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Liturgical Challenges


How do you experience Jewish prayer? Are you drawn into its words and hints and allusions, or do you find it hard to make meaning or sense of it?

A Sense of how I experience Jewish prayer

Jewish liturgy is a remarkable reworking and layering of Biblical verses. The Rabbis ask: why use words of silver when we have words of gold?” That is, why use the words of even the best of poets (“words of silver”) when we have God’s words (“words of gold.”)? If you want to know where the Hebrew came from for almost any traditional prayer, the answer is the Bible.  The Rabbis themselves had memorized the entire Bible, and they assumed that the person praying would also recognize the source of their collected allusions.

For example, the beginning of the Amidah, the silent prayer, starts by praising  “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” These words are a quote from Exodus. It occurs when Moses stands before God at the burning bush. This allusion invites us immediately into something marvelous and imaginative. We are invited to be like Moses as we stand before God. We too are in the presence of something, and if we can only find a way to open our eyes, we too can experience revelation.

This is one reason when I recite the Matriarchs I use an unusual formula. Most people follow our printed siddur and imitate the language used for the Patriarchs and say, “God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah.” By using this phrase I worry we diminish the Matriarchs. They become accessories to their husbands and lack any narrative of their own.

As a result, I say: Joy bringer to Sarah, maa’dane Sarah. Sarah laughs when she hears the promise that after years of infertility she will give birth to a son and says, “now that I am old will God bring me joy, edna? I continue: The One to whom Rebecca sought insight, nidrash l’Rivka. When Rebecca learns she is pregnant with twins, they struggle in her and she turns to seek prophetic insight, ldrosh etHashem. “Lover of Leah” comes from Leah’s first child when she hopes that now her husband will truly love her. My liturgy reminds me that God was always offering her love. And finally: Comforter of Rachel, m’nachem Rachel. This phrase comes from the prophets when Rachel cries out for her lost children and seeks comfort. The Divine in the Universe can bring comfort to us whenever we are ready to receive it. I prefer these four terms with each Matriarch because they are rooted in their own narrative and offer a new level of meaning to the prayer.

Further, the midrash comments on the verse from Exodus and teaches us that it offers room for theological pluralism. Why, the Rabbis ask, does the verse use God’s name three times when one would do? The answer:  to teach that each Patriarch experienced God in his own way and yet each was an aspect of God and each deserves to be part of our prayers.

All this layering creates a challenge for the person entering Jewish prayer. It can take years of effort and study to see all the allusions and meanings, to probe the Biblical narratives, the mystical concepts, and personal connections contained in just a few words. The words at first may appear impenetrable, archaic, and hard to access. How many of us are willing to make the effort?

I wish I had a good answer to this challenge. Resources and teachers exist, but at the end of the day it takes work. Perhaps this is a kind of answer. The word for prayer in Hebrew is l’hitpalel, a verb that more accurately means an act of self reflection or even self judging. To truly see ourselves, to judge ourselves honestly, is the work of a lifetime. It requires teachers, lovers, and hard work. Yet at least for me it is the truest path to a life lived in balance and in accordance with our deepest values.



Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784