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Pirke Avot chapter two, verse eighteen: routine

Using Jacob Neusner’s translation, because his is on top of the pile:

R. Simeon says, “(1) Be meticulous in the recitation of the shema and the Prayer.
And (2) when you pray, don’t treat your praying as a matter of routine.
But let it be a [plea for] mercy and supplication before the Omnipresent, blessed be he.
As it is said, For he is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and full of mercy, and repents of the evil (Joel 2:13).
(3) And never be evil in your own eyes.

So to combine them: be meticulous, but not routine. I think this gets into the whole thing about liturgy.

And when I say liturgy, I’m not using the word in any accurate sense, I’m just talking about the formal ritualization of prayer. The prayer service. The repetition of formulae, the organization of the group so that they can sing or chant or read together.

Digression: You know when the service includes group reading in English? In Conservative and Reform synagogues there is a fair amount of this, and in the Episcopalian service it seems to come up as well. And I am really, really bad at it. I mean, conspicuously. There’s a rhythm to it, you see, that tells you where to place the emphases in certain lines, and I tend to put the emphasis on the wrong words. I’m really good at reading aloud (if I say so m’self) but really bad at reading in unison. In English. In Hebrew, well, most of the time there’s a tune, and although I do sometimes find myself slower or faster than the chazzan, it’s not so bad. End Digression.

Here’s the thing: I like the prayer service. I don’t, on the whole, pray in my own words. Sometimes, if I’m particularly stressed, I might address the Divine, but often in states of stress, I find comfort in the verses. I feel no real desire to sing a new song unto the Divine; I like the songs we have.

Does that make it a matter of routine? Honestly, sometimes it does. When I was going to service every week (which I do miss), I tasked myself with simply using the prayer service as an excuse to sing songs from my childhood along with other people who know the words and tune—sort of like a weekly campfire sing for those who grew up with campfire songs. And there is something to that, honestly. But there is (I decided) a good deal more to it than that, for me; that I am using the songs to connect (I don’t like that vague new-agey term) with my tradition and my conception of the Divine. And yet it is easy to just sing along, rather than put any thought into it.

This is also true of the prayer rituals at home. On Friday nights, we light the candles and say the blessing: Blessing are you, Lord, our Gd, Master of the Universe, who sanctifies us with his commandments, and commands us to light candles for the Sabbath. We say the blessing over the wine and the bread as well, if we have them. At night, when we tuck in the little ones, we say the sh’ma (meticulously) (well, the grupps are meticulous, the Youngest Member doesn’t get all the consonants right) and we bless the children. This is a form of the Shabbat blessing, although we use it every night: May Gd make you like [Ephraim and Menasseh/Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah]; may the Lord bless and protect you. Most often, this is a matter of routine (which is part of the point of bedtime ritual anyway), but now and then I find myself really hoping for the blessing and protection of the Divine for these little ones, whether they are like their biblical forebears or not.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,