How do you pray?
When we typically think of prayer, we imagine a large room full of people together standing in front of an ark praying communally. However, engaging in prayer independently is one of the oldest forms of worship.
We know of many individual spontaneous prayers in the bible. In the book of Genesis, Parashat Chayyei Sarah which we read months ago, there are two successful examples of individual prayer. First, Abraham’s servant prays to God for help with a task.
He spontaneously offers,,
וַיֹּאמַ֓ר ׀ יְהוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אֲדֹנִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֔ם הַקְרֵה־נָ֥א לְפָנַ֖י הַיּ֑וֹם וַעֲשֵׂה־חֶ֕סֶד עִ֖ם אֲדֹנִ֥י אַבְרָהָֽם׃
"Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham…” (Genesis 24:12)
By doing this, Abraham’s servant prays to God—alone.
Later in the Torah portion, we find brief mention of Isaac praying by himself as well. The text says,
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב
And Isaac went out lasooach in the field before evening…. (Genesis 24:63)
Lasooach—what is lasooach? This word can be understood as meditating. Isaac was mediating in the field—alone.
The great thing about individual prayers is that they can be specific to the situation and offered up spontaneously and in the language of one’s own heart.
But we also know that there is something meaningful about praying in community. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor, we learn that communal prayer can take the form of great celebrations. Leviticus 23:21 tells us,
וּקְרָאתֶ֞ם בְּעֶ֣צֶם ׀ הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֗ה
“On that same day you (plural) shall hold a celebration…”
Here, we are commanded to gather together to celebrate. We see that we can lift one another’s spirits through our shared energy.
When we pray in community, we also have an opportunity to respond to one another. Whether we say so or not, we show we care about one another by showing up.
For example, when we recite the mi sheberach, the prayer for the sick, each of us bears witness to the names of those who are ill, and those who are reciting the names. This provides us with the opportunity of responding—we may approach people after the service and inquire about the health of those they prayed for, we may ask if there is anything we can do for them, we may give a comforting word of support. By praying together, we can learn about what’s going on in our community, lend a hand, lend an ear, and lend support to one another.
Praying together is also a powerful way to formulate shared familial experiences. Some of my most cherished memories of my great-grandparents occurred in synagogue. I remember the gold yarmulke my great-grandfather wore. Sitting next to my great-grandmother. I remember the candies my grandmother would keep in her purse for me, and the way my mom sang Mi Chamocha.
Due to the COVID-19 virus, we have been unable to pray in community in person. Many have utilized technology to continue our practice of gathering together to pray, maintaining the essential benefits of doing this. But, at this time, concentrating on our individual prayer practice can help round out our spiritual toolkit to foster resilience and gratitude. As with almost everything in life, it is all about balance. How fortunate are we that we are able to draw on each of these expressions of prayer as time, health, safety, and our spirit move us? May we always draw upon these resources wisely.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.