2015-05-26 – My friend Natalie celebrated her bat mitzvah this week. I wasn’t there but I read her reflection on a prayer I once said: Elohai Nitzor. This is a prayer that is said at the conclusion of the silent devotion or Amidah prayer. Leave it to Jews to script their silent prayers.
The thing I noticed in Natalie’s reflection was that her English translation of the prayer was different than the English translation that was used in our congregation where we grew. The differences altered the rhythm of the prayer. It was the rhythm that I remembered, more than the specific words themselves.
I don’t pray these days. I’m not sure that you could even call what I did in the old days “praying,” in the sense of supplication to a deity. I was just saying words that I didn’t connect with—at least not at the level of meaning. I didn’t have prayerful intention, called kavana. But apparently, I did connect with the rhythm of the prayer.
I don’t pray these days. But I do remember the rhythm of the prayers. In Hebrew, the word for the act of praying, davening, is distinct from the prayer itself, tefilah. In my mind the distinction is rhythm, which the davener physically embodies with prayerful swaying.
Sometimes the rhythm of prayer transcends language and even faith and culture. A couple of weeks ago, I attended the first communion of my niece’s son. In the celebration of the mass, the priest recited “Holy holy holy,” and my rhythm ear was hearing its Jewish counterpart, “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh.”
Of course, that is no accident, given the history of these prayers.
Some people pray for identity. They pray Christian prayers of Muslim prayers or Jewish prayers to identify as Christian, Muslim, or Jew. Some people pray for the meaning. Some people pray for the rhythm.
And some people don’t pray at all. But we still have the rhythm of the saints.
Rhythm of the Saints – Paul Simon
If I have weaknesses
Don’t let them blind me
Or camouflage all I am wary of
I could be sailing on seizures of laughter
Or crawling out from under the heel of love
Do my prayers remain unanswered
Like a beggar at your sleeve?
Olodumare is smiling in heaven
Smiling in heaven, I do believe
Reach in the darkness
A reach in the dark