Who Thinks of These Things?

Thursday, July 23, 2009
Special to the Jewish Week

Between teaching at JTS, having a daughter at Barnard, a wife who works on 91st Street in Manhattan and a daughter who lives a few blocks away, a son who goes to school just a mile or two south of her and another son and daughter-in-law (and grandchild!) who live just a mile or so north, I’ve spent a lot of time these past few years driving from Forest Hills to the Upper West Side/Morningside Heights area.  A lot.  My wife (among other, more valuable lessons) taught me that, once you get over the Triboro/RFK bridge,  it’s faster to drive west on 126th Street than 125th- fewer trucks and traffic- and that’s the route I have taken lo these many times.

There’s a small church- basically a brownstone- on one of those blocks on E. 126th Street.  Actually, the whole neighborhood is loaded with small churches, but this one has a little marquee in front of it, with a clever message that changes weekly.  One of my secret little pleasures over the years has been anticipating the new message as I near the church.

So, for a change, I’m driving up 126th Street the other day and was greeted with this marvelously clever little greeting (it would be a great tweet…): “Life is fragile; handle with prayer.”

“Gosh,” I thought to myself.  “Who thinks of these things?”  I couldn’t help but wonder if this modest little church employed someone part-time to just sit and think of clever messages to post, or maybe the mother church, in some manual, has a listing of pithy sayings that make great eye-catchers as you pass by.

“Life is fragile; handle with prayer.”  Every once in a while, in moments of candid reflection, I consider the possibility that the church world has done a much better job of transmitting the enormous value of spontaneous, heartfelt prayer than we Jews have.

In the eternal battle between kevah and kavannah- fixed and spontaneous prayer, rabbinic tradition has done a wonderful job of impressing upon us the importance of morning, afternoon and evening fixed liturgies, and our obligation to recite them.

Anyone saying Kaddish, as I am at the moment, is all too familiar with the incessant rhythm of those services, like the candies rolling off the assembly line in that famous “I Love Lucy” episode.   They each follow on the heels of the one that came before, all obligatory, all fixed, all routinized discharge of time-honored yet staggeringly repetitious prayers.

I wonder… how often do most Jews- even the most observant ones- actually stop to spontaneously open our hearts to God, in our own words?

The neo-Hassidic revival that was such an integral part of the Jewish counter-culture in the late 60’s and 70’s brought many of us into the orbit of seminal figures like Nachman of Bratzlav and Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, acknowledged masters of the spontaneous prayerful moment.  But most of us are reluctant to speak to God from our hearts, as they did so masterfully.  It feels awkward to us, somehow inauthentic…

I can’t help but think that we are impoverished by the overwhelming dominance of fixed prayers in our tradition.  Not that we don’t need fixed prayer; without it, I doubt most of us would pray regularly.  But we could all use a little heartfelt spontaneity; after all, life is fragile.  We have to handle it with prayer!

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