Service of the Heart (עבודת הלב): Exploring Prayer

This week's column was written by Rabbi Samuel Barth, Senior Lecturer in Liturgy and Worship, JTS.

Actions Speak Louder with Words

"Hareini muhan umezuman . . . I am ready to perform the mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah as instructed by my Divine Creator: 'In Sukkot shall you dwell for seven days . . . '" (Siddur Sim Shalom, 330)

With these words many of us enter the sukkah that we build in our homes, schools, and other centers of Jewish life. This formula, "Hareini/Hineni muhan umezuman . . . I am prepared and ready . . . ," may be familiar from the Pesah seder (or elsewhere), where it is often recited before each of the four cups of wine.

These words invite us to consider an interesting and ancient problem concerning rituals: how do we ensure the "sincerity" of our acts? How do we find meaning in the (sometimes strange) actions required of us by Jewish teaching, by the Torah, and ultimately by God? Is it not, from some objective stance, just a little strange to eat meals, even sleep, for seven days in a fragile hut, and to wave four species (palm, myrtle, willow, and etrog) in the middle of the synagogue?

By reciting a berakhah (blessing), before these acts, we affirm that we do these things because "God has made us holy with Mitzvot and commanded us to . . . " It is the recitation of this liturgical text, the berakhah, that in some way "changes" or elevates simple acts into sacred ones, ones through which we fulfill an obligation to God and link ourselves to the covenantal community of the Jewish People.

There are so many occasions upon which we recite blessings that inevitably the blessing itself can become "stale" and lose some meaning and significance. So the custom arose to add these kavanot (intentions) as a mental/spiritual guide prior to saying the blessing, to remind us of what we are about to do and why we do it. Among the medieval Kabbalists, some of these kavanot were extremely arcane, inviting the advanced practitioner to carry our sophisticated visualizations of the Hebrew letters of divine names and "higher realms." In reaction to these increasingly obscure practices, simpler kavanot were introduced in Hasidic and other circles, and are now increasingly found in the liturgies of the Conservative and Reform movements, and in other creative circles.

We hope that these printed kavanot—along with more spontaneous words of teaching and introduction sometimes offered by rabbis, cantors, and teachers—deepen the meaning and spiritual significance of the acts around which our Jewish lives are built so that in these cases it could be said that "actions speak louder with words."

Hag sameah to all. As always, comments and reflections are welcome: I can be reached at Samuel Barth.