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Winding Up God

Winding Up God

Looking back, that raucous 1970s rock tune had it all wrong.

by Rabbi David Schallheim

Riding on a public bus often catapults me into the past. My ears perked up, recently, when I heard the radio start playing music from the raucous rock band of the 70s, Jethro Tull:

You can ex-communicate me on my way to Sunday School
and have all the bishops harmonize these lines...
I don't believe you, you got the whole damn thing all wrong
He's not the kind you have to wind up on Sunday.

I don't want to date myself, but these lines brought me back to my rebellious high school days as a post Bar Mitzvah teenager in Southern California, who couldn't find a more perfect expression of his disdain of organized religion than the second side of Aqualung.

Although the local congregation we attended generally made do with "winding God up" once or twice a year on the High Holidays, Jethro Tull's message remained the same. And since our family was of the Temple faithful who attended services virtually every week, Friday night seemed to me as legitimate an object of resentment as Sunday did to Jethro Tull.

Doing for God?

The source of this resentment is a basic misconception. We tend to think we're doing God a big favor when we go to services or the like. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Sages made this point in a startling way. Imagine you're fasting on Yom Kippur, spending the entire day in the synagogue, doing teshuva -- repentance -- for everything you can think of. The congregation reaches Neilah -- the concluding service, the holiest prayer of all, recited only once a year on Yom Kippur afternoon, at the end of a day we've been acting like angels. We're all thinking: "I'm fasting, I'm praying. Look how much I'm doing for God!"

The mitzvot are opportunities to achieve greatness.

Here the Sages make a statement that appears nowhere else in the liturgy, based on a verse in the Book of Job (35:7): "Even though man be righteous, what can he give You?" God is complete, perfect. Nothing we do will benefit Him. The mitzvot? These are opportunities that God, in His love for us, gave us to achieve true greatness. We are not doing God a favor, rather God is giving us the opportunity of a lifetime.

What more apropos place to make this point than at the end of Yom Kippur, when we're sorely tempted to feel holy?

Reflexive Prayer

For some people, communal prayer presents a strong obstacle. How can prayer be meaningful if everyone has to recite the exact same words? How can the prayers be fixed at certain times? Are we supposed to open up our hearts to God like clockwork?

In other words, does God need us to "wind Him up"?

Perhaps a misunderstanding arises from the Hebrew word tefilla, inadequately translated as "prayer." The verb l'hitpalel -- "to pray" -- is a reflexive verb, meaning that it is something done to oneself. Obviously, this does not mean that we pray to ourselves. So in what respect is Jewish prayer reflexive?

Jewish prayer is an act of introspection.

Prayer is reflexive because it brings us face to face with the great harmony at the core of our existence. The root "pallel" means to inspect. The reflexive form, therefore, is an act of personal introspection. When we pray, we look inside and ask, "What do I need to change about myself in order to get what I really want out of life?"

Jewish prayer is nourishment for the soul, and we need it three times a day, like clockwork.

I keep a 70-year-old gold watch, which belonged to my grandfather, next to my state-of-the-art laptop, to remind myself of a lot of things: Where I came from, the benefits I enjoy from the incredible progress of technology, and the amazing craftsmanship of yesteryear (the watch works pretty well, will my laptop work even five years from now?) I enjoy winding up the watch. It reminds me that valuable things need constant attention.

Maybe, if it was carefully explained, even Jethro Tull could understand that we're not "winding God up," but rather we're the ones who need to be "wound up." And maybe, if it were explained carefully, that rebellious teenager would have understood, too.

February 25, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Daniela, February 27, 2006 12:00 AM

I think we may need another article...

It seems from the comments so far, and even from the fact that the article might be a little incomplete in explaining why we need *set* prayers, not just prayer in general, that we need another article explaining comprehensively yet simply why it is that we need set t'filot with set times to begin with, why it is that praying on one's own and with one's own words is not sufficient in order to get the effect we need to as Jews in order to fully communicate with HaShem and get as much out of it as we're supposed to. It seems a lot of people also still have a problem separating personal behavior toward others with the mere fact of someone praying every day in the prescribed manner. I would point anyone questioning the validity of praying according to prescribed, set prayers to the Ask the Rabbi page of this site, but I think a full, comprehensive article on the subject is in order. If one was previously shown before, we need it to be featured again.

(5) bruce ritchie, February 27, 2006 12:00 AM

Dear Rabbi David,
I like your article about "winding up God". I must disagree with your assessment of Jethro Tull (Ian Anderson's band) and the song, however. In the same tune he also says,"before I'm through, I'd like to say my prayers." It is clear to me that Anderson was talking about the many failings of humans engaged in religion, and not about any problems coming from God's side of things. Part of the discreptency could also be that you do not have a strong connection to the religious experiences that Ian Anderson most probably has gone thru. I, for my part, cannot think of an album closer to God than Aqualung, since it is written from the viewpoint of a down and out street person who's breathing is so laboured that it sounds like scuba gear. The album is all about compassion.

(4) Rachel, February 26, 2006 12:00 AM

Even tefilla can be 'winding up'

No matter how much ruach hakodesh (a minor level of prophecy) went into the composition of our prayers, the prayers in the Siddur can indeed become very monotonous and can feel like one is 'winding up' G-d. Having a chart which tells you by which time you have to have said Shema can contribute to that feeling. So can having other things on your mind, such as your business affairs or gettting to that meeting on time. I've seen plenty of people leave davening and still not treat others very nicely. On a recent trip to Israel, in the heart of the Old City, the rapture I felt in being able to daven to G-d in the heart of Yerushalayim was shattered by another woman who sat a few feet away from me and davened in a monotone loudly enough to ruin my concentration. Her voice conveyed less emotion than a recitation of all the names in the phone book. And she was an obviously religious woman, too.

I don't see much connection between the physical act of davening, regardless of how often, and the introspection of teshuva and self improvement. If a person is open to making improvements to his character, then the praying will accomplish something, otherwise, it can be an empty exercise. In fact, reciting set prayers might impede a person from doing the cheshbon ha-nefesh, the self appraisal that we all should do, because of the time involved in the praying. That doesn't mean that we should not connect to Hashem every day. It only means that tefilla is not sufficient to make the connection - we really need to take a good, hard look at ourselves and try to understand how we seem to others, and try to be the kind of people that G-d wants us to be.

(3) Will Duquette, February 26, 2006 12:00 AM

Faith is a daily thing

I've always understood the song rather differently: that a faith that has to be artificially "wound up" on Sundays isn't much of a faith. Ian Anderson's alternative may have been no faith at all; me, I'm with Rabbi Schallheim that true faith continues through the day, every day. In short, I question his criticism, not his conclusions.

(2) L. Kanterman, February 26, 2006 12:00 AM

The point of "wind up"

I think you missed the point of "wind up". Ian Anderson's point, I believe, is that a person's connection to the divine is NOT contingent on organized religion. "He's not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays" means, to me, that you can find a connection to G-d through life experiences, not just through prayer and worship.

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