Following the Beat of a New Drummer: Prayer for the Modern Age

“Why in God’s name do we pray the amidah three times a day?” is a question that I used to ask myself several years ago in Yeshiva. For even if I assumed that every word said to the Queen of Queens was crisply pronounced and accompanied by the requisite kavanah, or proper intensity, I realized that I was standing idly as people died from war, famine, disease, and automobile crashes. I was standing idly when I could have, possibly, helped develop a cure for multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, or arthritis. I was standing idly when I could have theoretically been responding to 911 calls at a local emergency volunteer center. And perhaps most importantly, I saw that I was standing idly before a God who had commanded Her people to walk in Her ways and to preserve life.

I remember thinking, “isn’t life too short and time too precious for all of us to stand idly?” While shacharit, mincha, and ma’ariv services, prayed, according to the halacha, in earnest, could easily take three hours, it seemed to me that we were using this time to skirt away from other meaningful and productive activities.

Jewish liturgy teaches us that “All your actions should be for the sake of Heaven.” This law is found in Pirkei Avot and is codified in Orach Chaim, siman 231. It is supposed to have all-encompassing ramifications for each moment of a Jew’s life. It shows us the importance of everything we do, whether we are working at a gas station, studying for a philosophy midterm, or even playing chess to sharpen our minds. As long as you have the proper intentions, this source appears to claim that you are still preoccupied with a mitzvah, a holy act, which exempts one from praying or doing any other mitzvah during that time(see Orach Chaim, siman 38).

When we say the amidah, the holy centerpiece of Jewish prayer, we are verbalizing the wishes – some of which now may appear obsolete or barbaric – of ancient men well versed in the Torah. Can we wholeheartedly claim to know that God desires a Temple with bloody sacrifices, as in the days of old? Can we likewise honestly believe that He wants us to throw away modern democracy in favor of a once sacred monarchy?

Further, while reciting the concluding blessing of the amidah, I have always found it difficult to pray solely for peace for Jewry, as if the entire gentile community in Darfur, Afghanistan, or America didn’t matter. When we pray, I believe that we should focus on what matters to us most. Personally, I pray for vegetarianism over animal sacrifices, democracy over monarchy, and peace for Jews and Gentiles alike.

If the Rabbis who designed our wealth of Jewish prayers could have seen into the future, they likely would have included special benedictions for all of the world’s sufferers. With a world as globalized and as informed as ours, it’s impossible to see otherwise. As long as the human species exists, we must care for and protect all of its members.

In some ways, I feel that we should stop backseat driving for God by ordering him around with our tefilot. The same way that a responsible parent would never recommend that a young child control a car, I can’t imagine that God would let man steer the wheels of the universe through his prayers. If God is omniscient and omnipotent, She will do what is best, whether or not our prayers happen to align with the Divine plan. Prayer, in its ideal and unassuming form, ought to consist simply of recognition of our roles in God’s world. Hence, prayer should not be aimed at directing God’s actions but at improving our own. And as the immediate world around us continues to change, I believe that our prayers should reflect those changes. So when we pray for world peace, we shouldn’t just stand there begging for it. We should meditate on what it means, how to achieve it, and then work toward it.

Two years ago, I carefully considered the halachic sources quoted here and ceased to pray the amidah three times a day. For me, prayer had taken on a new definition. Prayer was no longer a mandated routine. Prayer became spontaneous, genuine, ever-changing meditation. Let me explain by analogy the benefits I have reaped. Prayer is a like a workout at the gym. Muscles grow only if you demand more of them. If you do the same workout with the same weights week after week, your muscles will remain unchanged. If you make your workout more strenuous, your muscles will perforce grow, given adequate rest and nutrition. By the same token, when our prayers evolve and mature, our spiritual muscles grow. We can continue to set new and harder goals to accomplish. This way, we will be on the path to succeed in all our endeavors.