by Sam Glaser
My cherished custom every time I land in Florida is to head straight to the beach and jump in the glassy, warm water. The shock of the Pacific chill is absent…no wetsuit required…and the white sand unfolds to the North for hundreds of miles. Upon arriving on this last trip with my fellow Jewish singer and good buddy Todd Herzog, we dropped our bags at the beachfront hotel and davened a peaceful mincha (afternoon prayer) before jumping into the shallow blue-green playground. As we pondered the pelicans and sandpipers, Todd asked me some penetrating questions about why one would want to say the same exact words three times a day. He was curious what I get out of it. Am I was focusing on just getting the words out or am I actually thinking about meanings? Where do I add my own thoughts? And what happens on Shabbat when we stop making requests from God…what am I praying for then?
This conversation got me thinking about why I am so obsessed about getting in my thrice-daily conversation with our Creator. Is it all hot air? Does God hear me? Is it for God or me? Why do the words have to be just right? Have I been brainwashed? Isn’t repeating the same behavior while expecting a different result the definition of insanity? I know…lots of questions. My first answer is that prayer keeps my God-focus intact. It exercises a spiritual muscle that grows stronger with each repetition. Just like a marathon runner would never start a race without training, saying the Amidah (standing prayer) three times a day keeps me spiritually limber. Using that same analogy, for someone just starting out, I never recommend they try to tackle the whole siddur. Bite size chunks, little by little, adding a few miles a day makes the runner a success rather than a crash and burn heretic. I don’t wait for inspiration to pray that may or may not come. I would argue that davening regularly makes God your best friend, your teammate that you train with daily. It makes the elusive “I-Thou” bond palpable.
The next obvious question is “why repeat these exact words? How about prayer from the heart?” Over the past twenty years I have found that respecting Jewish tradition is a safe road. Generations of righteous people have rallied around these specific paragraphs for millennia and I believe that they have served as a key to our unique and unprecedented survival. The Men of the Great Assembly codified our central prayer nearly 2500 years ago…and it was clearly already in use when they did so. Among their ranks were several sages of prophetic stature. They boiled down God’s will for the Jewish People in eighteen (later nineteen) crucial categories. When we repeat this menu of our deepest needs, we enact our partnership with God in bringing them to fruition. So central is this prayer to our existence that it is simply referred to as tefila (THE prayer) when discussed in the Talmud. The Sh’ma and psalms are important, but the Amidah is IT. I think Rashi says it best when he explains that l’hitpalel, or to pray, means to dream or think ultimate thoughts. We utter nineteen dreams for humanity and those dreams become part of us, defining our aspirations and clarifying our service to God.
When my brother and I were getting more involved in our heritage we made a pact with each other that we call “Holocaust Proofing.” Interestingly, we both came up with this practice on our own and then shared it with one another. The idea is that the structure of the siddur is set up for memorization due to the repetitive nature of the prayer experience. Over the years, with minimal effort we were able to internalize the morning, afternoon and evening prayers so that if we were to find ourselves without a prayer book or, God forbid, in an adverse situation, we would always have these crucial words on our lips. In my personal practice I pray without a book every other time so that I don’t lose the accumulated knowledge. One of the keys to this technique is mouthing the words silently, a custom that we learn from our prophetess Hannah when she so ardently prayed for a child. Just scanning the words doesn’t seem to be as effective as quietly pronouncing every last one.
A friend who was recently divorced was appalled that the rabbi writing her Get (divorce document) didn’t have a special kavanah (spiritual intent) as he wrote the letters with careful calligraphy. She kept asking him to try to infuse the document with spiritual meaning and passion and the frustrated rabbi could only reply, “my kavanah is that I’m writing a Get, period!” Sometimes my emotional connection in prayer isn’t so passionate. It’s the exercise that counts. Rabbi Natan Lopez Cardozo states that simply saying the words, even if you are thinking about the stock market, is still a remarkable triumph. Indeed, taking time out from one’s busy schedule to stand with God is a profound step that cannot be underestimated. I find that my personal Amidah is on a continuum, from awe-inspiring, tear filled revelation to squeezing in a quick mincha hiding behind a Christmas tree in an airport. I’m convinced that those radical moments of sublime unity wouldn’t happen if I didn’t subscribe to the “Just Do It” day-to-day practice.
For me, the key is to make each prayer session personal and real. I realize that most minyanim don’t allow slow nurturing of each syllable but I still insist that the key is in living the words. My rabbi Moshe Cohen says the first paragraph of the Amidah is the web address. If you misspell Appel.com you are going to get some random website. Or worse. If there’s any place that you want to deeply focus and use the formulaic words of the millennia, this is it.
Even this single minute of concentration is hard to achieve when your head is filled with worry and deadlines. That’s why we start with a sentence asking God to open our mouths for us; we have to supersede our human limitations to enter the realm of the spirit. A crucial place to pause is the prayer for healing, refa-eynu. The Amidah is written in the plural…it’s not all about you! This paragraph is a perfect place to take a break and earnestly say the names of those who are in need of healing of the body and spirit. I try to make sure I’m focused on Jerusalem during the prayer for the holy city…it’s not enough that I’m facing East; I try to envision a vortex of holiness at the site of the Temple spreading all the way to Los Angeles. During Shma Koleynu I insert anything I’m dealing with at the time, in my own words, silently speaking in plain English exactly what I want and need. Then I make sure that my Modim (thank you) is real, that thanks is pouring out of me like a grateful defendant who just received a positive verdict.
Todd’s last issue concerns how to navigate the personal prayers on Shabbat. The middle thirteen blessings with personal petitions are not part of the Sabbath liturgy. This omission heightens our sensitivity to the glory of the day, since we are tasting “Olam Habah,” a realm where all our needs are met. Crying about our needs can create a sense of lack and potential bitterness, clearly counterproductive in our attempt to establish a sacred island in time. We certainly are allowed to pray for our spiritual needs and for communal imperatives like healing and peace. Our sages recognize that praying for a soul mate is a spiritual need. A good question is what happens for those who only pray on Shabbat…when do they get to ask for their personal needs if not on Shabbat when they do show up to the synagogue?
As I first started praying regularly and respecting Shabbat my main battle was consistency, “walking the talk.” The beauty of the Amidah is that it helps to unify our inner and outer essence and keep us on a divine pathway. Clearly, success in prayer happens when we are honest in our personal reflection, baring all to our God that perceives all. Tefilah and Tofel, or secondary, have the same root, teaching us that part of the foundation of prayer is making oneself secondary to our Creator. It re-establishes our servitude to a Higher Power; we shouldn’t be cowardly, but humble, making God’s will our will. I have found that this powerful prayer forces me to constantly reassess my personal will with divine will and when in doubt, to err on the side of holiness.
Since the powerful spiritual practice of reciting the Amidah requires engaging and understanding the Hebrew text, it’s important to find a good siddur. The book I prefer is the new Artscroll’s Interlinearsiddur since it has the English printed in a clever way under each word. In fact, I think that it’s intellectually dishonest for a non-fluent Hebrew speaker to use anything else now that this amazing tool is available. It also has the prayer “aerobics” instructions for when to stand, bow and say amen.
In the words of MC Hammer, “We got to pray just to make it today.” Prayer affects worlds beyond our grasp. It connects, corrects, consoles, propels, heals and inspires. With the weight of the world on our shoulders we can opt for fight or flight. As the People of the Book and the Children of Israel, we have at our root a connection to the collective wisdom and strength of the past and a penchant to get into the ring. Yisrael means to struggle with God and man. And win! The Amidah is one of the best tools to unite us as a nation, and when we stand together anything is possible.