“Worshiping G-d With All One’s Heart”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Traditional Jewish prayer is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, prayer is meant to be a spontaneous outpouring of emotion, as the prophet Jeremiah says, “Pour out your heart like water” (Lamentations, 2:19). Similarly, when considering the biblical source for prayer, the rabbis of the Talmud cite the verse in this coming week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, from Deuteronomy 11:13, “and to worship Him with all your heart,” again underscoring the need for spontaneous and emotional prayer.

In stark contrast to the abstract conception of Hebrew prayer, we find the actual structure of the traditional prayer service to be rigid and fixed. There appears to be little room for emotion or spontaneity. The rabbis tell us when to pray (morning, afternoon, evening), where to pray (preferably in a synagogue, with a quorum), and how to pray (in Hebrew, using a fixed liturgy). This obligatory character of traditional prayer seems to deny the entire philosophical raison d’etre of prayer.

In approaching this great paradox of Hebrew prayer, we must first attempt to fathom the rabbinic understanding of prayer that governs its ritual practices. Rabbi Yochanan, a 3rd century sage of the Talmud, states: “Would that humans pray all day long” (Berachot 21a). More than importuning for longer or additional prayer services, Rabbi Yochanan’s statement actually reflects the rabbis’ conception of our total dependence on the Creator.

What exactly is this dependency? Those familiar with Jewish tradition are aware of the plethora of ritual blessings recited in Jewish life: a blessing for bread, for wine, for thunder and lightning, for good news and bad news, upon seeing natural wonders, when beholding a king, etc. There is even a blessing recited upon exiting the bathroom after tending to one’s bodily needs.
“Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who has fashioned the human being with wisdom, and has created within him many openings and many cavities (arteries, veins, ducts, etc.). It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory, that if but one of them were to be ruptured, or but one of them were to be blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You. Blessed are you G-d, Who heals all flesh and continues to act wondrously.”

Physical human frailty is an established fact. We all are aware, unfortunately, of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, embolisms, and heart attacks that result in virtually instantaneous deaths of seemingly healthy human beings. Rabbi Yochanan’s statement to pray “all day long” is really a plea for humans to acknowledge this frailty by in effect saying “Thank You” to the Creator for every breath, every heartbeat, every moment of life. One who truly recognizes the extent of human mortality and dependency must thank G-d at every possible moment.

But, Jewish tradition also requires that we be active participants in the “real” world. “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work,” say the verses in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Humans are meant to be G-d’s “partners” in creation and help achieve perfection of the world. How then can we be expected to “pray all day”?

In order to resolve this conflict, the rabbis structured our prayers, Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon), and Maariv (evening) to represent constant, day-long prayer. This provides us with the opportunity to be “partners in creation” by giving us time to perform productive work in between the prayer services. Upon rising in the morning, we thank G-d for restoring our souls, in the middle of the workday, when we are about to consummate that “big deal,” we stop to thank G-d, and before entrusting our souls into His hands while we sleep, we once again thank G-d for sustaining us.

But why must the prayers be so rigid and fixed? Why must we recite our prayers at specific times, and in special locations? Why is Hebrew the preferred language?

Most often, when humans turn to G-d, we do so out of need. When things go well, rarely do we remember to thank G-d; but in times of crisis, we are swift to plead. By establishing fixed times for prayer, the rabbis have eliminated this “selfish” aspect of prayer. Rather than approach G-d solely in times of need, we now come to G-d regularly, both in times of need, and in times of no special need. We are in effect saying, “I’m there G-d, because I know You’re always there. And even when I’m tired, fatigued, exhausted, not in the mood, I come to You in prayer, because I know You are always there for me.

This “structure” of Jewish prayer serves another vital function in enhancing prayer. Jews come together in prayer quorums at synagogues in order to underscore the partnership of the People of Israel in prayer. By coming together, we state that we are prepared to share our prayers with all Jews. By sharing our prayers, we offer a far more “perfect” prayer–each member of the congregation contributing his or her “best” to the communal prayer. That is why Hebrew prayer is, for the most part, plural prayer. “Heal us O Lord,” we pray. “Grant us peace,” we say. Rather than allow our prayers to be reduced to a self-centered petition, we pray for all who are ill, for all who are in need of blessing. Furthermore, by praying in Hebrew, we offer up the same prayers and even the same words which our ancestors uttered and, hopefully, the prayers that will be recited by future generations.

Acknowledging self-centeredness, and at times selfishness, as major deficits of spontaneous prayer, our rabbis nevertheless recognize the efficacy of certain elements of this form of prayer. Consequently, individuals are encouraged to insert their personal petitions in the appropriate sections of communal prayers. Furthermore, the Talmud states that prayer need not be limited to fixed times, or recited only in Hebrew. To the contrary, one may supplement traditional prayer by offering additional prayers at any time and in any language.

The rabbis also recognize that at least one particular element of spontaneous prayer is critical for ultimate fulfillment: the element of kavanah, often translated as awareness, feeling, or devotion. By praying with kavanah, we can transform an obligatory prayer into truly perfect prayer. Each time we pray with kavanah we reach upwards to achieve a perfect connection with G-d, by allowing our fixed, obligatory prayer to become as emotional and as personally meaningful as spontaneous prayer.

It is through this structure that our prayers reach their crescendo. Jews the world over pray facing Jerusalem. Jews in Jerusalem turn towards the Temple Mount, and Jews on the Temple Mount face the Holy of Holies. The Midrash explains that the collective prayers of Israel are gathered by an angel from this most Holy place. The angel carries these prayers up to heaven, and places them as a diadem on G-d’s crown, imploring the Creator,

“G-d, how can You now refuse the perfect prayers of Your people, Israel?”

This is the magic of Jewish prayer. We achieve perfection by sharing, by reciting the ancient Hebrew prayers of our ancestors, by praying as part of a congregation, and by affirming strongly, through both words and action, that we are part of Klal Yisrael.

It is this perfect prayer which we attempt to accomplish. With its achievement, we know that the Almighty will not refuse our heartfelt prayers, and that our hopes for the ultimate redemption will come to fruition soon in our days.

May you be blessed.