Denker: Prayer – We All Do It

Prayer: We all do it!

Some say that thanks to unique wiring, human beings possess an innate sense of the transcendent, creative and potentially protective power in the universe.  For want of a better term, we may call that power Elohim – Judge, Adonai – Lord, Shaddai, – Protector, Bo’reh – Creator, or any of the dozens of other descriptive names/titles that occur in our biblical and rabbinic traditions.  We regularly use several of God’s names in one sentence or passage.  This Presence is greater than human, but still concerned about us and is, on some level, involved in our fates and fortunes.  This is what drives us to prayer.  Whether we are expressing thanks, seeking a boon, protection or just a connection, at its most rudimentary, prayer or worship, is our attempt to be in communion, in contact with, and connected to God.

The common Hebrew term for prayer is t’fillah.   Its root, plal (peh – lamed – lamed) is first seen in the wife/sister saga of Genesis 20 that takes place between Avimelech King of Gerar, Abraham, and his wife Sarah.  God is punishing Avimelech and his people because, having been told by Abraham that Sarah was his sister, not his wife, Avimelech took Sarah into his household.  (Did anything ‘happen’?  You can find out by reading the story.)   After being appropriately admonished by Avimelech, Abraham offers intercessory prayers to God on behalf of his host whom Abraham has both wronged and offended. 

Supplication seeking Divine forgiveness or rescue at a moment of crisis, is, most likely, the most common form of prayer.  Uttered under duress, such an outcry requires no liturgical training or knowledge.  No particular language need be used; there is no formal, printed prayer book and the presence of a congregation is not an issue. We just need help, now!  Traditionally, there are specific suggested prayers at times of danger but, truly, any sincere outcry will do.  A formalized public version of this type of prayer is the MiSheberach, said at services for the sick or others in need.  Folks who are never seen at temple will call and ask for a MiSheberach on behalf of a loved one even when they have no plans to be present in order to answer “amen.”   This sort of prayer is good for the momentary connection with The Divine.  We hope that God will answer this type of prayer, although the answer may very well be “no.”

In English the term “worship” is frequently associated with more formal, organized and prescribed forms of prayer.  The concept of a “worship service” stems from the Hebrew, avodah (root: ayin-bet-dalet) which means “work.”  Derived from the same root as eved – servant, avodah is literally the service we do for God.  In a broad sense, our entire lives, when lived in accordance with our Tradition’s laws, ethics and standards can be a form of worship – serving God’s ends in this world.  Formal worship as service to God began with the agrarian sacrificial system of the Tabernacle, continued with the local shrines of the Tribes of Israel and was, under Kings David and Solomon, centralized at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Here offerings of all types were made, including: fixed tithes, thanksgiving and votive offerings, alimentary gifts, and sacrifices made to formally expiate sins and/or return an individual or family to a state of ritual eligibility.  These acts were the ‘work’ through which we served God.

With the transition from the Temple’s sacrificial system to Rabbinic Judaism (the subject of my Sunday morning class this fall), the acts of service/worship were reinterpreted to be the observance of mitzvot in general, including thrice daily prayer services (four on Shabbat and holy days, five on Yom Kippur). These include the recitation of biblical passages and rabbinic formulae that verbalize the petitionary, votive and thanksgiving intentions of the sacrifices.  In the face of a new, less anthropomorphic understanding of God, alimentary offerings were abandoned, but the function of praising God was brought to the forefront of what God requires of and needs from us.  Liturgically, we perform this service for God, praising The Divine for all aspects of life in each prayer that includes any phrase like Baruch atah (Blessed are You). While such prayers and praises of God can be done in private (blessing the Shabbat candles, reading Psalms or reciting a service at home), this worship of God is most fully actualized through fixed communal liturgy. We believe that God may or may not receive the prayers of an individual, but God must receive the petition of a congregation – although the answer may still be “no.”

A current question:  While TV and radio worship services are nothing new, especially among certain Christian denominations, the advent of live streaming video raises the question of whether or not we can fulfill the mitzvah of communal worship by ‘participating’ via  remote access, much like getting college credit online.  This is an ongoing, interesting and important discussion that touches on the question of what it means to be part of a congregation or community in our time

As a Reform temple, Emanu El is fortunate to offer accessible worship experiences for our congregation and community as well as live and on-demand streaming.  With a balance of English and Hebrew, a mix of contemporary and classical synagogue music, and an open approach, we seek to provide our participants the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of prayer that, in the final analysis, is the opportunity we have to connect with each other and commune with God.