Three steps forward, three steps back. Bow to the left, right, center. Raise heels three times.
These seemingly simply instructions have guided the way I pray since I was nine years old. My Israeli teachers distributed our oversized and unfamiliar red Siddurim to my third grade class and called out the motions with the turn of each page. Our forty-five minute tefillah services every Monday enabled my nine-year old friends and I to hear the constant directions of where our feet must go and regurgitate the actions blindly. This process repeated until I turned fifteen.
As ever evolving Jewish people, we somehow feel that it is acceptable to undergo drastic changes in order to remain relevant in today’s world. Many synagogues have considered and pursued egalitarianism and ordain female clergy. Others serve cheeseburgers at Kiddush luncheons and do away with yarmulkes and tefillin. Some communities endorse the revolutionaries of our time by wearing rainbow and intertwining the Beatles music into every holiday that promotes freedom. Yet, somehow, in spite of all the radical changes and ideas that rabbinic Judaism has encountered since its formation, prayer is the one prevalent concept that may never be eradicated.
Prayer, derived from the Latin term “to beg,” is a fundamental value of our faith today. For hundreds of years, Jews across the globe have congregated to recognize, praise and communicate with a higher theological being. Depending on the denomination and synagogue, some congregations of Jews sit separately by gender, vehemently uttering every word in their siddurim. Other communities take more liberal approaches, beating tambourines and dancing in circles while wearing a multitude of colors. While the styles and structures may differ, prayer unties congregations as they grow together. One cannot help but watch in awe as a room filled with faithful people, regardless of background or religion, springs into life. For an outsider looking into a community, prayer is truly beautiful. For the nine-year old who is handed a book of foreign words and given bizarre body movements to emulate, prayer is perhaps a work in progress.
By the age of fifteen, I began to glimpse at the English words to which I was bouncing my heels. I realized that already in the first prayer, Birkot HaShachar, I was praising a God who “gives sight to the blind,” “clothes the naked,” and “makes me in His image,” yet just outside my own front door lies blindness to others, or intolerance, homelessness, and despair. This prayer compelled introspection, too, as I looked at myself and questioned if I was really living in the image that was created for me, or if that was even a good thing. As time progressed, prayer became more of a double standard: I would praise God when I accomplished a goal that I prayed for, and blamed myself when it failed miserably. While the motions I learned since I was nine years old remained consistent—I knew when to click my heels and bow—the liturgy and meaning left me confused and alone, grappling with my faith at large.
It was during my Gesher summer at Camp Ramah Darom when I learned the core values of prayer that I will pursue for the rest of my life. One of our teachers, Rabbi Hillel Nuri, stressed the importance of praying with others, constantly staying connected to others through each prayer. Through all tragedies or joys in life, we must preserve the communities we create by the words of our prayers; “faith cannot be separated from community.” The words, whether translated in English or read in its original Hebrew form, in our siddur must not leave us feeling isolated but rather united. Our feelings toward liturgy, no matter what they are, are perfectly normal and acceptable; it is our actions that follow that define our path in Judaism. We can either remain hidden beneath our anger and confusion, or share our struggle with those around us. Perhaps that is why we are required to pray in minyan or quorum of ten people; no one should ever experience faith alone.
While Judaism may constantly evolve, prayer is everlasting. Looking back, I’ve come to realize that in order to struggle and grapple with the liturgy of the prayers we recite as a nation, I needed to learn the basic motions. While we may not have all the answers to the questions that accompany our quests for understanding, we have something more powerful and indestructible: the warmth and support of our community.
So until I master the work in progress that is Jewish prayer, I will continue with the cycle that began with my oversized red siddur.
Three steps forward, three steps back.