Why is Davening So Repetitive?
One thing I struggle with is davening. Why do we normally only daven for Jewish people? I like variety and new things, why do we have to say the same words over and over again? Also, in the past, I really davened for important things that then didn’t come about, where does that leave me? I know that our tefillos were written at a time of constant war so it hardly made sense to daven for non-Jews when they were clearly on the other side. The problem I now have is that if this is the case, surely we should change our tefillos for our current context. But wait, does that make me reform? It’s all a bit confusing.
I have to recognize that for whatever reason my tefiilos seem to be ineffective. This has led me to challenge whether I should spend my time davening at all or maybe I should give that time to some activity that has a higher chance of succeeding.
Thanks for your question.
Prayer is a tremendous gift from God. Rather than just giving us whatever He’s going to give us and telling us to like it or lump it, God has given us a mechanism to approach Him and to ask for the things we want and need. But prayer is not a magic incantation. Asking God for something is not a guarantee that he’s going to give it to us. That doesn’t mean that the prayer has gone unanswered; “no” is also an answer. If a child asks a parent for a banana, the parent might think that’s a good idea and give it to him. If the child asks for a hot fudge sundae, the parent might think that’s a bad idea and not give it to him. In either case, the parent acts in what he deems to be the best interest of the child. The same is true with God. Sometimes we ask for things that He realizes are not going to be good for us, for reasons we may or may not understand, so He says no. That doesn’t make the prayer ineffective.
We can and do daven for non-Jews but I assume that you are referring to the formal text of Shemoneh Esrei, which focuses on our communal needs. I agree with your assessment that it was written in a particularly contentious environment but may I point out that every era in Jewish history – including ours – is a particularly contentious one. Like the Mishna says, im ein ani li, mi li? We have to look out for number one. We don’t only look out for number one but the “quality time” with God when we say Shemoneh Esrei is one where we focus on our own community. There are other times for universalism.
As far as the repetitive nature of prayer, to benefit memorization may be part of it but I don’t think it’s the main part. The Sefer HaChinuch says we recite Shema twice a day to constantly remind ourselves of its important message. Similarly, I think the repetitive nature of prayer is designed to reinforce within us the important ideas that our tefillos contain. If left to our own devices, we might say, “Hey, God! Thanks for all the beautiful flowers and trees” on Monday, “Please send me a hamburger” on Tuesday, etc. – a bunch of random thoughts that vary not only from person to person, but also within the same person from day to day. With our standardized tefillos, we have a communal understanding as to God’s praises, as well as the things we most need from Him. One can always append personal tefillos to the standard text but this way we have a common language and frame of reference that is inculcated within all of us.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of six books including The Taryag Companion and The God Book. For more Q&A, follow his new video series, Ask Rabbi Jack, on YouTube.