Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 19 October 2013 / 15 Heshvan 5774

Personalizing Prayer

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Daniel

Dear Rabbi,

I am a bit new to prayer but I'm having trouble with what seems to be an over-emphasis on the formal liturgy in the prayer book. It doesn't seem to me that these prayers are in the Torah, and somehow, intuitively, I think G-d prefers a more personal approach to prayer. What's more, constant repetition of fixed prayers can lead to prayers of obligation by rote rather than of desire with inspiration. Can this be what G-d intended? Why are the prayers so formalized? Is there no room for personalization or individuality?

Dear Daniel,

I empathize entirely with what you're saying, and although the formal prayers are in fact based mainly on verses which are infused throughout most of the prayer book, G-d certainly did, and still does, desire personal prayers, which pour out of the individual heart with longing and inspiration.

As recorded in the Torah and Scriptures, historically, this was always the case. Adam's relationship with G-d was extremely personal and individual. He literally conversed with G-d. The same is true of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as the Matriarchs, who are all described as having direct, personal requests, discussions, and even "negotiations" with G-d. Of course, Moses literally glowed through communing with G-d in the Tent of Meeting. The prophets and righteous Kings even connected to G-d through music, dance and meditation.

So what's the source for the formalized prayers in the prayer book?

As a result of extended exile and severe persecution it was no longer guaranteed that each person would be inspired or able to regularly interact with and develop an individual relationship with G-d through personalized prayer. The Sages, whose great inspiration and vast knowledge in the venues of connecting with G-d, therefore composed a formula for prayer that would work for all individuals in all scenarios for all times. These prayers serve as a master key which opens the gates of Heaven to all who recite them.

Even though these prayers are so powerful that they are effective with minimal intention, and even with incomplete recitation, the Sages did not intend that they replace personal, individualized prayer. Their intention was only that every person should have at least some conducive framework within which to develop his own relationship with G-d. For example, in each blessing of the “amida” (the silent, standing prayer) a person is encouraged to improvise in his own words on the theme of that blessing, relating it to his own individual needs, desires and aspirations. The same is also true for adding any expression in the more general blessing which refers to G-d as "The Listener of Prayer".

While it is true that repetition can lead to reciting the prayers by rote, a person who is proactive about his prayer will be aware of, and sensitive to, all the changes that occur to him and within him throughout each day, week, month and year. At each of these times he is a different person with differing needs, which are all addressed by, and should be reflected in, the prayers which are thereby always changing and always new.

Finally, it's also important to know that just as the Sages didn't intend the formal prayer to replace personal expression with the prayers, they didn't intend it to replace the personal venues of prayer that were practiced by our ancestors either. So while it is obligatory to pray the formal prayers (improvising with our own spiritual signature as above), ideally, each person should be regularly involved in connecting to G-d in ways and at times which are personally inspiring and meaningful to him. This can be through individual prayer, poetry, music, dance, meditation, reflection on G-d through nature etc. The growth from these personal prayer sessions and their effect on us then vitalizes and enhances our formal payers with renewed enthusiasm and appreciation.

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