The blessings of prayer, liturgical or personal

February 9, 2017
Michael Baror, deputy ambassador at the Israeli embassy in Kenya (with watering can), plants a tree at the Ramogi Institute of Advanced Technology in Kisumu, Kenya. Photo by Ryan Torok

With the celebration of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, on Feb. 11, environmentally friendly Jewish organizations and individuals fill social media feeds with exhortations to protect the environment and to appreciate the bounty of produce that most of us enjoy.

But do you know what blessing to say for planting a tree? And what if that tree is in Kisumu, Kenya, to celebrate a partnership of Kenya, Israel and Germany that has yielded great strides in tilapia fish farming?

This example sounds random enough to be made up, but it really happened for 12 of us on an Israeli Consulate-sponsored trip to Kenya last November to see the work of an Israeli international development organization called MASHAV.

As we watched a representative from each partner country plant a tree at the Ramogi Institute of Advanced Technology, I asked fellow trip participant Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom, “Is there a blessing for a trilateral fish farming partnership tree-planting?”

He said there wasn’t one, so we riffed on the concepts and words relating to the physical act of tree-planting as well as thematic meanings of partnerships. The rabbi’s version went biblical, invoking Eden, the first garden sown by humans and the notion that God creates everything. My version was more interpersonal: about God as the overseer of human existence and both witness to and nurturer of relationships between people and the earth.

We settled on the Shehecheyanu prayer that expresses gratitude for having reached a new or special moment or occasion.

But an idea also had taken root: Was there really no blessing for tree-planting? When I got home, I asked my favorite always-on-duty religious expert, Rabbi Google. I learned there is a blessing said on a fruit-bearing tree once a year during the month of Nisan, but generally, no blessing for tree-planting. Shouldn’t there be, especially when it marks a deepening of human relationship as well as the intention of seeding the earth?

I thought: Why not teach people to use their words to find their own blessings? And yet, the thought seemed heretical. Who was I — or anyone without rabbinic training — to negate the canonized liturgy? And if everyone was “vigilante blessing” things, would that put Farkas and my other rabbi friends out of a job? Would there still be a need for synagogue and community around standardized prayer?

Pondering these thoughts, I read the reflections of my friend and Jewish Journal colleague Ryan Torok, who also was on the Kenya trip.

“It’s comforting how the words of the Amidah are the same in Kenya as they are back home,” he wrote in the Journal. “No matter where one is in the world, Judaism is Judaism.” 

There is a tension between institutionalized liturgy and personal prayer. We have a robust liturgy, sanctioned by rabbis, time and generations of people who have intoned the same words in different geographical and emotional places. They have called on the same phrases for strength, as mantra, as comfort, as praise in countries around the world. Indeed, there are “official” blessings for lots of Jewish acts and occasions — even observing strange things or unusual people.

But in moments during which there are no standardized blessings, how do we non-rabbis — or those of us unfamiliar with the liturgy, unfamiliar with Hebrew, or even lacking a traditional belief in God — mark those moments?

There’s a Chasidic folktale about a young shepherd who was nearly illiterate and went to a synagogue, where he recited the letters of the Hebrew alphabet repeatedly. When asked why, he said he didn’t know the prayers but knew that if he spoke the letters, God would assemble them to form words expressing his intended prayer.

Depending on the audience, this story — and its many variations — is invoked to teach several lessons. In my interpretation, I learn two things. First, you don’t need officially sanctioned words to pray or express gratitude. Second, even when you are expressing your heart’s desires, gratitude or prayer — which may be very much outside of the communal norm — there is value and power to being in the presence of community.

We have our own letters, and we have our own words. We don’t need words that are biblical in origin, or grandiosely phrased, or rabbinically sanctioned. If the “God” concept is a challenge for you, opt out of language like “blessed are you, oh God,” and instead use “how incredible it is to be having this experience” or “how grateful I am to be in the presence of this thing.” Prayers don’t have to be in Hebrew, either, because if God is an entity or concept that has meaning for you, you can bet your bracha (blessing) on the fact that any deity worth anything would be fluent in any language.

I think that institutionalized liturgy provides a framework, something to rely on if we aren’t having a spontaneous or creative prayer moment. It also suggests words and phrases to guide us in our own interpretation of what it means to use language to express vulnerability, humility, respect, praise and gratitude.

Of course, most people — and that includes me most days — don’t create their own prayers. They may not see the point in prayer at all. Or they may feel unworthy, unpoetic or unholy. Or they may think personal prayer is forbidden or some sort of hubris, that when it comes to Jewish prayer, it’s codified liturgy or bust. And maybe that belief creates a stronger bond to both community members and to places of institutionalized prayer.

But perhaps, when we’re seeking ways to connect to prayer and gratitude, it’s not “this” or “that.” Rather, it’s worth looking to our structured community spaces, as well as into the unique words that we hold within ourselves and our unique experiences, to find the answers.

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