Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Yoga vs. Shul: Round 2 - ה' שפתי תפתח

Last post, I wrote about the externals of the synagogue experience and how that relates to prayer.  Plainly, the post wasn't about the specifics of prayer (why we pray, what we pray for, etc.), but rather the idea that whatever prayer is or ought to be, it will require a meditative type of atmosphere to allow for regular success.  Many posted useful comments on the blog and elsewhere, and I hope to address/discuss some of those comments in future posts.  If you are reading and feel that you have thoughts you'd like to contribute on the subject, I'd welcome guest posts (under my discretion) in this area.

Prayer is one of the most significant and common activities that occurs in Judaism, and we've got to do a better job at getting it right, discussing what it means, and fully examining all things prayer - this includes the atmosphere, text, purpose, methods, etc.  For many practicing Jews throughout the world, prayer forms one of the central religious experiences.  Wouldn't it be something if daily prayer was more of the transformative experience it was intended to be.  Of course, this isn't to say that prayer doesn't work now . . . just that I think we can do better collectively, to make prayer consistently more meaningful, the same way a good yoga instructor or meditation leader does everything possible to create a favorable experience.

Today, however, I wanted to focus on the opening lines of the Amidah, the recitation that forms the central text of our daily prayer.  The Talmud notes (Berachot 4b) that Rabbi Yochanan felt we should say the phrase,"ה' שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתך" before we say the amidah, the central prayer in each Jewish prayer service.  In translation, the phrase reads "My Lord, open my lips, so that my mouth will tell of your praise."  Initially, the Talmud asks why this doesn't represent an unauthorized interruption into the prayer.  After all, the paragraph immediately preceding (about being redeemed from Egypt) is required to be directly connected with the prayer itself.  The Talmud's answer is telling; namely, this phrase is indeed part of the prayer in some way, and is therefore not an interruption.  Based upon this answer in the Talmud, Rav Soloveitchik ruled that the prayer leader should recite this phrase out loud before his public repetition of the Amidah.

What is so essential about this phrase?  At its root, prayer is about a conversation with the divine, and a communion with God.  Whatever the reason behind prayer, it definitely assumes the form of a conversation between the petitioner and God.  Each time we pray, the temptation is to merely recite the words in the prayer book as if they are undirected words.  This, however, is not prayer, but a mere recitation of words from a book.  Proper prayer requires a God-consciousness, and is then followed by a meaningful statement directed to God.

In order to stress this, Rabbi Yochanan inserted a line that speaks straight to the point.  Even at the very moment we engage in the act of prayer, we do so only as creatures created and sustained by God, and the very posture of being means that we are engaged in a relationship with the Divine.  It is God who allows us to open up our mouths, and so it is God who indeed opens in some sense.  Before prayer, we are intended to meditate on our dependence on God, and establish in our hearts and minds the deep relationship that exists.  Then, prayer is a possibility.  This is the clear and obvious meaning of the phrase.

Sadly, I fear that the moving message upon which our prayer is predicated has been lost.  This phrase has been lost as it is mumbled out of habit and haste, and it certainly does not serve in any practical way as a preliminary meditation.  In any synagogue, one sees people bowing and moving onto the next words the instant the individual prayers begin.  This means that few are taking the time to first reflect on their relationship with God, and further demonstrates that the whole exercise of prayer has become broken to the extreme.  Let us all (myself included) re-examine Rabbi Yochanan's introduction; meditation upon our relationship with God is the necessary introduction to any dialogue with the Divine, and prayer absent this meditation is missing the foundation.        

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