Has this ever happened to you?
It has to me, more often than I care to admit:
I rush through a chapter of a book because I have something else to do, only to realize that I have no idea what I just read.
If that is what happens when I read a book, why do I engage in speed davening?
Prayer has been weighing on my mind these last few weeks as we approach the High Holy Days: Why do we pray? How should we pray? In what language should we pray?
These are not academic questions. Over the last few years, I have been troubled by looking out at the assembled crowd on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and seeing blank faces and confused looks. The machzor, the High Holy Days prayer book, is filled with prayers written in other times, by people in situations seemingly far different than ours, and in idioms that are incomprehensible to us, just as ours would be incomprehensible to our forebears. All too often, these prayers are recited much too quickly for us to even begin to grasp their intent.
The High Holy Days, however, are not about reciting prayers. They are about rethinking our lives, finding the faults within ourselves, and seeking ways to make ourselves better people. Prayers are supposed to be the vehicles to accomplish this, but how is this achieved by rushing through medieval liturgical poems from, say, the Iberian peninsula, or northern Germany?
It is not just on the High Holy Days that this is a problem, however. The Sages of Blessed Memory referred to the Amidah as “the t’fillah,” the prayer, the only real prayer in the service. In its weekday iteration, it is filled with petitions for wisdom, forgiveness, good health, healthy crops, protection against harm of all kinds, a return of justice to the world, and of a king to Israel’s throne. Yet we precede it by praising God for killing many people for our sake. Referring to the Exodus-era Egyptians, we recite. “All their firstborn You killed, but Your firstborn [us] You redeemed; the Yam Suf You split; the wanton sinners you drowned; the dear ones you brought across; and the water covered their foes – not one of them was left [alive].”
Proverbs 24:17 warns us, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.” In the Babylonian Talmud tractate M’gillah (10b) we are taught that “the Holy One, Blessed Be He, does not rejoice when the wicked fall.” Pointedly, Rabbi Yochanan offers this midrash. As the Egyptian host was drowning, he said, the ministering angels began reciting the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15). Said God, “The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a [celebratory] song?”
Yet we recount those same deaths with triumphant words as we approach God with our requests.
We also spend a lot of time assuring God that He is great, and glorious, and praiseworthy. The Sages advised that before we could petition God, we had to praise him. And so we do, in prayer after prayer. Do we think so little of God that we think He has an ego problem? Do we really believe that He needs to hear us say over and again how great and glorious He is?
Isaiah, among other prophets, did not think so. “Who asked that of you?” he asked in God’s Holy Name. “Trample my courts no more; bringing oblations is futile; incense is offensive to me. New Moon and Sabbath, proclaiming of solemnities…, I cannot abide. Your new moons and festivals fill me with loathing…; I cannot endure them. And when you lift up your hands [in prayer], I will turn My eyes away from you; though you pray at length, I will not listen to you.”
This is what God wants, Isaiah says: “Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourself to justice; aid the wrong. Uphold the rights of the orphans; defend the cause of the widow. (See Isaiah 1. 12-18.)
Then we can pray.
There is so much that is wrong today about how we pray. We mouth words, often in a language we do not understand thoroughly (if we understand it at all; many of us do not, regardless of reading proficiency or sectarian stream), and we do so hurriedly, without comprehension and often even without feeling. We have been taught that this is sufficient; that just reciting the words, even if the words mean nothing to us, accomplishes the purpose of prayer.
That is not how the Sages saw it. They warned us against praying by rote; they urged us to add something new to each prayer each day so that each prayer each day would be fresh, new, and meaningful to us.
On the High Holy Days, unless our prayers encourage reflection and introspection, they are just words. On any day, if they are recited hurriedly, without feeling and understanding, they are mere blather.
Who asked that of us?