I have been blessed over the years with good friends. They check in on me when they don’t hear from me in a while. They send me pictures and messages on Facebook that they think I would like. They send emails about what is going on with them and their families and ask me about my children and my work. In good times and bad, I am blessed to have good friends I can rely on.
One of the things that make our friendships strong is that we don’t base our relationship on external things. I don’t care what kind of a car they drive or what color they paint their home. They don’t have to dress to impress me since what we value is on the inside. It is our values and character that drives our friendship, the rest is interesting but not crucial. When you have good friends, you overlook the details because the inside is so precious.
This past Shabbat, I realized that the same thing can be said about prayer. One of my teachers was amazed about how I could find so much spirituality in my prayer. After all, they are the same words, recited every day ; how could I pray every day in my minyan, davening at or near the speed of light, and still have them pierce my heart and move my soul? I explained that, to me, each prayer is like an old friend. I get to greet him each day and see what he has to say to me. Sometimes we just nod a greeting to each other, but other times I find important wisdom in his words or he sparks an idea in my head that unfolds like a flower. The daily Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv converse with me like old friends and I never tire of their company.
But just like my personal friends, I don’t worry too much about what is on the outside. I know that there are those who pray and who love to pray in exactly the same way every day. They have their favorite tunes, favorite siddur and favorite place to sit in the synagogue. It is not the same if anything is changed. They claim that it undermines the service if someone should sit in their seat, use a different book or sing a new melody. I see their point. Changing the music or the siddur does change the experience of prayer, but that is not a bad change. Like turning a diamond to see the different ways the light is refracted in the gem, so too, when we make minor changes in the liturgy, or the way we sing the liturgy, we can discover new ways to understand our prayer and our relationship with God.
It is easy to try this. Take a favorite prayer and change all the masculine pronouns for God and turn them into feminine pronouns. The prayer suddenly will have new things to teach. Or replace all gender terms for God with neutral terms, “He” or “She” becomes just “God”. How does this change the way we think about God in our lives? When I use an older prayer book, I change the “thee” and “thou” to “you” and “your” and suddenly the prayers take on a more contemporary feel. Adon Olam has thousands of tunes you can sing it too, and each one lends a different flavor to that moment at the end of the service. Do we end the service reverently? Cheerfully? Whimsically? It is all in the tune we choose.
Think of the song, “Lean on Me” sung by Bill Withers. In its original melody, it is an ode to friendship. Take the same words and give them a reggae beat and it becomes a celebration of friendship. Take the words and give them a gospel sound and the lyrics become a spiritual prayer. The music is like a different costume, a different look, but the changes in music change our perspective on the words. The changes in style set the words free.
Just as our friends grow and change, a development that matches our own growth, so too can we discover new meaning and life in old prayers if we let them grow and change over time like us. Holding our prayers stagnant over time is like trying to hold down our dear friends. They may enjoy our company and the extra time with us for a while, but eventually they will grow restless and feel the need to move away. Just because we let them go away, does not mean that the friendship is over. It only means that we have given it the space it needs to grow deeper and stronger.
Changes in the service should be welcomed and embraced. The old have not been discarded. My friends, the prayers, are still there to embrace me with their warm hugs each morning and evening. They are just wearing different clothes, and I have a chance to see them in a new light and from a different point of view. As always, I am richer for the encounter and my heart is filled with the love we share.