At the risk of stating the obvious, intentionality is considered essential to Jewish prayer. To simply “go through the motions” by rote without paying attention to the prayer is shallow, misses the point of worship, and probably renders the prayer invalid according to Jewish Law. That’s why it is astonishing to find in the Jerusalem Talmud:
Rabbi Hiyya said, “In all my days, I’ve never concentrated in prayer. I wanted to once, and I ended up thinking about Persian court protocols.” Shmuel said, “[During services,] I count baby chickens.” (some texts “clouds”) Rabbi Bun b. Hiyya said, “I count the layers of brick in the wall [during services].” Rav Matinya said, “I must express gratitude for my head, for it knows to automatically bow at the right time!” (Yer. Ber. 2:4)
The traditional commentators are understandably loathe to take this passage at face value. They assume it must contain some deeper, hidden meaning. As modern readers of our tradition, I think we can accept that plainly some of our founding sages found it very difficult, even impossible, to pay attention during services. Their transparency about this difficulty empowers us to confront it honestly as well. Indeed, services have actually grown quite a bit longer over the past 1700 years.
Our cantor, staff, lay leaders and I work hard to keep our services lively and engaging. Over the past few years, we have freshened the format for the shofar blowing, added English readings/poems composed by congregants, innovated brief “bio’s” of those honored to be called to the bima, and included a special prayer which is led by non-Jewish fellow worshippers. I believe we can still do even better and that everyone can help. If you see a neighbor confused how to follow, gently direct him/her to the right page. If you recognize the tune, sing along with energy and spirit, and if you feel we’ve missed a tune that you recall fondly from previous years, let us know. It’s okay to let kids play quietly (there’s a play rug and toys in the social hall section), and it’s okay to take breaks and chat in the hallway.
While you’re there, check out this year’s amazing Agudas Lamed-Vavniks featured on our walls. We invite you to volunteer to greet, usher, or learn a role for the service. We have empty chairs on the bima and it is your bima too. Join me for a little prayerful company whenever you like. Become a partner in making our services engaging. No doubt about it, they are long and can be tough to get through. Worst case scenario, count a few bricks; or chickens.
B’vrachah (with blessings),
Rabbi Mitch Levine