Anyone who davens regularly has thought about the paradox of ritualized prayer. We pray at fixed times from fixed texts, many of them virtually unchanged for millennia. Day after day I mumble through the same paragraphs, my mind rarely even aware of what my lips are doing. How can we reconcile that with the intensely personal character of prayer? Shouldn't it be between me and God? Shouldn't I just spill my guts in the most intimate way, each word an expression of my individual character and my current relationship with God?
Of course, even within the structure of Jewish prayer there is room for individual expression. This morning, I felt the need for just that. There was something specific and personal I needed to pray for. So, at the appropriate point in the Shema Koleinu blessing, I paused to insert my own request.
And I felt a bit foolish.
I'm fluent in Hebrew and comfortably familiar with Jewish texts. But try as I may, my words came out sounding silly. Awkward. Either too conversational or too formal. Random bursts of phrases from classical prayers stammered out haltingly between glaring pauses and clumsy segues. None of the grace and poetry of the rabbinically-composed blessings, none of the fluency of reciting familiar language, none of the connection to generations past through unchanging texts. Who did I think I was, trying to pray in my own words? Would I stand before a king stammering and improvising?
I don't regret making the effort. I've done so before, and I intend to do again. It is humbling, and renews my appreciation of the fixity of our prayer ritual.
Fixed, traditional texts actually facilitate our personal prayers, by expressing many of our personal needs in language of a sort most of us can only dream of composing ourselves. Meanwhile, it connects us to our forefathers and our ancient tradition, as well as to other Jews in our community and the world.
The real problem isn't with the ritualization of the prayer service. It's with the mindless way I usually mumble through it.
May all our prayers be answered speedily.