Divre Harav – March/2019

Rabbi Simeon says, “Be meticulous in the recitation of the Shema and the Amidah. When you pray, don’t make your prayer a prescribed routine, but let it be a [plea for] mercy and grace before the Blessed Holy One. As it is said, ‘For God is gracious and merciful, patient and abounding in love, taking pity on evildoers’ (Joel 2:13). Do not regard yourself as an evil person.” Pirke Avot 2:18

There are two main elements of traditional morning (or evening) prayers. The first, the Shema, is not technically prayer. Rather, it is the recitation of three Biblical passages whose function is to first accept God’s authority over our lives; second, to accept the obligation of mitzvot; and third, to use tzitzit as a concrete reminder of mitzvot. To summarize: Love Adonai, your God, with all your heart by listening to God’s commandments and tying tassels to the corners of your garments as a reminder of those mitzvot.

The Amidah is the name for the prayer section of our service, defined as a time when we are speaking directly to God, at least partly with a petitionary agenda. Although our liturgy has a fixed text for the Amidah, Rabbi Simeon’s instructions are to make the words of prayer our own. Put your heart into your prayers, focusing on asking for love, mercy, and grace not just for ourselves, but primarily for others around us. To focus only on our own needs during prayer is not only selfish, but also indicates that we think we have some special deficit that God needs to address. God may take pity on evildoers, but Rabbi Simeon cautions us not to assume that we are one of those evildoers in need of God’s special attention. Thus, most of our prayer should be focused on the needs of others rather than our own.

There has long been tension between fixed liturgy and prayers of the heart, or in Hebrew, between keva and kavanah. Keva describes fixed themes of prayer and can guide us towards non-selfish prayer. Kavanah encourages us to engage in a conversation with God in which we can share our particular burdens and joys. Individual, spontaneous prayer reflects the highs and lows of our spirit in the moment; fixed prayer reflects ongoing self-reflection and the highest ideals and aspirations of our relationship with God’s world.

Finally, the word tefillah connotes some degree of self-reflection. When we prayer, we not only offer petitions for our and the world’s needs, but we also reflect on how well we have done living up to our potential, living fully as one created in the image of God.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Tefillah – Prayer, self-reflection
  • keva – fixed liturgy
  • kavanah – focused direction of thought and prayer

Psalm 134

“Who stand nightly in the house of Adonai …” (134:1)

For those who want to build a strong spiritual core, there is no substitute for doing the hard work of prayer, study, and meditation, along with taking care of their physical self with good nutrition and exercise. This is a daily regimen of spirit-building, training themselves to be aware of their place in the world as beings created in the image of God. Goodness and connectedness do not come naturally, but only over time do they develop an innate sense of what is right and true.

Psalm 110

“He raises his head.” (110:7)

The Psalmist is speaking of a person whose posture suggests that he is confident that he is under the protection of God, a hero, secure in his ability to succeed. This is in contrast to the person who advises “Keep your head down” or “Keep your nose to the grindstone,” who comes from the opposite perspective, suggesting that we keep a low profile and not call attention to ourselves.

During the most important Jewish prayers, we stand upright in an attentive, dignified posture. When addressing the Blessed Holy One, we want to present ourselves well. We do well to approach others with the same confident posture.

Psalm 98

“Sing to the LORD a new song.” (98:1)

I like some new music, but the music that really draws me in are the lyrics and melodies that I have heard many times before. I don’t understand why giving God a fresh, newly created, song is better than putting one’s heart and soul into a song that we’ve been singing for millennia. Ironic, isn’t it, that the lyrics of the ‘new song’ that the Psalmist is singing is in the neighborhood of 2500 years old, and we are still greeting the Sabbath with it! So God … I hope you are satisfied with some old songs alongside the new ones.

Psalm 83

“Let us take the meadows of God.” (83:13)

People often say that their most spiritual moments come when they are away from other people, the synagogue or church building, and they are by themselves surrounded only by nature. It is in the meadows, amidst the mountains, the desert, or bodies of water, that they find God. I get this. People can be difficult and distracting. But prayer is not only a time to connect with God for its own sake, it is a spiritual discipline meant to refine the human being. And learning to find God while accepting others for who they are, annoying quirks and all, is the highest level of spiritual achievement.