A number of years ago I was fortunate to be able to go to Israel on an Interfaith Clergy trip sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council and the ICJS. We left on a bus from the Chizuk Amuno parking lot, and just as we were pulling out the leader of the trip suggested that we should say a prayer at the beginning of our journey together. Since we were an interfaith group it only made sense that one prayer would be offered by one of the Christian clergy, and one prayer by one of the rabbis.
First the Christian pastor got up, and took the microphone at the front of the bus, closed his eyes, and spontaneously began to pray. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of ‘let the Lord God, God of all people, bless our group in fellowship and faith. Let our time together be full of meaning and hope, let us learn from one another, let us grow in faith together with respect and love. Let us journey in safety, let us return to our loved ones enriched by the experience, and let us together say Amen.’ It was a beautiful prayer, prayed right from the heart, on the spot, sensitive to the fact that Jews and Christians were embarking on this experience together, and expressing our shared sense of mission and God.
Then it was the rabbi’s turn. The rabbi walked to the front of the bus, took out a pocket siddur, looked at the table of contents, began to flip the pages, eventually finding the page that had what prayer on it? The Traveler’s prayer, Tefilat Haderech. The rabbi read the prayer word for word, straight from the siddur, first in Hebrew, and then in English translation. The Traveler’s Prayer is also beautiful and meaningful, but it lacked the spontaneous nature of the prayer the Christian pastor had offered, and it felt more like a rote recitation of a text as opposed to an actual prayer that was trying to connect human beings and God. I am not sure what the Christians on the bus thought of that Traveler’s Prayer, or even how the other rabbis experienced it, but to me it was an illustration of the way in general that Jews struggle with spontaneous prayer. We like to have our text, we like to know what page the prayer is on, we like to open the book to that page, say the words are supposed to say, and be done with it, check the box.
Now sometimes there is something to be said for having that book, for knowing the page and being able to read the words. First of all there is a level of familiarity to it which creates a sense of comfort. Secondly, there is the ability even if you didn’t feel any great emotional connection to be able to say I did what I was supposed to do, I read the prayer and fulfilled my obligation. A prayer book also gives you the advantage of having something to say. With a book you don’t need to worry about ‘what should I say, what if I don’t know what to say, what if I can’t think of anything to say.’ None of that matters because you can just read what is on the page. And last, but certainly not least, there can be something powerful about everyone saying the same thing at the same time, about communal prayer, that you can only arrive at with a text. And the siddur gives Jews access to all of that, not by any means to be underestimated.
But the prayer book also comes with a set of problems, and one of the most difficult of those problems is that the siddur never changes. The words we read from the siddur this morning were the same words that were read here on Shabbat morning at Beth El 30 years ago, and in all probability even 50 years ago. The weekday amidah prayer, said by traditional Jews three times a day, day in and day out, never changes. It doesn’t matter if it is raining or snowing or sunny out, if it is fall or spring, if the stock market is up or down. It doesn’t matter if the person saying the prayer is 15 years old, 50 years old, or 85 years old. With very minor exceptions, it never changes.
Now on the one hand this is a necessity. A liturgy, at least to a certain extent, has to be repetitive and fixed. That enables it to be a point of unification for a community, because everyone is familiar with it. I have many times had people tell me that they were traveling and found a synagogue, entered it for services, and felt immediately at home because they recognized the service, the payers, even some of the tunes. And the reason that happens is because the service is standardized and rarely changes. The repetitive nature of the service also lends to the sense of ritual – ritual by definition is repetitive, connecting you into a community, and also to a history, in Judaism’s case with our services a stream of history that is about two thousand years old.
But the problem with a changeless liturgy is that you or I might arrive in shul, open up the prayer book, and we might not be able to find anything in it that relates to the way we are feeling, to what kind of day we are having, to what is going on in our lives. And if that happens once, it is not the end of the world. But if it happens to someone again and again and again, after a while that person isn’t going to be interested in coming to services, and they aren’t going to believe that the prayers in the siddur have anything to say, having any real meaning. And then why would they come?
Spontaneous prayer is a solution to this problem. What do you suppose people feel is their favorite part of this service? Besides the sermon of course! I’ve been told over and over again. The mishebeirach prayer that we recite during the Torah service. That is the one moment prayer wise where most people find the most meaning. Why? Because it is personal. Because while we are singing the words together, in their minds they are thinking about real people in their lives, people they care about, people they hope – and pray – will be healed. And so that moment feels real to them, it touches them, and the spontaneous part of it is that every individual is thinking about someone they know and care about.
This morning’s Torah portion describes the very beginning of Abraham’s journey, just as God calls him to what will become his life long mission. When he first arrives in the land of Canaan Abraham builds an altar, and offers a sacrifice, a way of showing God gratitude for the fact that he had completed his journey safely. And then the Torah uses an unusual phrase – ויקרא בשם ה׳ – in our Humash you’ll find this phrase translated as ‘Abraham invoked the Lord by name.’ And that translation sounds so staid and dry, like the rabbi on the bus, Abraham took out his siddur, looked in the table of contents, found a prayer, and read it word for word. But of course Abraham didn’t have a siddur, and the force of the Hebrew in the verse – ויקרא – is that he called out, he raised his voice, that it was a moment filled with emotion, and that the prayer that he offered came from his heart.
It is that kind of prayer that we need to recover in our community. Not that we should throw out the service, or the structure, the prayers we know so well and have been reciting for so long. But that perhaps the balance isn’t what it should be – perhaps we’ve become overly reliant on the words and the page numbers, and not as comfortable as we might like to be with looking to God and calling out to the Divine straight from our own hearts. May we find the strength, the courage, the hope, and the belief to pray in that way בשבתך בביתך ובלכתך בדרך יבשכבך ובקומך – when we sit in our homes, when we walk by the way, when we lie down, and when we rise up –