Rav Soloveitchik often taught that prayer is, at its core, asking God to fill our needs. Essentially that means that the fewer needs we have the less we are inclined to pray. In fact, the Midrash indicates that God deliberately withholds our needs to spur our prayers. Our matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel were all denied children for many years. The Midrash states that God “craved” their prayers and therefore imposed fertility issues upon them so they would pray.
This might explain why we have such difficulty praying today. We don’t perceive ourselves as lacking anything, at least not lacking anything that we need God for. Fertility issues? We have our own solutions for that. We have intrauterine treatments, artificial insemination – we can even develop a human in a petrie dish. We don’t need God for that!
It is no wonder we struggle to relate to the themes and supplications expressed in our liturgy. We live in an age of unprecedented wealth. We have access to comforts our ancestors could not have imagined. If we are unwell we simply skip work – and the crops don’t fail as a result. We have leisure, and many ways to fill our leisure. Problems we have plenty of, but we turn to our own collective wisdom to solve these problems. We put our faith in science and our trust in technology. We turn to the doctors for health issues and the banks for financial needs. We have safety nets such as welfare payments, flood insurance and retirement savings to cover nearly any eventuality. We have successfully weaned ourselves from dependence on God. Of course we recite the requisite prayers. Page after page is turned as we murmer paragraph after paragraph from our books. We chant together with our co-worshipers, but real prayer, the heartfelt pleas and beseeching, eludes us.
And yet, we continue to fill the pews of our synagogues on the High Holy days. The days of the most intense and prolonged prayers are the very times more of us choose to subject ourselves to the rituals of synagogue services. This makes some kind of sense on Yom Kippur. It is a long standing tradition to gain atonement on this day. We know that atonement can only be achieved after repentance, and we are not very good at repenting. Few of us sincerely plan to change our ways in any meaningful manner. But we know that atonement can also be achieved through suffering. So we suffer through the long hours of the Yom Kippur service. As the service drags on, and we’ve already taken two breaks outside, we are ready to eat the books in our hands. We pass the time by chatting with the neighbor, speculating on what kind of coalition the new government will form, speculating on the speed of the winds outside, commenting on the chazzan’s new kittel, etc.
Why do we gather to pray together? Is there something that we gain at the synagogue that we cannot achieve at home? The machzor has all the prayers translated into English, so we certainly don’t need the synagogue service to help us understand the words. Of course there are elements of the service that are only included in the context of a congregation, but the prayers themselves are accessible to anyone who has the text.
Our sages teach us that the optimal prayer is one recited together with a congregation. Even those passages which can be recited anywhere are more effective, more resonant, when recited together with a group of co-worshipers. Approaching God alone, as an individual, is challenging. Our shortcomings feel so glaring, they stand out and seem so difficult to overcome. One can easily feel lonely and inadequate when approaching God privately, and that reticence is justified. If we were our own judges we would likely find ourselves unworthy.
It is different when praying in a communal context. We are not alone, we are not singled out. We approach God as members of a covenantal community. Our sages teach that God is more receptive to prayers of the community, and Rav Soloveitchik writes that we can demand God’s attention when we pray as a community.
There is another benefit to praying with a congregation, noted by Rabbi Jay Kelman of Toronto. Yom Kippur, as mentioned, is the day of atonement. We strive to be forgiven by God for our mistakes and shortcomings. But if we wish to be forgiven we need to be forthright in forgiving others. The halacha insists that we pray together with all types of Jews. One of the benefits of living in a small community is that there are not many shuls, and we tend to have a good deal of diversity within our membership, including one or two who may not be perfect Jews. While I don’t urge any particular person to fill that role, we are fortunate to have such Jews among us. The Talmud states that a fast day which does not include the sinners of Israel is not a fast day (Kritot 6b). An important introduction to Kol Nidrei recited in all synagogues includes a declaration allowing us to pray together with those who have sinned. This is not merely an allowance. Based on our sages’ teachings this is a necessary element to have in a congregation.
Praying together with others, invariably imperfect human beings, gives us the opportunity to meet and accept others, others with different points of view, others with styles and backgrounds different from our own. We are given the chance to forgive others for their imperfections and thus earn forgiveness for our failings. The exposure to and encounter with individuals who are not like us, not like me and not like you, helps us to grow spiritually. We also can recognize in such an environment that we have problems and needs that no technology can solve. We have very human problems and emotional and psychological needs which cannot be met by science. The prayer that comes from such a context, from a diverse congregation, carries with it a quality of its own, and it transcends the limitations of individuals.
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