Over these many months I have offered a treatment of the blessings that comprise the Amidah, the standing prayer that is central to all our services. Having concluded discussing them, we now reach the coda that closes the Amidah recitation. That coda was originally unscripted. It was the place that was devoted to personal, spontaneous prayer. It is here that the contrast between the collective and the individual,, the public and the private presents itself with force. (I have written about this issue before – see my columns in Kol Emunah for April 2014 and May, 2014)
We have noticed that all our prayers are couched in language that is collective. We pray for the world or for the people of Israel or for the community. We use plural nouns and verbs. We hardly find a set prayer or blessing that speaks in the personal, first-person vein. This is a distinctly counter-intuitive phenomenon. Many of us think of prayer as precisely depending on one’s personal feelings and concerns. Many of us consider prayer to be a private matter altogether. But our prayer services are public and collective in nature. We pray in community, with the community, as a community, and, even when we pray on our own, with a constant awareness that we are part of a greater whole. But what about our personal, unique selves?
It turns out that the tradition did not presume to tell us what to say as a private individual. I believe that this is to the tradition’s credit. It is one way that the tradition treats us with respect. The established prayers did not presume to dictate how we should express our most private, intimate desires. Instead, our tradition has encouraged each person to add to the set prayers as they feel appropriate. Our collective prayers – their topics and their language, their timing and their order – could be codified. But personal prayer cannot be codified.
So, after we have concluded our prescribed prayers, while we still feel conscious of standing before the Divine Presence, we are bidden to use that moment to speak to God in personal terms. What will each of us say? The answer is an ever-changing secret, shared only between the individual and God. But, as so often happens in society, we could not restrain our curiosity about what certain prominent people’s private prayers might be. I recall being approached once by someone who asked me what a particularly prominent rabbi, with whom I had studied, was thinking and feeling when he prayed. I answered, “It’s none of our business!” I think the answer did not sit well with my questioner. We want to know.
So it is not surprising that the Talmud records some of the additional prayers that some sages offered on their own. (BTBerakhot 16b – 17a). Their secret prayers got out into the public. Not only that. One of those private prayers (- of the sage Mar, son of Ravina) became part of our concluding paragraph of the traditional Amidah. How ironic! What was meant to be personal and private was turned into one more public obligatory prayer! What does it say? It begins:
“My Almighty God! (- Note the personal voice here. God is not addressed as “our God, the God of our ancestors, but as “my God.”)
“Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit.
“And may my soul be silent to any who curse me.”
This prayer is a plea for God’s help in our efforts to use our speech with honesty and sensitivity – to know when to speak and how to speak, and to know when to be silent. It follows a long recitation of many words of prayer, a delivery of a long speech of prayer. We have become adept at delivering those official words. Many of us our proud to race through them at an astonishing speed. But now we ask that, when our words are not given to us in scripted form, when we make up our own words and sentences, that we may do so with care. This is a painfully important issue that as been discussed at Shomrei many times, in print and in other contexts. For now I wish to dwell on another aspect of the prayer.
The first sentences of this once personal prayer, now commandeered into our collective tradition, are a rephrasing of words from the Psalms (34:13 – 15):
“Who is a the person who desires life, loving days, to see goodness?
“Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.
“Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and chase after it.”
The ironies multiply. Not only has this private prayer become public property, it turns out that the private prayer was merely a copy of a public teaching, verses from the Bible that everyone knew!
But there is a difference between the version in the Bible and the paraphrase by the talmudic sage. The psalmist appeals to each of us. If we really love life, we will guard our speech. The psalmist apparently believed that we could succeed in this if we really wished to. But the sage turns to God for help. He asks God to “guard my tongue from evil, etc.” He acknowledges that his own efforts have been inadequate. He needs God’s assistance.
That is, I think, the personal dimension that suffused this prayer, making it a new prayer, belonging to that particular sage, rather than just a review of a know Biblical verse. What was personal was this sage’s own acknowledgement that he needed help. To admit and enunciate that truth to himself and to his God was not easy. He was not being glib. He had tried and failed, and now he was asking God for help. It does not get any more personal than that.
The rhythm of alternating from public to private to public to private continues. That once private and now official prayer serves as a model for our own efforts at private, personal prayer. It is the paradigm he set for us, hopefully, to follow, for the love of life.