“The very first word Jews say every day is Modeh even before we think, we thank. That’s the first rule of prayer. It’s about not taking life for granted. It’s a meditation on the miracle of being. We are here. We might not have been. Somehow, that makes every day a celebration.”
– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
There is a great debate in Judaism when it comes to prayer: Keva vs. Kavanah – fixed prayer or that which is more from the heart. The argument for Keva, fixed prayer or set words which are the same everywhere, is that these prayers connect us to our people around the world and throughout the generations. For example, when we say the holy words of the Shema Yisrael, these are the very same words found in our Torah, which were said by our ancestors – and will hopefully be said for millennia by those who come after us. Likewise, on the holiest night of the Jewish year, Jews everywhere will be hearing the very same words of the Kol Nidre prayer. But at the same time, it seems there is also room for creativity and personal prayer: Kavanah. From the Hebrew word, kivun – direction, this refers to our own spiritual intention for prayer. In fact, so fond am I by the Jewish concept of living your life “with Kavanah” that the term is on my personal license plate! Clearly, there is a place for both Keva and Kavanah in the world of Jewish prayer.
When we pray, for what are we truly praying? The truth is that the essence of prayer in our tradition is about connection. As a young child, I remember that I used to ask my rabbinical father why I would pray for something and it would not come true. He used to tell me that our God is not like the Genie who granted the three wishes in the old stories. But instead, the Divine Presence would always be there for us to turn to for strength and comfort. So, he would tell me, instead of praying for an “A” on the math test, pray for the wisdom to understand the material, the strength to get through the test and the confidence you have done your best to prepare. Later in my life when there were doubts, I really saw that for me, prayer is about constant connection and communication with the Divine – knowing there is a place to turn. And in Judaism, the Source of Prayer is personal and close. On the High Holidays, we refer to God as Avinu Malkeinu – Our Father, Our King. Yes, a ruler of the world, but our parent to whom we can always turn.
What does it mean to pray during these challenging times? As we approach the High Holidays, we know it will be very different in terms of prayer – no wonderful communal gatherings in which our voices join together and reach heavenward. We will miss that. And maybe we feel sad or angry – and that is understandable. So, I suggest that you discuss it with God, if that feels right – or with whomever is your Source of Prayer. But, consider this too: perhaps we can pray in new ways. Maybe you will join some friends or family members in other places with whom you may not have planned to be with for the holidays – over Zoom or over a meal. Choose a family memory to share and discuss. If you are on your own, take the opportunity to look deeply into a few of the High Holiday prayers – or write one of your own for this year. It won’t be the same, but perhaps it can be something precious nevertheless. And for a beautiful, simple warm-up before you pray, try this verse from Psalms which I was taught as a child:
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, O Divine One, my Rock, and my Redeemer. (Psalms 19:15)
With blessings for a Shabbat Shalom – and a prayer for you and your family now and always,
Director, Jewish Family Service