Fixed Prayer and Spontaneity

Reconciling the experience of repeatedly praying from an established text with the need for prayer to come from the heart.

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Tradition Reminds Me What I Should Be Thankful For

A fixed liturgy confronts us with thoughts and affirmations that might not occur to us if we relied on our own imaginations, and says them better than we could phrase them ourselves. The very first page of the Jewish prayer book prods me to express my gratitude for having awakened alive to the new day, for the fact that my mind works, my eyes work, my arms and legs work. I give thanks for having clothes to put on and things to look forward to that day.

Would I remember to be grateful for all these things every morning, especially on cold, gloomy mornings when I had not slept well and my body was stiff and sore, if I didn't have the prayer book to structure my thoughts for me? Could I express either my gratitude or my dependence on God more eloquently than do the psalms I recite each morning?

--Rabbi Harold Kushner, Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel, Natick, Massachusetts, is the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People and Living a Life that Matters. Reprinted with permission from To Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking (Little, Brown and Company).

Our Lives Can Give Meaning to the Formulas of Prayer

How can I express my deepest personal feelings with the words of a formula that I did not write? The use of a common expression can answer the question. "I love you." These words constitute a formula of sorts, one that I did not invent. If, however, I do not say those words to the people I love, and if I do not hear them, what am I?

Those three words--I love you--can be as meaningful or as meaningless as we show them to be through the way we live. When we invest ourselves in those "three little words," when our actions reflect our love, then that familiar formula has meaning.

The same is true with the words of prayer. We must invest ourselves in them, heart and soul, as we listen to what the words convey.

--Rabbi Jules Harlow edited many prayerbook’s and other liturgical works as Director of Publications for the Rabbinical Assembly. Excerpted from Pray Tell: A Hadassah Guide to Jewish Prayer (c) 2003 Hadassah (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing). $29.95+$3.75 s/h. Order by mail or call 800-962-4544 or on-line at www.jewishlights.com. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091.

Petitioning God Keeps Our Prayers from Becoming Mere Recitation

[In this fictional exchange, Judd Lewis is being instructed in Jewish thought and practice by Albert Abbadi.]

JL: This idea of formulas has to be a little disturbing. I can understand that Jews are supposed to pray at certain times, especially if the prayers are supposed to correspond to the old sacrifices. But it seems to me that prayer, if it's going to have any meaning at all--shouldn't it be something a little more personal, straight from the heart? The minute you start talking about formulae and fixed this or that, don't you kill the whole thing?

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