Prayer in the Twilight Zone
From: Michelle in Los Angeles
I have a lot of questions, but here's one for today: Why do we say prayers that are fixed, uniform and standardized in the prayer book - siddur? Why can't each person just say a prayer for what he or she wants?
Great question! I'd like to reply by sending you an essay that I recently received from a friend...
By Doron Kornbluth
The television screen zooms in on an old man. The narrator tells us that he is an unhappy individual who would love nothing more in life than to sit and read. Unfortunately for him, he has a nasty wife who berates him constantly. His boss yells at him. People honk at him. He has been so crushed by the years of abuse that, at this point, even the slamming of a door makes him cringe. The stress is too much. The noise is too much. No one will leave him alone. Finally, he can't take it anymore. "Can't everyone just go away?" he exclaims angrily, "just go away!"
This man is an employee of the Library of Congress. One day, when he is working in the deepest vaults of the library, many floors below ground level, he somehow gets locked inside the vault and falls asleep. When he wakes up and manages to extricate himself from the vault and return to the main office, he notices that he is alone. Moving into the large reading room, he notices the same thing. He walks out into the street and again not a soul is to be found. With time, he realizes that he is the sole survivor of a nuclear war in which the rest of the humanity has been "vaporized."
Disturbed? Bewildered? Scared? Actually, the man is happy: He realizes that his prayers have been answered. He now has all the time in world, with absolutely no distractions and no one to bother him. He can sit and read...and read...and read. With the energy and enthusiasm of a child, he peruses the book stacks of the greatest library in the world and makes large piles of what will happily occupy the rest of his life. When he takes the first book down in order to open it and begin reading, a small smile forms on his face. His dream has come true - he can spend his remaining years alone, reading.
As he turns to find a place to sit, the camera slowly zooms in on his face. Within moments, his glasses accidentally slide off his face, fall to the ground and smash into a thousand pieces. The narrator tells us that without them, he is blind. It dawns on him and us that our protagonist will never be able to see - or read - again. He is stuck in the Library of Congress, helpless and completely alone.
In a very different venue than the remarkable 1960's Twilight Zone episode I've just described, picture the following. A woman confides to her therapist that although she married the exact man she wanted to, he was the wrong man. Noticing the confused look on the therapist's face, she explains:
"I wanted nice and I got it. I wanted fun and I got it. I wanted a sense of humor and I got it. I wanted good-looking and I got it. I wanted a guy with a good job and I got it. I wanted outgoing and he is definitely outgoing."
"So what is the problem?" the therapist asks.
"Fun, outgoing, a good job, and even 'nice' simply aren't what I really need. I was young - I didn't know what to look for. I need someone who wants to grow. I need someone I can talk to. I need someone deep. I need someone who will inspire me. I thought I knew what I wanted, but I didn't know what I needed."
The truth is that often we really don't know what is good for us. In both stories above, the characters involved wished for something, got what they wanted, and yet ended up considerably unhappier than they had originally been!
Let us consider our wants for a moment. Most of us want more money, but perhaps it will sow the seeds of materialism and envy. We want a promotion, but maybe it will end up taking away family time and harm our kids. We want to get married, but perhaps we're simply not ready.
What should we really want? The difficulty in answering that question may explain something about Jewish prayer. Those new to Judaism are sometimes put off by the traditional standardized prayers. "Why can't I just pray to G-d in my own words?" they ask.
The answer is that we can and should pray to G-d directly, in our own words, beseeching the Almighty for what we deeply desire. One rabbi I know often mentions that his mother prayed throughout the day: "Please, G-d, let me get to work on time," "Please, G-d, keep my children healthy," "Please, G-d, let my challahs come out well..." Even within the traditional prayers themselves, there are places for individuals to insert their private petitions. Such from-the-heart prayer gives expression to our fears and longings, and, perhaps more importantly, helps create a personal connection to G-d, which is the basis of all true spiritual growth.
But we don't always know what we need. Perhaps this is why, about 2500 years ago, the Jewish sages instituted formalized prayer. While the Matriarchs and Patriarchs had the greatness and clarity to form their own prayers, later generations needed help focussing on what is really important. If left to my own devices, my prayers might end up sounding more like a loan application than the pleas of a Jew speaking with his Creator to gain meaning and purpose. Without the structure of traditional prayers, would I regularly ask for peace, wisdom, or brotherhood - all cornerstones of Jewish life and religion?
It is crucial to pray to G-d personally in order to deepen our private connections to G-d, and feel His presence in our struggles, victories and failures. And yet, with modern lives often lacking clarity, the traditional prayers are vital as well, because they help us realize what we should want.
Doron Kornbluth edited Jewish Matters and co-edited (with his wife Sarah Tikvah) Jewish Women Speak. (www.jewishmatters.com)