Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Sermon on Prayer
Rabbi Adrienne P. Scott
January 16, 2015
26 Tevet 5775
As Jews, we are known as the People of the Book. Interestingly enough, throughout our history the book that has been most well-known to the Jewish people has not been the Torah or even the Talmud. Rather, the Siddur, our prayerbook, has and remains to this day the most widely-read Jewish book in the world.
This rather small and concise collection of prayers has been our treasure. The word Siddur is familiar to us. It has the same root as the word Seder, the festive meal we enjoy on Passover. It means order. There is an order to our prayers – it follows a foundation and a framework. We can hold this in our hands. The essence of Judaism is found in the pages of our liturgy in a beautiful and organized fashion. With a bit of regular practice, we can find our way and become used to some of the Hebrew words. But, the ultimate goal of prayer is more than that. It’s a way for us to engage actively with God – an exercise in an ongoing spiritual relationship that requires patience, practice and perseverance.
The development of our Siddur or prayerbook truly tells the history of our people. In a way, it is the Jewish diary of the ages. It expresses the hopes and desires of Jews who lived many centuries ago. It is timeless and it remains an important part of who we are today. It reflects times of great joy and sadness as well. When Jews were forced to leave Judaism, they wrote words that moved them to tears, in an effort to always remain connected to God.
When we come into a sanctuary or other place of worship, we need structure. Even our ancestors didn’t just run in from the fields and sacrifice their best goat or lamb haphazardly. They created a thoughtful and meaningful process, much of which we have inherited to this day. We can’t expect to rush in from a crazy week and all of the sudden open this book and expect something magical to happen. We have to take the proper steps to engage our bodies, our minds, and our souls. Prayer helps us do just that.
When we open our prayerbook, we engage in Jewish study. The generations who came before us did not always have adequate time to pour over pages of Talmud or Midrash. Sometimes, they needed to get the big picture of what our faith represented. So, they prayed. They opened their hearts to God and discovered meaning in their lives. It is a way for the community to be united, even as it is an outlet for personal expression.
Initially, prayer began orally. The liturgy was offered by a leader who was trained in the customs or minhag in a particular area. Since nothing was recorded or written during this time, prayers changed very frequently. One rabbi teaches that this early form of liturgy could be likened to a fine improvisational jazz artist today. These great artists never play the same thing the same way twice. They get in the groove and offer a beautiful and melodious string of notes. Early Jewish prayer was much the same way – except, instead of calling it improvisation, it was known as kavannah or intention. This kavannah is something we still strive to find as we pray today. Since our prayers are now written and recorded, we might pray from “muscle memory.” We might fool ourselves into thinking that we have mastered a prayer, when in fact, we simply know it by rote. The ultimate goal of praying is not to be concerned with saying the right blessing, but to focus on saying it the right way. Our rabbis teach, “a person should always try to add something new in her prayers.”
Historically, prayers were offered in a petitionary form in the Bible, long before the first printed siddur. Many of us are familiar with Moses praying on behalf of his sister, Miriam, when her skin becomes afflicted. In the book of Samuel, Hannah also offers a moving prayer to God when she prays for a child. In a very quiet and thoughtful manner, Hannah customizes a deep personal prayer. Through her kavannah, Hannah is granted her son, Samuel, who she offers in service to God. These prayers happen only once and they are deeply personal. Despite their spontaneity, they are meaningful and heartfelt.
While this is not the formal type of liturgy we observe or pray today, it is highly effective. We remember these instances in our silent meditations. Around the first century of the Common Era, liturgies were transcribed and recorded. The word liturgy, itself comes from the Greek meaning “public works.” In Torah, the sacrifices functioned as a way to reach God. Today, our prayers serve this same goal. Praying became a regular and fixed practice. Our forefathers came to expect certain things from their worship experience, much like we do. These procedures were not meant to stifle creativity or personal expression, but rather to create structure. And, each service needed to follow a particular order. These principles continue to guide our modern worship to this day.
Each blessing that creates the service expresses a different theme. The service leader knew the end goal, so he knew the proper steps to take in order to reach that destination. What was initially offered orally was eventually written and recorded. Individual words form a service that is presented in a beautiful format, through our siddur. The power of the printing press helped to identify the underlying principles of the early Reform movement. One of our first and most prolific leaders, Isaac Meyer Wise, was known for his creation of Minhag America. In 1857, this was the unifying prayer book of our movement. From its title, we see the interesting struggle that existed. Reform Judaism at this time needed to identify itself. On the one hand, it was Jewish. It recognized the minhag and customs of our people.
But, on the other hand Reform Jews were wrestling with what it meant to also be American. Could there be a balance between the two? Rabbi Wise believed so deeply. He created a culture that attempted to find an important harmony and balance between two worlds that had never before met. This synthesis was a true catalyst for the widespread development and use of the next prayerbook of our movement, the Union Prayerbook published in 1945. For so many of you, this is the defining prayerbook of our movement. The size of the book was just right. The articulate English translations elevated the traditional Hebrew prayers in the most meaningful way. In its age it was monumental and dramatic. It was authentic Reform Judaism.
Over time, it too demanded change. From the Union Prayerbook, we moved to the Gates of Prayer collection, published in 1975. We see a gradual ideological shift here. This siddur gave us options for a variety of services, more Hebrew selections and plenty of English interpretations. For many decades, the Gates of Prayer served us well. All the while, the Reform movement was changing and growing. From its inception, Reform Judaism was always meant to express the current needs of the people. As we began to return, ever so slightly, to traditional practice it was time for the liturgy to reflect this ideal. This brings us to the present day of Mishkan Tefillah, published in 2007.
We could spend much time debating the authenticity of this prayerbook. I’ve heard from many of you how much you love the layout. Others are not so quick to offer praise. These are important personal opinions. Ultimately, we acknowledge that our liturgy and service unites us in our Jewish observance. For all of our technological advances, we still need a time to come and gather in our sacred space. We hold on to our prayerbook. We offer our prayers, which over time become more familiar. We continue to engage in prayer because it grounds us. It connects us to our fellow Jews. And, most importantly it is a vehicle for finding God.
While the physical layout of our liturgy has changed over the years, we crave prayer just as much as our ancestors did. We need to find that sacred outlet that permits us the ability to think, praise and even dream. Engaging in prayer is meaningful and necessary. On Shabbat, we express gratitude for the joy we find in our lives. Perhaps, now, more than ever, we can turn to our prayers to find inspiration, hope and peace. May the words of our mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable to you, God. And, may the prayers we offer as a community be heard throughout our shattered and broken world. Amen.
You may reach Rabbi Adrienne Scott here.