The Words We Pray

It's just like Passover in September (not Christmas in July), but with a High Holy Day spiritual message about gratitude and the means of spiritual growth. 

This week's Torah portion (Ki Tavo) features the Passover Haggadah's re-telling of the journey from bondage to liberation: "My father was a wandering Aramean.  He went down to Egypt few in number to sojourn, and there became a great and mighty nation.  The Egyptians ... oppressed us ... [and] we cried out ... and God heard our plea ... and freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand, an outstretched arm, awesome power, signs and wonders" (Deut. 26:5-8).  

Cue matzah, four cups and Seder songs!  But why these words now, and how do they cue up the upcoming Days of Awe?

These words are the first liturgy of monotheism, prescribed to be spoken when we "come into the [Promised] Land ... and take the first fruits of the ground" in gratitude to God for "bringing us into this place, and giving us this Land – a land flowing with milk and money" (Deut 26:1-2, 9).  Our spiritual ancestors were called to give thanks and to use specific words linking them collectively to their timeless ancestral story.  

In our day, people all kinds of houses of worship – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. – do much the same, using prescribed texts shared in communal prayer for collective expression.  Even Jews who typically don't attend synagogue, who fill synagogues on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, will encounter prescribed liturgy – the shared texts and stories of collective ancestry and prayer experience.  

As we prepare for the Days of Awe, this week's Torah portion comes to signal that once again we'll journey from bondage to liberation (though our shackles might be of inner bondage rather than physical slavery), and to remind that our path to liberation must include gratitude.

But can text really command gratitude?  Can fixed words really evoke a spiritual journey?  Words can be important, but liturgy is just jargon unless we give it life.  As we ready for the High Holy Days, the season asks us to enliven our words with intention, focus and heart.  The Days of Awe call us to offer words as if they were fruits of our inner harvest after reaching a land of promise.

And when this lofty goal eludes us (it always might), when our words don't fully reach the heart, may our words rest gently on the outside of the heart, waiting their moment to go deep and bring forth a bountiful harvest of inner liberation and gratitude beyond words.

Rabbi David Evan Markus