I have a growing collection of Siddurim (prayer books) because I love lingering over the poetry and the imagery, the differences in tone and style that characterize different religious perspectives. And part of my pleasure in belonging to a congregation that prays together is that we always say the same words, aloud and in rhythm with one another. It is as regular and predictable as attending, calmly, to one breath after the next. Group prayer adds reassuring stability to my schedule. And it’s also true that sometimes, in the middle of saying so many words, I long for more communal silent spaces.
I’ve imagined what it might be like to have silent services shaped by liturgical consciousness, perhaps informed by single words that orchestrate the consciousness work of liturgy with minimal sound. I was teaching at a retreat with my friend Shefa, and I told her my fantasy.
“Maybe just three words,” I said. “One word from Genesis—Hineyni (Here I am); one from Passover Hagaddah—Dayeynu (It is enough for us); and one from Psalms—Ashrey (Happy).”
My idea was that people could sit together quietly, cultivating mindful presence. The group consciousness would be individual practice with the support that comes through feeling part of a group. The key word for that awareness of shared intent and commitment would be Hineynu (Here we are).
I imagined that Dayeynu (It is enough for us) might be the words people could think (or perhaps whisper) to acknowledge the peace of unconfused presence. Then I wondered, “How would I feel if someone whispered ‘Dayeynu‘ and I didn’t feel peaceful? Would that demoralize me or inspire me? Perhaps,” I said, “it would sustain me so that I could at least sigh ‘Dayeynu.’ If I could sincerely say ‘Dayeynu,’ whatever my situation, I would then be able to say ‘Ashrey’… in appreciation of the natural contentment of the balanced mind.”
Shefa and I mentioned our abbreviated liturgy discussion to the people at the retreat, but since retreats are silent (except for instructions and liturgy), no one commented. The next day the whole group sat for a mindfulness practice period using the technique of focusing attention exclusively on hearing sounds. My experience with this practice is often the direct, intuitive understanding that my sense of personal self exists only in relationship. It is a most immediate way for me to remember that there is no one who is ever alone. My interconnectedness is revealed when I listen.
After the hearing meditation, Shefa said, “I think our liturgy must also contain the word Sh’ma (Hear!).”
Rabbi Judith HaLevy, one of the retreatants, exclaimed, “Finally! I’ve been waiting for two days for you to say that!”
Later we all added another word. “Amen.”
Sylvia Boorstein is a psychotherapist, a teacher of Buddhism and an observant Jew.
Adapted by Sylvia Boorstein from her new book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist. Reprinted by permission of HarperSan Francisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.