What’s Better? Creating Personal Tefillot or Studying the Siddur?

There has been a lot of discussion about whether to recite a prayer or a bracha when we receive the COVID vaccine and if so what type of prayer or bracha.  There have been different approaches to deal with this question.  One school of thought is that since a bracha, either shehechiyanu or hatov v’hameitiv, is recited when we are feeling a state of happiness that may affect one or more people, we should certainly recite it when receiving the vaccine due to the tremendous joy that this treatment will generate.  Another school of thought is that we typically don’t recite these types of brachot except in very limited circumstances, like when a baby is born.

Another smaller discussion was generated last week about whether we should modify a line in the “avinu malkenu” prayer that we recite on Asara B’Tevet from the standard “m’na magefa mi’nachalatecha” – withhold the plague from Your inheritance to “atzor magefa mi’nachalatecha” – stop the plague from Your inheritance.  After all, we currently are suffering from an already existing plague that we wish would end in short order so perhaps we should modify the prayer at this time.  Rav David Lau, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, recommended switching the text, whereas other Poskim disagreed.

Perhaps the question of whether we can create new prayers, whether we can take opportunities to recite brachot in as many situations as possible, and whether we can modify prayers, reflects a debate as to how we view our prayers.  For many of us, prayer is an expression of our feelings and values.  When we feel a certain way, let us verbalize that feeling in an authentic Jewish manner so that we create as many opportunities in our daily lives to be conscious of God’s presence.  The greater latitude that we are given to create and modify prayers, the more we will personally connect to these prayers and the more meaningful they will be to us.  Tefillah is characterized by Rav Soloveitchik as a subjective mitzvah whose inner experience is critical and therefore, it would seem that this personalized approach to tefillah will heighten our inner experience of this all-important mitzvah.  Additionally, this approach likely resonates with many who struggle to relate to the more standardized or institutional practices of religion, and prefer a more personalized approach.

However, there is an entirely different approach to tefillah, one that is more reticent to make changes and more reluctant to personalize tefillah.  Of course, in practice, there are parts of tefillah that we can personalize and parts that we cannot.  That being said, what is the value in standardizing prayer?  What are the reasons for being more resistant to making changes or creating new prayers?  To the extent that we simply use prayers that have been created in the past and do not modernize them, we view prayer not necessarily as an expression of what our values currently are, but we view prayer as an expression of what our values should be.  Prayer is an opportunity to understand how our Sages viewed God and their relationship with God, and what our spiritual hopes and dreams should be.

The difference between these approaches can be illustrated in the following example.  Those of us who view prayer as an expression of our values are probably drawn to certain shemona esrei brachot, such as the bracha about health if they are sick or if they know someone who is sick, or the bracha of shema koleinu when we can add our own personal prayers.  However, those of us who view prayer as an expression of what our values should be will read the brachot of shemona esrei about the ingathering of the exiles and the building of Jerusalem and they will understand that this is what we should be praying about and dreaming about each and every day.  As such, prayer becomes not only a vehicle to communicate with God, but it becomes an opportunity to think about our own Torah values.

Over the years, I have heard a common complaint about Yeshiva day school education.  While Yeshivot teach Chumash, Gemara, and various other Judaic studies and the students learn Jewish content, the concern is that they do not learn emunah.  They do not learn about faith, especially what faith in God means to a Torah Jew in the modern world in the 21st century.  What does it mean to love God or to fear God?  What does it mean that God is one?  How do we balance God as both a God of truth and a God of loving kindness, or as both a parent and as a king?  How do we understand theodicy, life after death, resurrection and Divine providence?  How do we view our role as Jews within the context of the broader world?  These are very important questions and I believe that the answers to many of these questions can be found in our daily prayers.  In other words, I believe that we should view tefillah as more than an outpouring of how we are feeling.  We should view tefillah as a repository of key principles of faith, of how we relate to all the key questions listed above.  If we study tefillah in this way, perhaps in our Yeshiva day schools, then I think we will accomplish two very important spiritual goals: (1) we will explore concepts of emunah that are often neglected in a meaningful way and (2) we will find tefillah much more meaningful than we do now.

I hope that our tefillot are meaningful.  I am aware that personalizing them is a key to making them meaningful.  But I also am aware that trying to understand them and then reciting them on a daily basis with our newfound understanding can reinforce our faith in and further develop our relationship with God.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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