Words of Prayer: New and Old

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Oct 9, 2013 / 5774 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

What Page Are We on in the Prayer Book Blues” is a lighthearted song made famous by a pair of Orthodox artists in the 1980s called the Megama Duo (start at 3 minutes and 22 seconds in the linked video). The song would never have become as (in)famous as it was if the experience of “not being able to find the place” was unfamiliar. But, on the contrary, we have all been there, and it’s good to laugh at, and with, ourselves. When we do find the place in our prayer books, we see lines and paragraphs and pages of text, and it is often hard to find ourselves in the words.

Once in a while we find a resonant phrase or metaphor, and the joy and exhilaration of such moments can carry us forward for a time. Much of my own work is devoted to close study of the texts in the siddur, seeking to trace their history and to explore the layers of meaning found within them. Much of the siddur is open to reinterpretation for each generation. Within the Conservative Movement, we are indebted to Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer for his sagacious Or Hadash, a commentary to Siddur Sim Shalom.

There are times when new prayers are needed, and so we encounter the world of newly written prayers. Some of these prayers are formal, like the Prayer for our Country (Sim Shalom for Shabbat, 148), or more personal, as for example the Meditations upon Lighting Shabbat Candles (302). Those who compose such prayers seek to find the courage and inspiration to say something new and fitting, and to avoid the pitfalls of kitsch and cliché. Catherine Madsen, a contemporary scholar, warns of this danger in her devastatingly honest essay “Liturgy and Kitsch.”

I have ventured with some trepidation into this field, and one of my original compositions, “Prayer in Time of Doubt,” was included in Jewish Men Pray (Jewish Lights, 2013; 86). It is built around an image from Psalm 63, in which the psalmist seeks God in the holy places, but to no avail. My composition ends with a plea to be enveloped by the piety of the medieval poet who wrote “Elohim—Eli ata!”(O God You are my God!). My hope is that these words support, and perhaps inspire, the spiritual quest of those who have indeed visited the holy places and yet seek on.

Rahamana—Merciful One
I turn to seek You in moments of doubt
I yearn to find Your trace revealed in the world
I seek to find You in the Holy Place—and in the outside world.
I have prayed, and studied; I have lived and loved
I have grown and built . . . and I have sought for You.
I have said the words, Attended the holy gatherings
Found a place among my People, found community and friends
But I seek an answer to my question
A still small voice that my own ear can hear
A touch of the Other upon my soul
I yearn to say with truth and joy
Elohim Eli AtaO God—You are My God!

Listen to KenBakodesh (Psalm 63:2–3) performed by the Li-Ron Ensemble.

As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at sabarth@jtsa.edu.