Keva, Kavanah, and the Paradox of Prayer

This short D'var Torah was given to Herzl-Ner Tamid Synagogue, WA, by Rabbinic Intern Natasha Mann.


Keva, Kavanah, and the Paradox of Prayer

There is a classic argument in Jewish law and values which has its roots in the least seemingly-contentious verse I can think of. The root is this verse: ‘And Avraham got up in the morning’. You might think, ‘What could possibly be contentious about this verse?’ Well. Let it never be said that Jews cannot find places for tension in the seemingly-innocuous.
The rabbis read this verse as Avraham getting up in the morning to pray. This verse is therefore where the rabbis read the obligation to daven Shaharit, to say our morning prayers. There’s another verse for Yitzhak to prove Minha, and another for Ya’akov to prove Ma’ariv. We are sitting here tonight, doing the set prayers at the set time, because the rabbis read Ya’akov as praying in the evening. And not only do we have specific times to say specific texts, but we even have rules about how to say them, many of which we have been playing out this evening: this prayer aloud and this one quietly, this prayer standing and this one sitting, bow here and stand straight there, and so on, and so forth. But there is a 2000-year-old dispute about the issue of the rules of prayer. And how could there not be, when the verses we base the fixed nature of prayer on are of our forefathers acting in spontaneity?
Here is the text which best expresses the tension. It is from the fourth chapter of Mishnah B’rakhot. Rabban Gamliel says: ‘בְּכָל יוֹם מִתְפַּלֵּל אָדָם שְׁמֹנֶה עֶשְׂרֵה’, ‘every day a person prays the Sh’moneh Esrei, the Amidah’. That’s true, right? Every day, we’re supposed to say the Amidah. But Rabbi Eliezer, on the other hand, says: ‘הָעוֹשֶׂה תְפִלָּתוֹ קֶבַע, אֵין תְּפִלָּתוֹ תַּחֲנוּנִים’, ‘one who makes his prayer keva, fixed, his prayer is not supplication.’ So on the one hand, one rabbi tells us that we are supposed to pray the Amidah every day, and on the other, we’re told that our prayer cannot be ‘keva’, ‘fixed’.
This is one of the classic tensions of Jewish liturgy. We have a tradition that demands both fixedness, keva, and intentional connection, kavanah. We have a tradition that says to fix the prayer, and also tells us that we cannot fix prayer. So what do we do with that?
In practice, I think that it is easier to maintain only one of those positions. It is easy to say that prayer is all about kavanah, about feeling, and therefore when I’m not ‘feeling it’, I don’t have to do it – or to say that prayer is all about keva, about fixedness, and therefore as long as I say the right words at the right time, I have fulfilled my obligation.
The more difficult position to hold in practice is the one that I think is truest to our tradition. That is this: let’s surrender neither of the poles of Jewish worship. Let’s live in the paradox that says we need prayer to be fixed and that we cannot fix prayer. Let’s demand of ourselves both regularity and spontaneity, both order and outburst, and accept that it doesn’t need to make perfect sense. The human condition is not a logical and sensible one, so I don’t see why our communication with the Divine would be any less chaotic and paradoxical.
The major problem with my position is this: but Natasha, it’s all well and good to say that it doesn’t need to make sense, but how do I fulfil my obligation if my obligation is self-contradictory? And to that, I say this: it isn’t easy to be okay with imperfection, but your prayer life does not need to be perfect. Sometimes you will say the words and be unable to muster a drop of kavanah. Sometimes you will be bursting with intention that you will be unable to attach to the words on the page. And that is fine. It is my opinion that prayer is the one obligation that you fulfil by trying to fulfil it.
And the good news is, if you’re willing to try, sometimes the paradox will make sense. Sometimes everything will fall into place. And I think that that’s worth it.

Shabbat shalom.

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