the practice of prayer

kavanah – madlik goes to shul

What’s the logic of repeating the same prayers, daily, weekly and mindlessly?

Abraham Joshua Heschel answered this question with a story:

“There is a story, told by Rabbi Israel Friedman, the Rizhiner, about a small Jewish town far off from the main roads of the land.  But it had all the necessary municipal institutions; a bathhouse, a cemetery, a hospital, and a law court; as well as all sorts of craftsmen – tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and masons.  One trade, however, was lacking; there was no watchmaker.  In the course of years many of the clocks became so annoyingly inaccurate that their owners just decided to let them run down and ignore them altogether.  There were others, however, who maintained that as long as the clocks ran they should not be abandoned.  So they wound their clocks day after day, though they knew that they were not accurate.  One day the news spread through the town that a watchmaker had arrived, and everyone rushed to him with their clocks.  But the only ones he could repair were those that had been kept running – the abandoned clocks had grown rusty!

Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays By Abraham Joshua Heschel, Susannah Heschel p. 352 [1]

Take this as the Jewish version of the idiom:

“Even a broken clock is right twice a day”

If there are moments that prayer adds meaning to our lives, we probably should not wait for that moment …  to cultivate the art-of-prayer.

Heschel was undoubtedly thinking about moments of wonder, tragedy, joy and radical amazement. I’d like to focus on something more mundane – moments in the cycle of the year.

There are daily prayers that we say which provide the vocabulary and rhythm for special days of the year.

The most obvious example is the Exodus from Egypt

זכר ליציאת מצרים

We say “as a token to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt” for so many commandments and occasions that in the Kiddush for holidays, recited on Passover, the formula creates the irony of remembering to remember, as we remember.  We create a token, when we have the coin in hand…. We remember the Exodus.. even as we celebrate and re-live it!

“Praised are You…. You have given us .. this day of Passover, season of our liberation… as a token recalling the Exodus from Egypt..”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר… תִּתֶּן לָנוּ … מוֹעֲדִים לְשִׂמְחָה חַגִּים וּזְמַנִּים לְשָׂשׂוֹן אֶת יוֹם חַג הַמַּצּוֹת הַזֶה, זְמַן חֵרוּתֵנוּ מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם

I suppose this might be considered an example of rehearsing during the performance or winding the watch even when it is keeping good time… But it does confirm the importance in Jewish prayer for practicing for the moment… even in the moment.

Another example of prayer as a practice is the most basic blessing formula.  “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe.”

מלכויות

Kingship is the central theme of the Jewish New Year, where unlike the Babylonians who crowned their king as a god on their New Year, we crown God as our King … the only king.  The King of Kings.

“God is King, God was King, God will be King for ever and ever!” [repeat as necessary…]

ה’ מלך, ה’ מלך; ה’ ימלוך, לעולם ועד

As the early Christian followers of Jesus would tell you, there is something seditious about proclaiming anyone king besides the ruling king of the day … and we Jews, on our holiest days proclaim God (and not King George, Caesar or Jesus) to be our only King. In the context of the ancient near east, this was a powerful statement.

We practice for this climactic moment of Kol Nidre every day when we make the most trivial blessing:  “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe.”

We also practice for this crowning moment when we finish our daily prayers with the Aleinu prayer

We bend the knee and bow, before the King, King of Kings,  the Holy One blessed be He….

Thus it has been said, Adonai will be King over all the earth, On that day, Adonai will be one, and God’s Name will be one.

וַאֲנַֽחְנוּ כּוֹרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים וּמוֹדִים לִפְנֵי מֶֽלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים
הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא

 וְנֶאֱמַר:

וְהָיָ֧ה ה’ לְמֶ֖לֶךְ עַל־כָּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ

בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא יִהְיֶ֧ה

ה’ אֶחָ֖ד

וּשְׁמ֥וֹ אֶחָֽד

Here too, Jewish liturgy doubles down.  Even though every blessing uses a formula that includes Kingship and therefore prepares us for the High Holy Days, nonetheless, during the High Holy Days the Rabbis change the third blessing of the Silent Amidah from “The holy God” to “The holy King”

האל הקדוש  – המלך הקדוש

But the daily preparation for the holiest day of the year goes beyond God’s Kingship.

Listen to this prayer we recite daily after the “Blessings of the morning”.

Preserve me from misfortune and from powers of destruction. Save me from harsh judgements; spare me from ruthless opponents, be they members of the covenant or not. We should always revere God, in private as in public. We should acknowledge the truth in our hearts, and practice it in thought as in deed.

On arising one should declare: Master of all worlds! Not upon our merit do we rely in our supplication, but upon Your limitless love. What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness? What is our attainment, our power, our might? What can we say, Lord our God and God of our ancestors? Compared to You, all the mighty are nothing, the famous nonexistent, the wise lack wisdom, the clever lack reason. For most of their actions are meaningless, the days of their lives emptiness. Human preeminence over beasts is an illusion when all is seen as futility.

But we are Your people, partners to Your covenant, descendants of Your beloved Abraham to whom You made a pledge on Mount Moriah. We are the heirs of Isaac, his son bound upon the altar. We are Your firstborn people, the congregation of Isaac’s son Jacob whom You named Israel and Jeshurun, because of Your love for him and Your delight in him.

רִבּון כָּל הָעולָמִים לא עַל צִדְקותֵינוּ אֲנַחְנוּ מַפִּילִים תַּחֲנוּנֵינוּ לְפָנֶיךָ כִּי עַל רַחֲמֶיךָ הָרַבִּים. מָה אֲנַחְנוּ מֶה חַיֵּינוּ מֶה חַסְדֵּנוּ מַה צִּדְקֵנוּ מַה יְשְׁעֵנוּ מַה כּחֵנוּ מַה גְּבוּרָתֵנוּ. מַה נּאמַר לְפָנֶיךָ ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ וֵאלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ הֲלא כָל הַגִּבּורִים כְּאַיִן לְפָנֶיךָ וְאַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם כְּלא הָיוּ וַחֲכָמִים כִּבְלִי מַדָּע וּנְבונִים כִּבְלִי הַשכֵּל כִּי רב מַעֲשיהֶם תּהוּ וִימֵי חַיֵּיהֶם הֶבֶל לְפָנֶיךָ. וּמותַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן כִּי הַכּל הָבֶל:
אֲבָל אֲנַחְנוּ עַמְּךָ בְּנֵי בְרִיתֶךָ. בְּנֵי אַבְרָהָם אהַבְךָ שֶׁנִּשְׁבַּעְתָּ לּו בְּהַר הַמּורִיָּה. זֶרַע יִצְחָק יְחִידו. שֶׁנֶּעֱקַד עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. עֲדַת יַעֲקב בִּנְךָ בְּכורֶךָ. שֶׁמֵּאַהֲבָתְךָ שֶׁאָהַבְתָּ אותו וּמִשּמְחָתְךָ שֶׁשּמַחְתָּ בּו. קָרָאתָ אֶת שְׁמו יִשרָאֵל וִישֻׁרוּן

The similarity of the themes and motifs in this simple prayer and the prayers of the High holidays are too obvious to miss.. here are a few examples:

O my God, before I was formed I was nothing worth, and now that I have been formed I am but as though I had not been formed. Dust am I in my life: how much more so in my death. Behold I am before thee like a vessel, filled with shame and confusion. O may it be thy will, O Lord my God and God of my fathers, that I may sin no more, and as to the sins I have committed, purge them away in thine abounding compassion though not by means of affliction and sore diseases. O my God! guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile; and to such as curse me let my soul be dumb, yea, let my soul be unto all as the dust. Open my heart to thy Law, and let mv soul pursue thy commandments. If any design evil against me, speedily make their counsel of none effect, and frustrate their designs. Do it for the sake of thy name, do it for the sake of thy right hand, do it for the sake of thy holiness, do it for the sake of thy Law. In order that thy beloved ones may be delivered, O save with thy right hand, and answer me. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before thee, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Ne’eilah Service, Yom Kippur)

And what about the iconic Unetanneh Tokef:

Our origin is dust, and dust is our end. Each of us is a shattered urn, grass that must wither, a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, a particle of dust floating on the wind, a dream soon forgotten.

אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר
וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר
בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ
מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר
כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל
כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה
וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ וְכַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף

For those fortunate to have mumbled through the daily prayers, these words and tropes are old friends who roll off the tongue. When the special moment comes.. we are free of the letters and syllables to focus on the heart and emotions.

When at the concluding prayer of Yom kippur we plead: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before thee” it is a phrase that is used three times daily to introduce the silent prayer.

So now… let’s wind our watches for the upcoming holiday of Shavuot

After the introductory Psalms (Pesukei DeZimra) as the Shabbat morning service proper begins.. pay attention to the Nishmat prayer:

Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds — we still could not thank You sufficiently, HaShem our God and God of our forefathers, and to bless Your Name for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors, miracles and wonders that you performed for our ancestors and for us.

אִלּוּ פִינוּ מָלֵא שִׁירָה כַּיָּם
וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה כַּהֲמוֹן גַּלָּיו
וְשִׂפְתוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁבַח כְּמֶרְחֲבֵי רָקִיעַ
וְעֵינֵינוּ מְאִירוֹת כַּשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְכַיָּרֵחַ
וְיָדֵינוּ פְרוּשׂוֹת כְּנִשְׁרֵי שָׁמָיִם
וְרַגְלֵינוּ קַלּוֹת כָּאַיָּלוֹת
אֵין אֲנַחְנוּ מַסְפִּיקִים לְהוֹדוֹת לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ
וּלְבָרֵךְ אֶת שְׁמֶךָ
עַל אַחַת מֵאָלֶף אֶלֶף אַלְפֵי אֲלָפִים וְרִבֵּי רְבָבוֹת פְּעָמִים הַטּוֹבוֹת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ עִם אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְעִמָּנו

This is one of my favorite prayers of the weekly Shabbat service, not least because it foreshadows the most famous piyyut (liturgical poem) recited on Shavuot.  Akdamot were every line ends with a taf and an aleph.. the last and first letter of the hebrew alphabet. (see also E-Hazzan Blog).  This like the Nishmat prayer is an “A-Z” prayer proclaiming the limitation of human communication to describe and praise God’s infinite glory.

Before reading the ten divine commands,
O let me speak in awe two words, or three,
Of the One who wrought the world
And sustained it since time’s beginning.

At God’s command is infinite power,
Which words cannot define.
Were all the skies parchment,
And all the reeds pens, and all the oceans ink,
And all who dwell on earth scribes,
God’s grandeur could not be told….

akdamot

 

 

 

 

[3]

The Akdamot poem, one of the high points of the Shavuot service and the Nishmat prayer recited every Shabbat are cut from the same cloth.  Jewish prayer as a practice is ultimately possible only because of the uniform messaging in Jewish prayer.  The same themes appear in different intensity and on different days, but whether it is on a sleepy tuesday morning or the closing prayer on Yom Kippur those who enjoy the practice are prepared for those rare moments where prayer is in the air.

broken clock
———-

[1] See also:

“Once, in a village far from the noise of the world, the only watchmaker there died.  One after another, the villagers stopped winding their watches.  All except one man who, although he knew without a doubt that his clock was not working well, continued winding it every day.  Years later, another watchmaker finally arrived in the village: he was unable to repair any of the broken clocks because their delicate mechanisms had rusted, except for the man who had diligently wound his watch day after day.  The same happens with prayer.  We must continue praying even when we don’t always feel that we are really concentrating in our prayer, because the delicate mechanism of the human spirit can also easily become rusted.”  (You Are My Witness, pg. 79)

[2]

“The uniqueness of their (the Jewish People’s] relationship is reflected in the vision of God wearing tefillin as a parallel to .. the people of Israel.  God’s tefillin are said to contain the verse “Who is like your people Israel, singular on earth?” (See Siddur Sim Shalom p. 526)

[3] “Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book” edited by Morris Silverman with Robert Gordis, 1946. USCJ and RA, 185-88 see

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Filed under Hebrew, Judaism, prayer, Religion, shavuot, yom kippur

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