Sacred Words

As part of my spirituality training, I have been exploring issues relating to personal prayer.  Many of the articles I have read put down those people who use fixed prayer. A prayer book, many say, is a waste of time. Real prayer comes from the heart and must speak about what we are carrying in our soul. Fixed prayer is a performance and if we truly want to pray, we have to get out of our seats and put ourselves into the action.  I understand the importance of personal prayer. I understand what it means to open your heart before God and spill out the pain, the hurt and the frustration as well as expressing the joy, the happiness and the gratefulness that reside there.
I was reading Rabbi Naomi Levy, the introduction to her book “Talking to God”. She writes, “When I was a teenager, my girlfriends and I were often trying to diet. Our motto was: A moment on the lips is a lifetime on the hips. It meant that an act that took just an instant could remain with you forever. I like to apply this phrase to the process of prayer. A prayer takes just a matter of seconds to utter, but its influence on our lives, on our behavior, on our hearts, on our perception can be permanent.  A moment on our lips is a lifetime on our souls. A simple prayer can change us; can lead us on the path to healing ourselves and our world.”
There is no doubt in my heart that her words are true. Words uttered in sincerity and words that come from the heart are some of the most powerful words in the world.  These are the kinds of words that can inspire a heart, a community, a nation to move to make life better. These words can set our souls free to soar closer to God. Words that come from the heart break out of the walls that we build around our hearts and around our lives so that we don’t have to care or be concerned about the injustice and the hurt. They can bring about an Arab Spring, motivate a Mother Theresa. When we can break out from behind the walls that protect and confine us, we are able to do the most amazing things. Personal prayer, the expression of our soul before God, can do all of this.
And yet, I know that this is not enough.
What are the words that keep us going when life is tough? What are the words that give us courage, hope and strength when our bodies are about to fail? What are the prayers that that are sung when we are climbing that impossible hill that separates us from our dreams? What words do we repeat over and over when we need to renew our hope and our resolve? It seems there is a role for a fixed liturgy after all. 
A fixed liturgy represents the best words of some of our greatest minds. They are the map that shows us where others have marked the trail so we do not feel that we are alone and lost. Others have been here and have left us the words that helped them when they were in this dark and lonely stretch of highway. Are there not Jews who have faced the fears of the night by quoting Moshe Rabbenu saying, “Shema Yisroel…?” Every day Jews celebrate the joys of life by quoting the Sages of the Talmud saying, “Shehechiyanu  V’Kiamanu …” It is very rare indeed to find a mourner who does not find comfort reciting, “Yitgadal v’Yitkadash…” In a modern congregation, it is hard to find those who would be uncomfortable praying for the sick by singing “Mi Shabyrach” with the new liturgical melody by Debbie Friedman.
The fixed liturgy is where we turn when we have no more words in our heart; when we face life and we don’t know what we should say, or what we could dare to say to God in that moment.
Some prayers are personal and need to be recited by the heart that carries them inside. Some prayers allow us to take the words of other people and make them our own. Personal prayers are about our longing; the fixed liturgy is about our responsibilities. Personal prayer starts in the heart and explodes outward into the rest of our life. The fixed liturgy starts on the outside and penetrates deep within our souls.
The ancient Rabbis were very wise. They gave us the fixed liturgy of the Shema and the personal space that comes with the Amida in every collection of prayer. When we have the words in our hearts, we have the space to express them in prayer. When our hearts seem empty, we have the liturgy to “prime the pump” to remind us of what prayer can be and what it should be.  Sure, we could recite a fixed liturgy by rote. But just like an old love song can mean more to us when we hear it because of our history with that song, how it was played when we met our beloved, and when we married, and at our 50 anniversary; so too, a fixed liturgy can be an old friend, always there to express the everyday feelings that make up our lives. 
I like this way of looking at words: Old and new friends helping us find our way to God.

4 thoughts on “Sacred Words

  1. It's very interesting and perhaps a great testament to fixed prayer that Ashrei, said daily, is missing a line. Somewhere in the deep recesses of scribes and scholarship, the "Nun" line fell out of the acrostic. For a couple of thousand years we've gone from "Mem" to "Samech" with that one line missing even though it appears in the Septuagint.Why does the line fall out? Was in missed in a copy and that copy became the standard? Or was it removed for a reason?The fixed text traditionally goes without it, yet since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and proof positive that it does really exist in other contemporary copies, most siddurim continue to go without it. Does how we recite a fixed prayer trump what we now know to be the correct text? And is the minhag of how we recite that thing that binds us into community with a common liturgy?Great stuff, Rabbi; great food for thought.

  2. I just wanted to praise your metaphors and gentle conveyance of a complicated understanding of prayer. I really appreciated the reminder and the exploration. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Your words are beautiful, but I wonder whether we'vbe lost some of the impulse for spontaneous prayer and need to regain it, writing our own love songs inspired by those of the previous generation. I also wonder whether too many words–the accumulation of too many old love songs–get in the way of the present. On a trip to Israel, I realized I was racing through birkat hamazon, and now always do a shortened version with kavannah. I think that there is an important teaching of tafasta merubah lo tafasta–if you try to grab too much you grab nothing. Look how people avoid doing birkat hamazon because it's so lengthy. One of the great things many conservative shuls do is to shorten the liturgy–let's do less, and let's do it well.

  4. As far as Ashrei is concerned, I am not sure that it ever had a "nun" verse. I think people have tried to add it in and I don't know why it would be left out but as far as I know there is no direct text that has the "nun" added. As for "fixing the flaws", that is a different story. When we find something that we love, we accept it as it is, and don't try and fix it. After we "fix up" our home, we learn to live with the flaws that are left behind. Rather than marring the beauty, we find the mole or birthmark on our beloved as an identifying mark. In the same we we don't like to change our prayers to make them more "modern" or "relevant" we would rather just explain away the problem. This is why we don't often change the prayers in the liturgy. As for "shortening" the liturgy, that,as you wrote, is a matter of kavanna and taste. Would you want to watch a shortened version of the movie "Casablanca"? Some people even get offended if you try to "colorize" it. When you are in relationship with the words (we like to say "engaged" a good relationship term)you don't really notice how long it takes. We can spend hours doing nothing with our friends but be bored out of our minds doing nothing for the same amount of time with people we don't know. In liturgy, it is only about time for those who are not "engaged" with the prayers. People who come late to the service often say it is boring. Those who come for the beginning and stay to the end never complain. To these Jews, prayer is an act of love and you never tire of being with the one you love. But to be fair, you don't enter into that kind of a relationship easily. It takes lots of "dates" and lots of time. You can't find "true love" in prayer if all we have is a serious of "one night stands". Prayers are from the deepest part of our soul, the very essence of who we are, and our attachment is very deep. I don't say the depressing words of Tachnun daily because I want to feel depressed. Tachnun means something different to me than anyone else. When I learned to say the liturgy, Tahchnun was the last prayer I learned (it was the longest so I was not in a hurry to add it to my daily davening) but when I finally learned it, it began to symbolize the completion of the service. I have always said it with pride in my accomplishment even though it happened when I was a teen. There are other prayers; the last line of Adon Olam got me through a very scary day in my life. I linger on Psalm 100 when I am feeling grateful,I add personal names to "refa'anu in the Amida. Each of my children have their names represented by a pasuk in the Pasuke D'Zimra. These are my personal moments in prayer. They make the fixed liturgy "mine". Even the rote prayers thus become personal prayers and I am blessed to have the time to linger over them. This is what I mean by "old and new friends" are helping me find God.

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