Saturday, January 18, 2020

Why is the prayer service dull and impersonal?

Brachos 16
Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, consists of 120 members, in tribute to our latest major ruling body, The Men of the Great Assembly.  These rabbis led the people during the Second Temple period and enacted many institutions that have maintained Jewish life till the present day.  A particularly transformational idea they introduced was the Siddur (prayer-book). 
Rabbi Aba was one of the youngest members of the Great Assembly.  An erudite young man, he was accepted to the venerable body at the early age of 36.  One day, he entered the Assembly with a proposal.
‘How about we write a universal book of prayers?’ he suggested. 
The old Sages looked at the naïve youngster, and responded, ‘Prayer is such a personal enterprise.  Who would use a fixed prayer formula?  How could anyone connect with Heaven with impersonal prayer prescriptions?  Wouldn’t that negatively impact the entire spiritual experience?’
Replied Rabbi Aba, ‘Imagine the following: A Jew from Israel travels to Persia.  He walks into the synagogue and they’re praying all the same prayers that he’s familiar with from back home!  Wouldn’t that be a powerful unifying force for the Jewish people?’

After Rabbi Chia prayed he said the following: May it be Your will, Lord our God, that Your Torah should be our vocation, and may our hearts not become pained nor our eyes dim. After his prayer, Rav said the following: May it be Your will, Lord our God, that You grant us long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of physical health, a life of dread of sin, a life without shame and disgrace, a life of wealth and honour, a life in which we have love of Torah and reverence for Heaven, a life in which You fulfil all the desires of our heart for good. After his prayer, Rebbe said the following: May it be Your will, Lord our God, and God of our forefathers, that You save us from the arrogant and from arrogance, from a bad man, from a bad mishap, from an evil instinct, from a bad companion, from a bad neighbour, from the destructive Satan, from a harsh trial and from a harsh opponent, whether he is a member of the covenant, or whether he is not a member of the covenant.

The fixed prayer formula can sometimes feel stifling.  Prayer should be an uplifting experience, a moment when your entire being feels at one with the Creator.  And yet, we’re given this book of prayers with words and phrases that feel so distant from our personal lives.  Why did the Men of the Great Assembly insist on such a rigid and antiquated prayer service? 

Imagine you had the opportunity to write the Siddur.  What would you include?  Most of us would start with prayers for the health and wellbeing of our family.  We would then continue with prayers for material prosperity.  After that, we might include prayers beseeching assistance in the realm of human relationships.  And those of us who are more globally-minded would then conclude with prayers for world peace and the environment.

Now open up your Siddur.  The Shemoneh Esreh (primary thrice-daily prayer) includes prayers for rain, the crops, justice, righteous leaders, and Jerusalem.  When we make a sandwich for lunch, do we turn our eyes heavenward and thank Hashem for sending the rains in the right season and allowing the crops ample sunlight?  If you’re a farmer, you would.  But most of us don’t think twice about how the loaf of bread made its way to the supermarket shelf.

Left to our own devices, most of us would neglect many of the prayers that are vital to our existence.  While the Torah’s prescription allowed for the prayer duty to be personal and open-ended, Rabbi Aba realized that most of us don’t have the patience or sagacity to include all the ingredients that should make up our daily prayers.  His idea was designed to assist us in ensuring we’ve covered all our bases when we communicate with the Almighty.

Does that mean that prayer needs to be a dull, impersonal ordeal?  Not at all.  Once we’ve recited the universal formula, our Sages encourage us to include personal supplications.  The Gemara offers various examples of additional prayers the talmudic rabbis would append to their daily recitations.  These addenda range from requests for companionship and an abundance of students to the ability to remain calm and humble in the face of adversity.

Prayer without focus is like a body without a soul.  If you don’t personalize your prayers, you will quickly tire of the experience.  Each day, find something private and meaningful to include in your supplications.  May you find prayer exhilarating, uplifting, and personally moving!

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