The Wayfarer’s prayer

This is a Jewish prayer that is said when you go on a journey. The Hebrew name for it is Tefilas Haderech. This is a slightly modernized version with I believe better wording. You can look up about this prayer online for instructions on when exactly to say this or simply say it just as you are about to depart on your journey.

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“May it be Your will, our God and God of our ancestors, that You lead us away in peace, guiding and directing our journey in peace. Bring us to our desired destination in health, joy, and peace.

Keep us from all the harm and misfortunes that roam this world. Bless our work. Let us find kindness and openness in those we encounter wherever we go, and before You as well.

Hear our prayer, God, for You are the One who listens to prayers. Praised are You, the One who hears prayers.”

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When you return, the prayer of thanks for a safe journey is the Birkat Hagomel prayer – which is also said having narrowly escaped danger or having recovered from a serious illness.

That prayer is this :

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who grants favors to the undeserving, Who has granted me all kindness.”

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Prayer shawls

There is a ministry that some churches are participating in where they make prayer shawls. However, they aren’t quite getting it. The shawl isn’t the point. The tassels are.

Numbers 15:37-41 (HCSB)
37 The LORD said to Moses, 38 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them that throughout their generations they are to make tassels for the corners of their garments, and put a blue cord on the tassel at each corner. 39 These will serve as tassels for you to look at, so that you may remember all the LORD’s commands and obey them and not become unfaithful by following your own heart and your own eyes. 40 This way you will remember and obey all My commands and be holy to your God. 41 I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am Yahweh your God.”

The church groups mean well, but they are making the shawls and not the tassels. Fringe doesn’t count. The tassels are to remind you to keep God’s commandments. When this commandment came, God said simply to affix the tassels at the corners of their garments. This way the person would see them.

Later, the Jews made a special garment that has the tassels. This is still not the “prayer shawl” – it is for everyday use if you are an Orthodox man. It is called a “tallit katan” and is a four-cornered garment, kind of like a poncho. It has a hole in the middle to put your head through. It is put on in addition to regular clothing. They have a separate prayer shawl just for special prayers. It can be a range of sizes, as long as it has four corners and each corner has the prerequisite tassel. The tassels are not just any tassels – there are very exacting rules about the length, color, and number of cords in them and how they are knotted.

The tassels are “tzitzit” and the shawl is a “tallit”. A tallit without the tzitzit is not a prayer shawl – it is a piece of cloth. Even if one of the tassels is frayed, the whole thing is invalid as a prayer shawl.

I like the prayer shawl ministry – it lets the other person know that people are thinking about them. They get a tangible reminder of the love that others have for them. Plus, a blanket is like a big hug. Every time they feel lonely, they can take this shawl and wrap it around themselves and feel better. This is great – but it isn’t a prayer shawl in the Jewish sense. Perhaps there needs to be another name for these Christian “prayer shawls”, or a distinction spelling out that they are not the Christian version of a Jewish prayer shawl. They are not used for prayers in the Jewish sense, but to let someone know that they are being prayed for.

Jesus wore a tallit with tzitzit, as any other Jewish man of the time would do. Notice it mentioned in this story –

Matthew 9:20-22 (HCSB)
20 Just then, a woman who had suffered from bleeding for 12 years approached from behind and touched the tassel on His robe, 21 for she said to herself, “If I can just touch His robe, I’ll be made well!” 22 But Jesus turned and saw her. “Have courage, daughter,” He said. “Your faith has made you well.” And the woman was made well from that moment.

Sometimes “the tassel on His robe” is translated as “the hem of his robe” but this is inaccurate. She is reaching for the tzitzit, the visible reminders of following God’s commandments. They are holy things, unlike the hem, which means nothing at all. Lest we get into idolatry, the tassels are not something to worship. They point towards God, and are a reminder to always serve God through doing good deeds.

Blessing for everything

“To ‘bless’ does not mean the same thing as ‘to thank’. …it is too much to expect most people to actually thank God for the bad things that happen to them. Barukh, the Hebrew word for ‘bless’, comes from the same root as the word for knee, berekh. Many scholars see a connection: To bless God is to kneel or bow before the Divine (either literally or symbolically), acknowledging God as greater and more powerful, and the Source of all – both good and bad – that happens.”
– from “Swimming in the Sea of Talmud” by Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz

To bless God for everything is to acknowledge that God is making everything happen. If we truly believe that God is One, that God made everything and everything is from and of God, then we have to believe that everything that is and everything that happens is from God.

Perhaps we never left the Garden. Perhaps when we ate from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, we saw with new eyes. Our eyes had seen only things as they are, not differentiating between Good and Evil. Things just were what they were, with no judgment.

When we divide events and people and things into Good and Evil, we have left Paradise, but only mentally. Physically, we are still there.

When we decide to withhold judgment and just see events and people and things as they are, not deciding that they are Good or Evil, then we reenter Paradise.

Nothing is absolute – events that seemed bad at the time turned out to redirect us towards a healthier path. People that seemed bad at the time turned out to have problems that we didn’t know about – we “cut them some slack” and our relationships improve. That food that we didn’t like as children? Years later it is our favorite snack. Things change. Our experiences expand us. We don’t have “the big picture.” Time gives us perspective.

Hold on. Trust. God is in charge. We don’t have to fix it all, and that is a great mercy.

The sages say that the things we perceive as “bad” come from the first two letters of God’s name, the “yud” and the “hey”, while the things we perceive as “good” come from the second two letters, the “vav” and the (second) “hey”. Both are from God. They are neither Good or Evil, deep down.

They just are. No judgment. No definition.

Start blessing God for everything, acknowledging that God is God, and God is good. Ask God for new eyes to see the beauty in everything, and for patience to trust that God is working out God’s plan.

Communion words in Hebrew and English.

These are traditional Jewish blessings that I’ve incorporated into the Communion service. They seem logical to use, as Jesus would have known and used these prayers every week for Sabbath. I’ve included the Hebrew, the transliteration, and the English for all the blessings. Feel free to use both the Hebrew and/or the English. It is important to make the people you are celebrating Communion with feel special and included. Use what you feel would be most meaningful and inclusive.

Put out a nice cloth that has room for everything you need. You’ll need two candles, a plate, a goblet, an unbroken piece of matzo, and some grape juice (or wine).

Light the candles with these words –
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ברוך אתה ה’ א לוהינו, מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו להדליק נר של שבת

Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel shabbat.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us to light Shabbat candles.
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Then, touching the matzo lightly, bless it with these words –
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ברוך אתה ה’ א לוהינו, מלך העולם, המוציא לחם מן הארץ

Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam hamotzi lehem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
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Break it into smaller pieces – enough for everybody there, and distribute it.

Then, holding up the goblet with the grape juice (or wine), say these words –
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ברוך אתה ה’ א לוהינו, מלך העולם, בורא פרי הגפן

Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam borei p’ri hagafen.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.
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Pass around the goblet and let everyone drink from it. They can also choose to dip their matzo piece into the grape juice (or wine) and then eat it.

(If this has been of use to you, you might want to read “The Condensed Gospel” and “Free Range Faith”, both available in print and e-book from Amazon, by Betsy Nelson)

Alphabets

If you want to gain an appreciation for how hard it is to learn to write, try learning another alphabet. I’ve always thought that the English alphabet is fairly simple. But that is because I was raised with it. I’ve been using it for years.

When I started tutoring kindergartners, I realized that are a lot of letters that look alike. Lower case “p” and “b” and “d” and q” look a lot alike. A lower case “n” is just a “u” upside down. In one way this is useful. It is a great way to see if a child has a learning disability. If she can’t ever “see” these differences, then perhaps her brain isn’t processing them.

Part of learning to write an alphabet is learning at what point a letter isn’t that letter anymore. This comes into play when you are handwriting the letters. At what point is an “n” an “n”, and at what point is it an “h”? If you put just a little too much tail on the “n” it changes into an “h”. If you put the tail on the right it is wrong. If you put the lines in the wrong place then it isn’t a letter at all. It is just a squiggle.

Writing is just an agreed-upon set of squiggles. Teaching letters to a child is just teaching these symbols, these agreed-upon squiggles. They are symbols because they have meaning. They have meaning because we agree that they do. In and of themselves they mean nothing.

I’ve come to appreciate how hard it is for anybody to learn the English alphabet because I’m learning Hebrew these days. I’m learning to write, read, and speak it. Well, maybe not the whole language. Just now, I’m learning the prayers. I bought a siddur, a Jewish prayer book, but it didn’t show the pronunciations. It showed the Hebrew words and the translation. I want the middle bit – the how-to-pronounce-it bit. I have a book by Blu Greenberg called “How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household” and it has a lot of what I want. There is also a website called “Hebrew 4 Christians” that is very helpful. But none of this is portable. So I’m making my own prayer book. And this involves handwriting the prayers.

Sure, I could literally copy-and-paste, but that would make my little book not so little. Pasting paper onto paper makes the book too thick. Ideally, I’d find some way of assembling this online and then printing out my own little prayer book, but I’ve not found a way to do this. Other alphabets aren’t always supported. And, ultimately, I do want to learn this alphabet. I like learning alphabets. So the best way is to write the words onto the pages myself.

I’m learning a lot of the letters look the same. Some look like just slight variations on other ones. I don’t quite know what makes one letter different from another. What must be included to make sure this letter is this letter? What is too far? What isn’t enough? It is the same as with the “n” and the “h” – what is the line that makes this one different from this one?

I want it to be perfect, but it isn’t going to be perfect without practice. I’m sure that if a reader of Hebrew looks at this, she might be able to figure out what I’ve written. Sure, I could practice on my own, away from this book. I could try to write the prayers and the letters out by hand and then copy them over to this book when I feel that I’ve gotten it – or I can just do it. I think there is something honest about that. I think God likes us to just try, to open ourselves up to being able to make mistakes.

You’ll never learn to walk unless you let go of the table you are holding on to. You have to try to take a few steps on your own. And when you do, your parent is overjoyed. Your first few baby steps are beautiful to her. They are awkward, and wobbly, but they are beautiful. They are beautiful because you are doing it. And with every step, you are walking closer to your parent’s open arms.

I think God thinks the same about my little prayer book. The letters are awkward and wobbly, but they are beautiful. I’m trying. And with every stroke I’m getting better. And with every stroke I’m walking closer to God.

McNugget Communion

One reason I became a chalice bearer was to see things up close. There are things that happen at the altar that the church members don’t ever see. You can remove the “gate” at the communion rail all you want to make the church seem more open and inclusive, but there is always going to be a sense of “us” and “them” when the altar is twenty feet away from the nearest person, and at least a hundred feet from the furthest one.

One part that nobody knows about unless you are up there is the hand washing bit. Even the acolytes usually don’t even notice it. It is a ritual hand washing, and only the priest does it. This is done right before the elements of communion (the wafers and the wine) are handled.

Another member of the altar party, sometimes the crucifer (the person who carries the main cross), sometimes just another chalice bearer, will bring over a cruet of water, a small metal basin, and a linen cloth. The priest puts out his/her hands and the other person pours a little bit of water over the fingers, catching the water in the basin. The priest dries his/her hands with the linen cloth. The priest says some words quietly during this time – quietly enough that other person cannot hear them.

None of this is in the prayer book. The congregation has no idea this is going on from the “script”. I asked once, and the priest wouldn’t tell me what the words were. Like it is a secret.

It isn’t a real hand washing. There is no soap. There is no scrubbing. It is ritual.

So what is it?

It is straight from Passover, and thus straight from Shabbat.

At the beginning of Shabbat, you are to wash your hands and say the Netilat Yadayim prayer. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Master of the Universe, who has sanctified us with thy commandments and commanded us about washing the hands.” Everybody does this – not the “leader”. All are equal.

The more I read about Judaism, the more I realize what a cheap thing the Christian Communion ritual is. The two candles on the altar? They are the two candles on the Sabbath table. The communion wafers? On the regular Sabbath table it is challah, which is nice fluffy egg bread. At Passover, when the Last Supper took place, it would have been matzo, which is unleavened bread. Why are the pieces so small for communion? Because an “olive sized piece of bread is the smallest piece you can make a blessing over.” There is always wine at the Sabbath table if it can be afforded, and always enough for everyone to have at least a glass. Not a sip.

These things are mandatory for a Sabbath meal – bread, wine, and two candles. There are different blessings for each. The candles are always lit first at Sabbath and at the beginning of the church service. At Sabbath there is always a nice meal, using the best linens and plates. The meal is always a real meal – homemade. No leftovers.

We’ve mass produced the Sabbath. We’ve reduced it to a snack, not a meal. We’ve packaged that snack with so much pomp and puffery that we think it is really awesome.

It is the difference between Mama’s fried chicken and chicken McNuggets.

It is the difference between Granny’s pecan pie and a Tom’s mini pecan pie you bought in a gas station.

Me? I want the real thing. I’m not able to settle for the replica, the ritual any more.

The bread of God.

“Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:3b)

There is a Jewish blessing that is said at every meal that has bread. It is called the HaMatzi Blessing. In English it is:

“Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the Earth.”

Now, bread does not come from the Earth. Bread comes from wheat, which comes from the Earth. And it doesn’t just spring forth. It has to be planted by humans. It has to be tended by us. Then it has to be harvested, threshed, and milled. Only then it can be used to make bread.

Yes, we have to be thankful to God that the Earth produces food. We have to be thankful of the amazing process that makes a seed grow into a plant which grows into food. We should never take that for granted. But we also are part of the process. We have to do work too.

The blessing refers to the time when the Jews were wandering in the desert and had nothing to eat. It isn’t really about bread. It is about reminding us that God always provides for our needs. That we should take nothing for granted. That we owe our very existence to God.

We say there are no miracles anymore. We forget that every moment is a miracle. We forget that every beat of our heart is God saying that we are loved and we are needed.

The verse above is what we are familiar with, but it is only part of the verse. Here’s the full verse:

“He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then He gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (HCSB)

There is a Christian twist on this blessing that changes it to “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe who brings forth the living bread from Heaven.”

This is a reference to Jesus’ words in John 6:35-40:

35 “I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “No one who comes to Me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in Me will ever be thirsty again. 36 But as I told you, you’ve seen Me, and yet you do not believe. 37 Everyone the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do My will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39 This is the will of Him who sent Me: that I should lose none of those He has given Me but should raise them up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of My Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

Jesus said this after feeding 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish, which were a donation. There were twelve baskets of food left over after everyone had been fed. In the Gospel according to Mark, book 8 we learn that Jesus also fed 4,000 people with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. There were seven large baskets of leftover pieces.

That miracle is the same miracle as the manna. God always provides for us. It rarely is in a way that we expect. Even Jesus’ disciples didn’t expect this. He did this miracle twice, and they still didn’t get it. They still didn’t understand that it isn’t about the bread at all.

God is bigger than we can imagine. God is always providing for us. Blessed be God, who provides bread – that the conditions are right for wheat to grow, and that we have the knowledge and skill to create it into something that will nourish us. Blessed be God, who feeds us in surprising ways.