Consistent, daily prayer is somewhat of a new thing for me. Years went by where I badly wanted to be the person who just wasn’t themselves without wrapping themselves up in a tallit and tefillin and having a morning teleconference with Infinite Truth of the Universe. I wanted to be like those people who humblebrag that, “I’m just not myself if I don’t get my 9-mile run in every morning.”…but, you know, for prayer.
Finally, in much the same way many people develop new habits, I forced myself to become dependent on my morning davening. First, I started with at least the Shema and the Ve’ahavta. It wasn’t too long before I added the Amidah, aka The Shemonah Esrei, aka the 18 Blessings. This prayer is the meat patty in the hamburger of Jewish prayer. Fortunately, it only takes about 10-15 minutes to do with kavanah (alignment/intent).
Eventually, I got over the hurdle of actually budgeting time to pray. I was beginning to really taste what I was eating. The basic formula of the Amidah is talking about Who the Creator is with preceding descriptions.
“Pardon us….(insert accolades here)…Blessed are You Adonai, gracious One who pardons abundantly.”
“Hear our voice…(insert descriptive reasonings why here)… Blessed are You Adonai, who hears prayer.”
This is the general theme for blessings ranging from desiring a fruitful year, teshuvah (repentence), deliverance, salvation, restoration, to peace and much more. However, there was one prayer that first made me feel that these brachot, these blessings, were affirmations with the powerful persuasion of a Jedi mind trick.
“My G‑d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully…”
One day at work at around 4:45 PM, the volume of the usual workplace chatter began to increase as people prepared to leave for the day. The topic of discussion was of a former co-worker with a checkered past. Due to this person’s absence, everyone felt free to chime in on their thoughts about this individual. Going around the room, someone had asked me, “Ken, you worked with him. Do you have any bizarre stories?” Oh, buddy did I ever. I had them all in the chamber, ready to fire. As I was about to blurt them out like any other gossiper, certain words rang out in my head.
“….guard my tongue from evil…”
Was what I was about to say useful? Was it productive? Was it even nice? No. I simply side-stepped the request for feedback with a, “Not really.”
Now, do I believe that the Creator of the Universe reached down from the heavens and covered my mouth before I could talk smack on this former co-worker? I honestly don’t believe so. In fact, I don’t really believe that the Holy One intercedes in the behavior of creation very frequently. We were given free will and I believe the Creator respects our ability to make utter fools of ourselves. What I do believe happened was a literal answer to my prayers via the prayer itself.
As I would pray these positive attributes every day, taking words from a book and speaking them as truth into my life, I was slowly aligning my will with that of the Creator of the Universe. In essence, tefillah is not about begging the Creator to intercede and change the winds in our favor. True tefillah is an act of aligning ourselves to the Creator’s will and conditioning ourselves to remain in that zone. In the way the robust mind of a Jedi is able to impact the thinking of a weaker minded individual, prayer is the Creator realigning our weak (by comparison) minds to embrace G-dly attributes. The Holy One did not stop my tongue from speaking evil but rather gave me the strength I had requested in order to keep myself from succumbing to the temptation to speak evil.
When we internalize the words of the Amidah and of other prayers that contain positive attributes, they help to shape our behavior as well as how we perceive the world and its inhabitants.