Writing an Iyyun

PREPARING AN IYYUN T'FILAH

  1. What is an Iyyun T’fillah?
    • An Iyyun Tefillah (more than one are "Iyyunay Tefillah") is an introduction to a prayer in the service, or a brief perspective on a current event or the Torah portion. It literally means something akin to, “directing prayer.” 
    • Here at Woodlands, we especially value a connection (a thematic or aesthetic tie) between all the thoughts expressed from the beginning to the end of the service. Each iyyun builds on the one preceding it, and sets the stage for those to follow. For us, this gives meaning to our tefillah that goes beyond the simple recitation of prayers. 
    • For preparing an Iyyun Tefillah, you can use readings from the siddur (our Shabbat prayerbook), a theme from this week’s parashah (Torah reading), an article from a newspaper or magazine, a speaker you've heard, a story, a quotation, or any topic that's important to you. These sources may be Jewish ones, but a different source if fine as well.
    • Don’t be afraid to use humor; it’s an important part of life, and can be a valuable tool in elevating the spirit in prayer.
  2. What is the purpose of an Iyyun T’fillah:  
    • To give each congregant something that will help make the recitation of prayers a more meaningful experience;
    • To help unify our shared worship under one thematic umbrella.
  3. How long is an Iyyun T’fillah?
    • 250 words or less.
  4. How do I prepare an Iyyun T’fillah?
    • In 250 words or less, combine the theme of the service with the theme of the prayer you’re introducing, and share an idea about what that might mean for each of us.
  5. How do I present my Iyyun?
    • Iyyunim should be written out in their entirety or as bullet-points.
    • You'll be invited up to the bimah just prior to the prayer you’re introducing.
    • Speak clearly (not too fast, not too slow) and with modulated tones (i.e., be interested in the words you're sharing).
  6. What are the themes of our prayers?
    • Barekhu: Beginnings, getting started.  Entering into dialogue with God (call-and-response form of prayer ... God calls, will we respond?).  Barekhu comes from Hebrew word "berekh" (knee) ... what is there in our lives that is worth bending our knees for (ie, bowing in humility)?
    • Mee Khamokha: This is the song the Israelites sang after crossing the Red Sea.  It is taken from the book of Exodus, chapter 15.  Traditionally, it teaches that God redeemed us from Egyptian slavery, demonstrating that God watches over us and protects us, so we must never forget that we were once slaves and, like God, must always respond to the suffering of those around us.  Did this miracle really happen?  Some say yes, many say no.  But what’s most important is that we learn and live its lesson.  God created a world that permits unbelievable events to occur WITHIN nature, often by our own hands, which is perhaps the greatest miracle of all.
    • Hashkivenu: A bedtime prayer that asks God to protect the world while we're asleep so that we might wake up to a world as good or better than the one we experienced that day. It not only asks God to watch over it, but that we might learn from God how to best take care of the world, and how to fill it with the goodness and compassion and peace that we know God wants for it. Hashkivenu speaks of God's "shelter of peace," a blessing we yearn for and promise to work for.
    • V'shamru: Comes from the book of Exodus, chapter 31, verses 16-17.  This is God’s commandment that all Israel should observe Shabbat.  There are a couple of traditional reasons why:  a)  Shabbat is a sign of the Covenant ... observing Shabbat is our sign to God that we can be counted in;  b)  Shabbat is a way of acknowledging that we are not the world’s creators;  and, c)  Shabbat is also a good time to slow down and smell the roses.
    • Amidah: Standing before God. Petitioning God (Here's what our ancestors asked;  what would you ask for?). Continuing the traditions of our ancestors before us. Carrying forward the values they cherished. Transmitting these values to the next generation. Reminding ourselves what those values are.
    • Shalom Rav: Judaism's most precious prayer ,,, for peace in our world. The Hebrew word "shalom" means "wholeness," "completeness." This is what true peace is ... when everything is in its place, when everything is complete. By the way, Shalom Rav is a sneaky prayer. It says, "Thanks, God, for giving us peace" (as if we already have it). But it's really saying, "Please, God, help us to create a peace like the one You've told us about." 
    • Silent Prayer: This is a period of quiet contemplation, a good time to personally probe the evening's theme. Because you don't have a specific prayer, you've got the most latitude here. I encourage you to use a brief story (personal or not) or news article or quoted passage to create a mini-message to accompany our thematic exploration.
    • Oseh Shalom: Speaks of the peace which God successfully maintains in "the heavens above" and that we want to help make that peace a reality in our own world (literally, "May God bring peace to us all"). Peace, by the way, is a Hebrew word (shalom) that literally means "wholeness, completeness."
  7. Examples of Iyyunim.
    • Pre-Barekhu Iyyun ... using a humorous published story. Before the train pulls out of Penn Station, a passenger asks the conductor to make sure he gets off the train in Huntington. He then closes his eyes for the hour's ride. At Stonybrook, half an hour past Huntington, the man, still on the train, realizes what has happened and gives the conductor a real tongue-lashing before disembarking. Another conductor sees the entire exchange and says to the first, "Wow, have you ever seen anyone so angry?" Says the first conductor, "Yep. The guy I just threw off the train in Huntington." To change the world, one could say, "The important thing is to try." But we don't really want things to be worse off for our efforts. Nevertheless, the Barekhu is calling our stop ... change is needed ... so let's not just act, but let's use our heads and try to get it right.
    • Pre-Mee Khamokha Iyyun ... using a contemporary Jewish text. In Shirat HaYam, the "Song of the Sea" in Exodus 15, we encounter the original appearance of Mee Khamokha. So reaching Mee Khamokha during service is somewhat significant, and worthy of moment of reflection. Let me then take advantage of this moment to say: (whispered) "It may never have happened!" I know an HUC rabbinical student who lost a bi-weekly pulpit for making that comment. But scholars, fearless in their pursuit of historical accuracy, are more and more convinced this stuff has been made up. And that can be a very disappointing thing to hear. But listen to the words of Rabbi David Wolpe: "The Torah is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy, but rather for truth. The story of the Exodus lives in us." Whether or not there was an Exodus ... whether or not there was an Egyptian enslavement ... whether or not any of our sacred stories took place as described in Torah ... does not change one iota the FACT that these stories are sacred. They are still thousands of years old. They are still the texts our ancestors have always loved, and always studied. And they still retain the power to affect us, to challenge us, and to shape kind of people we choose to be. Mee Khamokha is the song that was sung after a sea broke open wide and an entire people moved from danger into safety. Is not that story being told all the time? Is not that song being sung in every age? It is the "Song of the Sea." It is ours. We will love it, we will respect it, and we will learn from it ... forever.
    • Pre-V'shamru Iyyun ... using a personal anecdote. My son Jonah doesn't much like services. It's difficult for him to sit still too long for anything. As an 11th grader, he was here for the 12th grade Gradutation service ... which was especially tough because, most of the time, he sat while the 12th graders did their thing. That's why, sitting up here on the bimah, I was amazed to see him thoroughly immersed in ... well, in something. It couldn't have been text-messaging or playing a game ... there wasn't enough movement. It couldn't have been the service itself, could it? Nope. At end of evening, I noticed that he'd left his service on his chair. When I picked it up, I saw something I'd never seen before ... hands ... he'd been drawing hands. Throughout the evening, he'd been selecting different ways to hold his booklet in his hand ... and then drew the picture of him holding it. Now, as a rabbi (and as his father), I could have been upset that (yet again!) he paid little attention to our service. Or, as a father (and as a rabbi), I could have noticed (for the first time!) that he's really good at that! I decided on the latter. Shabbat is gorgeous. It's a gorgeous time ... and a gorgeous spiritual place. It reminds me just how blessed I am ... to be part of such a beautiful world. Like a couple of drawings reminded me just how blessed I am ... to have such a beautiful son. "It is a sign forever between Me and the people of Israel, for in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God rested and was refreshed."