kina derives of root letters, koof nun. Those two letters make up a lot of basic words in Hebrew. Two examples jump up: My Hebrew speaking friends know that if they wish to buy something at the store they must take those two letters, make a verb form out of them which sounds like koneh. Those of us who spend time in the company of nature know that a bird lays her eggs in a nest made up of koof noon, spelling the word ‘kan’.

This brings me to the sneaking suspicion that kinah, koneh, and kan emerge from one root which for us English speakers would best be described as ‘deep association’* (The fancy word is nesting). And when we speak of kinah we are speaking of a poem of deep association. Deep association to the point of wallowing in our past, in our missed opportunities, in the losses and in the catastrophes of our people.

But like so much else in Hebrew the pain also contains the comfort. The wallowing of kinah can give way to renewal of kniah, a deepened, perhaps even the deepest of the deep, connection with Divinity, Holiness, and Beauty, when peace and kindness will reign.

Soon. In our days.

*By ‘deep’ I’m speaking to the implications of the association. When i purchase something, koneh, it is mine. As in ‘mine! mine! mine!!!!’ If you take it from me then you will go to jail.

That’s a pretty deep association.