The Deeper face of Prayer.
Has it ever crossed your mind that synagogue services can be boring? Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. For all others, let me explain. As a Jewish person, I am bound by halacha (Jewish law) to pray not just once, or even twice, but three times each day! First of all, that is way more time than I need to request from God all that I want in my life. Secondly, I often wonder why I have to pray at all? Doesn’t the ineffable infinite all-knowing God already know both what I’m going to ask Him and what I deserve to get? Finally, there’s this whole concept of “organized prayer” from the “siddur (prayer book) in which there’s an entire script of what I’m supposed to read. Most of this liturgy is composed by rabbis who lived hundreds of years before my life even started. However, they expect me to read what they wrote in order to express my personal wants and needs?!
In classic Jewish tradition, allow me to break from these questions and tell you a story. Recently, there was a rabbi who was the spiritual leader of a beautiful synagogue in New York. One Saturday morning, the rabbi walked into the synagogue and saw, lost amongst the large crowd, a father who had brought his youngest son with him. Customarily, the children would attend the youth program that took place outside the main sanctuary. Therefore, the rabbi was surprised to see this eight year old boy sitting in the pews dangling his feet back and forth.
The rabbi approached the father with a warm smile and extended his hand with a resounding “Shabbat Shalom” (“sabbatical salutations”). The father energetically pumped the rabbis hand but when the rabbi extended his hand to the son, the boy ignored the rabbi and didn’t even seem to be paying attention to him. As the rabbi repeated his greeting to the boy a second time, the father’s face grew red and he whispered, “Rabbi, my son….my son is blind”.
Seeing the pain that flickered across the fathers face, the rabbi bent down and warmly wrapped the boys hand with both of his. Bringing his face level with the boy’s, the rabbi whispered, “I am Rabbi Welton. Thank you so much for coming to synagogue today with your father. It’s an honor to meet you.” The boy smiled and excitedly shouted, “Shabbat Shalom Rabbi!”. The rabbi chuckled and shook the father’s hand once more as he continued on his way up the podium for services to begin.
Once services began, the rabbi couldn’t help but be distracted by the little boy. It wasn’t the awkwardness of their meeting that distracted him. It wasn’t the fact that the boy was the only child in the sanctuary that distracted him. It wasn’t even the fact that the little boy sat next to his father with no prayer book in his lap whatsoever. It was that the little boy was singing the prayers at the top of his lungs, and singing with a terrible voice. His screeches and off-tune howls echoed off the stained-glass windows and seemed to reverberate down from the chandeliers straight through the rabbis spine.
Gritting his teeth, the rabbi tried to focus on his prayers, but his efforts were futile. Glancing around the room, the rabbi couldn’t help but catch those hidden glances and stifled groans from the members of his congregation. His mind raced back and forth as he muttered to himself, “Come on, stop being like this. Have a heart, he’s just a kid. Yeah, but he’s ruining the prayers! Stop. Stop it. How could you even say such a thing? But the service is being ruined. How can anyone think about their requests from God with this horrific screeching in the background? No, no, no. Stop your immaturity. Oy, what am I supposed to do?” As the service ended and he shook everyone’s hands on the way out, the rabbi felt a wave of guilt as he realized he was contemplating…no, not contemplating…but wishing that the little boy might not come back next Shabbos (Sabbath).
But the little boy returned next Shabbos. And the Shabbos after that one. And the Shabbos after that. And pretty soon, the rabbi stated to dread the Shabbos morning prayer services. After all, it is well-known in Jewish law that having a terrible voice is considered a “blemish” for the prayer service (Talmud, Tractate Brochos 28b-29a). Plus, the rabbi knew that a form of service to God is melodious singing. For example, the Levites would chant daily songs during the Temple Service and the voices of the Levites had to be pleasing and harmonious (Talmud, Tractate Chulin 24b).
Making the prayers musically pleasing is an integral part of prayer, as the Jewish liturgy states, “God, who chooses musical song of praise.” This liturgy comes from the famous “Yishtabach” prayer which is said to have been written by King Solomon himself! (The JPS guide to Jewish traditions by Ronald L. Eisenberg, Jewish Publication Society, page 411). The rabbi couldn’t help but think of how distracting and bothersome this was to his congregants. They came to the sanctuary expecting to be praying in a beautiful atmosphere conducive to focus, meditation, and inspirational prayer. Doesn’t Jewish law state that matters that “cause a nuisance for the congregation” should be eliminated”? (Berachos 30b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 126:4)
The rabbi felt conflicted, and it was during the mussaf prayer (special prayer on the sabbath day) one Shabbos that the rabbi made his decision. Looking over at the boy and his father, he could see the boy standing and swaying back and forth, his eyes shut tight as he bellowed and screeched at the top of his lungs. “That’s it!” thought the rabbi. “As soon as mussaf is over, I am going over to the father and I’m going to ask him if he could have his son join the rest of the children in the youth program. It might be hard for the father to hear this but I’ll offer to have a trained health aide hired that would satisfy the boy’s special needs, as long as he stays outside of this sanctuary! I’ll be as cordial as I can but this has got to end. He’s ruining our prayer service!” Feeling oddly relieved, the rabbi attempted once again to focus on the prayers. A rush of relaxation washed over him as his built-up anxiety seemed to dissipate with his resolution. And then something happened.
Something that had never before happened to the rabbi during a prayer service! The rabbi fell asleep. In his dream, the rabbi ascended to heaven. As he stood, basking in the holiness of heaven, he could feel that he was in the world of truth yet he could not help but notice that something was wrong. That’s when he realized there was something strange about heaven. Nobody was there. Heaven was completely empty! The rabbi began walking around, wondering where all the souls had disappeared to. He walked for what seemed like hours until he saw a glorious white palace in the distance. This extravagant pearly white castle had ornate and infinitely tall pillars that rose higher than anything he had ever seen before. Above the perfectly designed golden doors, he could see an elaborate sign. The sign read “The Shul” (synagogue). Not “Congregation for these type of people” or “Affiliated synagogue for those kinds of people”. Just simply “The Shul”.
With a hitch of excitement in his breath, he pushed the heavy doors open. As the doors slowly opened, his eyes widened in shock at what he saw. For as far as his gaze could reach, and even farther, there were souls everywhere! Millions upon millions of souls stood together, hands clasped together in prayer. As he turned his head to the right, he was stunned at the sheer magnitude of the souls present. He could see the souls of people he knew to still be alive at this very moment. He could see the souls of people he knew to have passed away. And he could see the souls of people yet to be born. All together, as one people, these souls stood there in brilliant glory, praying to their beloved Father in Heaven. And that’s when he heard it.
He heard the most glorious, angelic, beautiful voice piercing his very heart. He heard a voice so magnificent that tears immediatly sprang to his eyes and he felt compelled to turn towards it. As he turned his head towards the source of this voice, he saw the front podium of the shul. Upon it, he saw all the greatest leaders of the Jewish people. There sat Abraham, next to him Isaac, and then Jacob. Joseph, David, Solomon, Moses, Mordechai, and more! The most righteous of our people sat at the head of the heavenly congregation, entranced in the holiness of prayer.
And standing tall and proud next to them…
Leading them with a voice so beautiful that it shook every soul that was present to their very essence…
Standing atop a footstool by his small cantor’s stand…was our little boy. With pure joy radiating from his face as his little body swayed back and forth, the little boy’s soul shined brighter than anything the rabbi had ever seen.
For this is what God treasures the most.
This is what God loves the most.
This is what God wants the most.
This is the true meaning of prayer. The time of prayer is a time to listen to that whisper in our souls that calls out to us and reminds us that our life is glorious, our God is glorious, and it is our choices every day that bring holiness to the world. This is why the Hebrew word for prayer is not “levakesh – to request,” but “tefilla – to connect” (Tos. Pesachim 5:9). Furthermore, our daily prayers are in place of the daily sacrifices that were once offered up in the Temple of Jerusalem (Talmud Brachos 26b). Those sacrifices were called “korban” which comes from the word “karov” meaning “to come close” (Maharal Tiferet Yisrael 70). One opens up a siddur three times a day not to request for what one thinks they need, but to connect to who one truly is. That is why the time of prayer is symbolized by “Jacobs Ladder,” for prayer is the time that we build that connection between us and heaven (Zohar I, 149B; Torah Or, 88A; Likutei Torah, Beshallach 2B). This is why prayer is derived from the commandment, “to serve G‑d with our hearts,” (Deut. 11:13). Our Sages say, “What kind of service is ‘service of the heart?’—it is prayer.”‘ (Talmud, Taanith 2a) For the sessions of prayer are moments when we are triggered to awaken our hearts and engage our souls.
It is for this reason that the rabbis designed the liturgy of prayer with inspirational passages and verses from all over the Torah. So that we might have what to meditate about when we open the siddur. True, if prayer was just about asking what I need, then who needs a script? But if prayer is about exploring what I am needed for, then the siddur is full of scripture that connect us to what our spiritual life is all about. That is why one is encouraged to pray in the language that they understand the best (Tosfos Sotah 32a) and why praying is considered one of the 613 commandments of the Torah (Rambam Code, Hil. Tefilah 1:1-2.). For the purpose of prayer is not just to ask but to act! In other words, prayer is an action of self-reflection and self-growth. It is through meeting with God periodically throughout our day that we are given a chance to grow stronger and stronger on our path to spiritual refinement. As it says “Those who meet with God will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” (Isaiah 40:31). Indeed, prayer may be boring. But tefilla is amazing.
In conclusion, the rabbi wakes up right back where he came from. He looks around and sees that the congregation is just concluding the musaf service. There was the cantor, desperately trying to fill the room with his voice. There were all his friends getting ready to close their siddurs and leave the sanctuary. And there was the little boy, swaying back and forth as he screeched and wailed at the top of his lungs. The rabbi shot up and lifted his hands for silence. A hush came over the congregation as the rabbi’s voice softly sailed forth. “My dear friends, there is something I need to say.” He paused, cleared his voice and then walked down the podium and over to the little boy. The rabbi dropped to his knees and warmly wrapped the boys hand with both of his. With tears in his eyes, the rabbi loudly proclaimed, “Thank you so much for coming to synagogue today. From now on, I want you and your father to sit next to my place in shul. For you have taught me the gift of prayer.”