So, I was working on some curriculum for my Theology class on Prayer and wrote the following piece. It is the result of many years of thinking about prayer and pulls from a piece that I wrote for Rosh HaShana a couple of years ago to introduce the Musaf Amidah. It is written specifically about Jewish prayer but I think could apply to prayers of other faiths and practices as well. I would love to hear your thoughts.
Connecting to What is Truly Important
HaMorah Nance’s Thoughts on Prayer
I often feel that Jewish prayer is valuable whether or not one believes that God is out there listening and responding to our words. In “Entering Jewish Prayer”Reuven Hammer quotes Franz Rosenzweig who said “Prayer is its own fulfillment” (pg 4). Hammer goes on to say that:
…ultimately prayer is also intended to have an effect on the individual and his or her actions. It makes us more aware of the world, of nature, of history, of God’s role in history, of the nature of God and God’s demands upon us. It emphasizes the importance of study and of the performance of commandments, both moral and ritual. One should emerge not only spiritually enriched from prayer but also morally purified, more closely identified with the traditions and beliefs of Judaism, and committed to living according to its high standards of ethics and morality. (pg 4)
If we think about the intermediate blessings of the weekday Amidah we can see that there is much for us to gain by saying these words regardless of our current belief status. We begin by being thankful for discernment, wisdom, knowledge and common sense – four things I can’t imagine getting through the day without and that we all can use a reminder to use for good. We move on to being grateful for the ability to fix our mistakes and move closer to God again. Who hasn’t wanted a friend, sibling or parent to allow us to do just this? Who hasn’t needed to make room for someone to be able to fix what was broken with us and regain closeness? We then ask that the roadblocks in our lives be removed, that our path be made smooth. These small redemptions are favors that we can do for each other and asking God to do so for us, should remind us to look for opportunities to do so for others. We ask God to heal those who are broken in body and in soul and are reminded that we should visit a sick friend or give someone who is down a hug. We ask God to bless the year and to cause the Earth to give forth its bounty so that we can prosper. Are we reaching out to help those who do not get their share of this bounty?
These personal petitions each contain a kernel of moral and ethical teaching that should cause us to be a better person through our daily, weekly or less frequent recitation of them. The prayers of the High Holidays also contain much that we ourselves need to hear. Pleas for forgiveness, opportunities for repair and return, statements of uncertainty about our future and our place in the world are all calls for us to think of those who look to us for the same absolution or guidance. The national petitions which follow in the Amidah can also help us to focus on our connection to the Jewish people and its history and place in the world. The shofar gadol which will herald the ingathering of the exiles can cause to think about our lives as Jews living in America and about the State of Israel and our place there. Restoring fair judges reminds us of the necessity of justice and fairness for all peoples. The most difficult of all b’rachot, the request that God destroy the arrogant, asks us who is arrogant and divisive and to look inside and make sure we aren’t speaking about ourselves. A prayer for the righteous, for those who support and maintain the community, those who dedicate their lives to teaching and studying, those who cast their lot with the Jewish people by choice and all of us who work to continue Jewish traditions, reminds us to appreciate and thank these very people and to appreciate all that they do. Just as the Rabbis of old knew that Jews would not survive internal dissention, they also knew that we also could not survive without those who work to build up our communities.
The prayer for Jerusalem and the return of the Davidic line call our attention to Israel and life there as we struggle for peace, justice and safety in our ancient homeland. It reminds us that we should be engaged and knowledgeable about what is going on there and engaged in assuring a future Israel that reflects the best of our Tradition.
The final b’racha in the intermediate blessing asks God to hear our prayers and our pleas – תפלות ותחנונים. This blessing is a place where one can add one’s personal words of prayer and reach out to God in a personal and intimate manner. While the Amidah is seen as including all of one’s needs, one’s personal desires and concerns can, and should, be added at this point in the prayer. Perhaps, as an echo of the theme of this b’racha, one should pray to be able to hear the needs of those around them?
By being attentive to the meanings and themes of the b’rachot, and not just saying the rote Hebrew words, one is able to draw one’s attention to that which is truly important in life. Prayer becomes deeply personal and meaningful and guides one’s thoughts and actions. It is this that is the true purpose of prayer and allows us to each bring the spark of the Divine into the world. It creates a sense of wonder and appreciation as well as giving purpose and direction to our life. As Rabbbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “Prayer may not save us, but it will make us worth saving.”