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September 2018 Rabbi Arnow's Article

Before saying something about our High Holiday prayer options this year at Kol Rinah, I want ask something about prayer generally.

Is it better to pray when you’re supposed to, or when you feel moved to? Is it better to pray the prayers that well up inside you, or the prayers other people wrote that are in the prayer book?

The answer to both of these questions is, of course, “Yes!” Although we tend to focus more on fixed prayer—prayer whose time and words are fixed, Judaism also has a long tradition of spontaneous prayer—prayer whose time and words are spontaneous.

You can imagine the benefits of both fixed and spontaneous prayer. Fixed prayer is great because it ensures we pray regularly, and from that practice, our praying ability will improve, so that we’ll have more frequent, more reliable spiritual experiences. And fixed liturgy (i.e. words) are good because they make sure our prayers are for things that are not only about us, but about things and people we may never otherwise think about.

Spontaneous prayer is good because then, we’re praying not because we’re supposed to, but because we want to, because we need to. And making up the words in the moment ensures that they are coming from us, and that we are speaking of ourselves to God.

So, neither is better; both are important. Generally though, we have emphasized fixed prayer more than spontaneous prayer in synagogues. And that makes sense—synagogues are places with schedules, where our prayer is communal, and we all try to use the same words.

This year on the Days of Awe, for much of the time, we’ll have two services (we’ll be together for the Torah service each day, as well as Musaf, Mincha and Neilah on Yom Kippur). The upstairs service will be a full, traditional service, covering the entire machzor (High Holiday prayer book), and will not have musical instruments. This service will be more “fixed” and familiar. There will, of course, be moments of kavana amidst the keva (fixedness)—for example, those moments in the quiet Amidah (standing prayer) where you can add your own words. But the emphasis will be on the keva—the fixed, traditional words, melodies, choreography and feeling.

The downstairs service will use the same machzor, but will have musical instruments (guitar, piano, and gentle percussion), and will thoughtfully focus on certain prayers and pages and words and melodies, as the spirit moves us, and as we think and hope the spirit will move those there. In that service, we will not cover every single word of the machzor, even though both services will aim to finish at the same time. The focus will be on the kavana, on arousing within each of us the spirit of the moment, the spirit of the days, but through traditional words, some traditional melodies and some new melodies, and the traditional, if slightly modified, structure of the service.

One service will not be better than another—that’s not the intention. The intention is that they be different, and speak to the different needs that we each have, and the different needs that we have has a congregation.

I encourage you to try both as you are comfortable and curious, and share your experiences and reactions with Rabbi Shafrin, me, and Kol Rinah’s leadership.

Our goal is to create experiences that resonate for us all—experiences that feel traditional, joyful, transformational, introspective, familiar, inspirational, and deeply, deeply Jewish.

In whichever service you find yourself, throughout the holidays, sing joyfully, pray deeply, listen attentively, smile effusively, clap occasionally, stand and sit proudly and gratefully, and help the people around you gladly.

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the book of life.
Sun, August 1 2021 23 Av 5781