Service of the Heart (עבודת הלב): Exploring Prayer

This week's column was written by Cantor Jack Chomsky, president of the Cantors Assembly and cantor of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio, and representative of the Cantors Assembly to the JTS Board of Trustees.

The Blessing of Monotony?

Many people struggle with the fact that traditional Jewish prayer is a fixed entity. The words that we say, the times that we say them, are prescribed according to traditions and Jewish law. The culture in which we live, by contrast, values spontaneity and novelty. Why not pray when one feels like it, and not be forced to shoehorn one's intellect and emotions according to the seemingly arbitrary ideas of our ancient rabbis?

I didn't grow up in an environment governed by halakhah and the rhythm of Jewish life. My experience with reciting required prayers at required times is one that I adopted in adulthood. One thing that I feared in doing so is that I would get to the point that I had had quite enough—that I would no longer feel benefit from prayer, but would instead come to resent it.

I have found the opposite to be true. I can't guarantee similar results for all, but I have found that there can be great reward for self-discipline and mindful attention to tasks that could be performed mindlessly. At first, the contents of the prayers and overall structure of services may seem opaque. But like the individual who goes through a daily physical regimen of exercise, running, etc., one comes to recognize both small and big things with growing familiarity and experience.

I find delight every day and some benefit every time I recite even the shortest service. The deeper the familiarity, the more likely that something new will emerge—or that one will find a familiar satisfaction.

For example, during Shaharit (the daily morning service), we recite Psalms 145 through 150 as part of Pesukei Dezimra (passages of song, a preliminary part of the service). During Psalm 147, we read, "moneh mispar lakochavim, l'chulam shemot yikra" (God knows the number of the stars and calls each one of them by name).

This little piece of prose-poetry often makes me smile: it reminds me that the universe is vast, that there is a sense of divine design. To the author of the psalm (traditionally thought to be King David), there was no question that it was God who designed the world, named the stars, remembered each one's identity. For me in the 21st century, I might or might not believe in this sense of design. But I can still take pleasure in the idea of it—that my ancestors saw it so clearly—that I am heir to this beautiful way of expressing it. That I appreciate that each star, though it appears tiny to me, is a world in itself. That, for my part, I can use this phrase to consider the uniqueness of each individual I meet in the course of my daily life. I may have trouble remembering names, but can try harder. Which might make me think of the famous Zelda poem L'khol Ish Yesh Shem ("Each Person Has a Name"). The text in full (Hebrew/English) can be read at this link, and a beautiful choral version can be heard here:

Continuing with the theme of counting the stars, one could enjoy the Sephardic lullaby Hitragut. Its text describes sitting on the porch and numbering these celestial orbs.

All of these associations can be experienced in the fleeting moment that I encounter the words of Psalm 147, enjoying the texture of their sound in addition to the many elements of meaning.

Each one of us has the capacity to get to know these beloved prayer texts well, and to find our own beautiful and inspiring path through them. If you haven't yet begun this intellectual and spiritual journey, I hope that you will. It starts with a phrase, and can expand to embrace a psalm, a prayer, even an entire service.

In closing, I find a powerful musical and geographic connection through the generations in this very well-known L'dor Vador by cantor/composer Meir Finkelstein, which was sung at the Rykestrasse Synagogue in Berlin as part of the opening program of our recent Cantors Assembly Mission to Germany. Cantor Joseph Gole of Los Angeles lead 300 travelers in singing this beautiful emotional outpouring of what is for many a very well-known text. May we all be able to make such deeply satisfying connections with many of our prayer texts.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and some of the stopping points that enhance your day, and I look forward to sharing more in future columns. You can reach me at CantorJC@aol.com. Please do.