This week’s Torah reading, parashat Shemini, introduces Israel to the routine of sacrifices, and the strict structures of fixed ritual. Having to be spiritual in preset moments of our day is something we struggle with all the time – why can’t I just pray when I feel like praying?
Long ago, the Sages discussed the tension that exists between spontaneous and fixed prayer. At times, we enter the moment as it occurs, and express ourselves with a spontaneous prayer that is uniquely ours. Other times, we are told to pick up a Siddur at specific times of the day and use the words printed there. Both of those expressions feed our souls, in very different ways.
In this week’s parashah, Israel is being introduced to fixed ritual through specific sacrifices that are triggered by time or events – nothing spontaneous. Humanity calling out to God from within a human moment is natural to us, and we see it happening throughout Torah. It is the fixed routine of spirituality that is new and challenging – telling our souls, which are timeless, that they are now on a schedule for spiritual expression.
Prayer is often challenging, not because we don’t feel a moment of depth, but because we may not feel it in the specific hours we’re gathered together with a Siddur in our hands. This challenge isn’t new, as we hear the discussions in the Talmud of rabbis introducing their spontaneous prayers into the time of a fixed prayer. In other words, the answer is not to always choose one or the other, it is to layer one into the other.
If being spontaneous speaks strongly to you, find a moment to also utter a line of prayer from the Siddur – if praying out of a Siddur speaks strongly to you, find a moment to also stop and utter a personal spontaneous prayer. Create a prayer that is both timeless and time bound.
Layering both expressions together is the way the Torah reminds us that both our bodies and our souls are holy and must enhance each other. Our bodies are entirely of this world, each cell containing its own clock, keeping us connected to time. Our souls are entirely of the spiritual realm, connected to God, existing outside time. Our expression of prayer, entering a holy moment, elevates our awareness of both a structured existence as well as a spontaneous one. Jewish ritual is not entirely about the details of the expression, it includes the nuanced expression of our personal moments.
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.