Artie is a Wexner Heritage Program alumnus from Columbus. Artie teaches creativity to corporations and at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. He leads brainstorms at artieisaac.com. Artie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excerpted from a sermon presented at Temple Israel, Columbus Ohio.
The folks in my congregation think I understand prayer. Kippah topped, tallit swaying — boy, do I have them fooled.
I have nearly no idea what’s going on.
It’s not that my Wexner Heritage Booster Shot wore off. It’s just that everything I learned (while overeating on mountaintops) distracts me.
For example, a faculty member — I think it was Rabbi Michael Paley — taught me that Yom Kippur is the day the Jews act as the real estate lawyers for all humanity. We’re in landlord court, the landlord is God, and God is disturbed by how we’ve neglected the property and mistreated the neighbors. God has prepared eviction notices for some of us — and all of us might just be sent packing. We plead and promise and, as the gates are closing at Neilah, we toss in a few extra petitions.
That’s a great narrative, but I find it distracting.
Even without the help of the beloved faculty, I’m not the best siddur page turner. I’m constantly lost and wondering which page we’re on. This is because I get stuck on some of the pages. And then everyone else seems to race off and I’m left behind, pondering just what some prayer means.
When I was teaching seventh grade in our Religious School, and really had to know what everything meant, I once asked Rabbi Misha Zinkow, “What does this blessing mean?”
Anyway, he says, “It means what it says. It doesn’t have a secret meaning. It means just what the words say. They might seem far-fetched or hard to accept, but they aren’t in a code.”
I think he wanted me to be happy about this, but it only slows me down. Because, if the prayers aren’t in some ancient Jewish Pig Latin (you’ll excuse the expression), then I feel ever more responsible for knowing what I’m saying.
It’s not like when you rent a car or order dinner in a fancy restaurant — you aren’t supposed to understand what you are agreeing to drive or eat. You just close your eyes and nod. But here in the defendant’s box, I need to know what my testimony actually means.
So I’m lost, but I know where I am.
I’m thinking about creativity.
This is partly because I teach creativity.
And it’s also because Rosh Hashanah celebrates creativity because it’s the anniversary of God’s creation of the earth.
I’m told, by people who really know Hebrew, that the phrase isn’t “In the beginning, God created…;” it’s “In the beginning of God’s creating, God created….” Small difference? Not to me. I teach creativity and God sounds like a creative artist entering the studio.
And I’m thinking that even God must overcome divine creative blocks. “What am I going to create today?” thinks God.
And so, falling farther behind in the prayer book, I start thinking of all the questions I try to answer to overcome my mortal creative block.
Here are those questions.
They are questions that only we can answer for ourselves. I ask them during High Holiday services.
Question number one is a biggie:
• What would I do if I had no fear? Of course, healthy fear keeps me safe all day. But I still need to ask. Our consumer culture wants me to fear everything, and buy safety from my fears.
There are many more questions that occupy me when I’m pretending to pray. Here are some other questions I’m asking myself:
• Who are the people whose opinion truly matters in my life?
• Who are the people whose opinions don’t truly matter in my life?
• And what would I do now, anyway, if they were all suddenly dead and buried?
• In whose hands do I place my morale?
Then two questions about who I am and what should I do with my time:
• What do I love doing more than anything else?
• How can I figure out how to do more of that during the coming year?
This next question comes from my interpretation of The Chosen. In Chaim Potok’s classic novel, we are told that — each year — we must acquire a teacher and choose a friend.
I know a lot of people, but I don’t have a lot of friends (except on Facebook).
In real life, I want to be a good friend to a few people, rather than a superficial friend to more. So, how many friends do I have? Maybe 10? Probably only five. I can’t be a good friend to an unlimited number of people. So, if I add a friend each year, I’m going to have to get rid of one.
So here’s the question:
• If I were to quietly separate myself from 10% of my friends, which ones would I choose? (That sounds bad, but that 10% probably wants to get away from me, too.)
So, how do I know which friends to jettison? By asking more questions:
• Which people in my life bring me down?
• Which ones ask me to be something other than what I want to be?
• Which people lift me up?
• Which people help me to become my most authentic self?
These aren’t pious questions. They’re not even questions I’m proud to be asking myself. But I am the only one who can ask them of myself. And they need to be answered.
• What are my parents’ traits that I want to inherit? What are their traits that I
want to avoid?
• What are my children’s traits that I want to inherit and avoid?
The world doesn’t care if we answer these questions, so like I said; only we can ask these questions of ourselves.
If you like these questions, I have a lot of questions posted at artieisaac.com
So I’m sitting quietly wondering a couple more questions:
• What don’t I know?
• And just how am I going to learn it next year?
I hope these questions help you get lost in prayer.