Prayer: Service Of The Heart

Abraham's servant teaches us the power of spontaneous prayer, a concept that challenges our contemporary focus on consistency and conformity.

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Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

One of the universals of human culture is the need to commune with something larger, something that extends beyond ourselves. We all feel the desire to speak, to create, to perform. One aspect of the human urge to communicate is worship--the simple act of noticing the awe of existence, the staggering marvel of the world and its order. Awe moves us to a silent expression of gratitude and wonder. Awe moves us to worship.

What is Worship?

For many Jews, worship means the formal ritual of reading from a printed Siddur (prayer book), listening to the chanted words of the Torah and the Haftarah (weekly reading from Prophets or Writings), and absorbing the insights of the rabbi's sermon. Worship is public, planned, and cyclical. What we did last week we will do again next week.

jewish spontaneous prayerToday's Torah portion illumines another aspect of Jewish worship, one sadly neglected by too many Jews today. While most of us are familiar with reading the stirring words of prayer composed by other, earlier Jews, few of us are comfortable approaching God with the simple outpouring of our own hearts. The whole notion of just speaking with God sounds strikingly un-Jewish.

Yet consider Abraham's nameless servant, given the assignment of traveling to a distant land to find a bride for the Patriarch's son. Overwhelmed by the gravity and seriousness of his mission, the servant creates a new religious form. Without the possibility of sacrificing an animal, unable to summon a special revelation, the servant simply sits and speaks.

Without any elaborate introduction, stripped of the appropriate formula or poetry, the servant just shares what is on his mind:

O, LORD, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with master Abraham.

The servant speaks to God with directness borne of necessity. Filled with a sense of the uncertainty of his task, aware of his own limitations, he turns to the Source of Life and shares his fear. 

Note also that the servant establishes criteria for judging the successful accomplishment of his mission, and then prays that his standard should be God's as well. Those standards are themselves an insight into the human heart--he asks for a woman who is generous, compassionate, and willing to act on behalf of others. Such a person is indeed a fitting mate.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.