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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
September 11, 2008
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Please note: I accidentally sent out next week's posting before I presented it orally at Shabbat services this week. If you are in shul and what I say sounds familiar, that may be the explanation!

Remarkably, it has taken this long in our discussion of prayer to get to the word that actually means "prayer." Take away the prefixes –"u" which means "and" as well as "vi" which indicates the direct object here – and the suffix -- "am" which is the possessive "their" – and you are left with the word for prayer, which is "t'filah."

The root of the word is "peh-lamed-lamed," and it has three basic meanings. Not surprisingly, one of them is "to plead." It is easy to understand that prayer is a supplication to God. The second meaning is "to think." It is almost as easy to understand prayer as intellectual reflection. But the third meaning is more provocative; it is "to judge." And of course, the question to ask is who or what are we judging when we pray.

Teachers like me love to point out that the verb "to pray" is reflexive: l'hitpaleil. It helps explain the meaning of judgment implied by the root – we judge ourselves when we pray. And self-reflection is a form of thinking as well. But if prayer is reflexive, to whom and for what are we pleading?

And, not incidentally, what about the affective and emotional aspects we associate with prayer. They seem unrepresented in the word itself!

These questions and uncertainties about the word for prayer reflect the questions and uncertainties of prayer itself. There are times that prayer is a crie de coeur, and there are times it is a joyful proclamation. There are times that prayer provokes reflection and times it offers harsh assessments of ourselves, or even of God. What's more, despite our intentions, we can never entirely predict which aspect will dominate.

In this blessing of the Amidah, we ask God to "want Your people Israel and their prayer." The request we make is not for God to want or accept our personal prayers as individuals, but for God to embrace us as a community and to long for our collective voice. We are a harmonious cacophony of needs and opinions, of deep thoughts and outrageous judgments. That is to say, we are willing to trust God with our wholeness and pray – whatever that means – that God wants nothing less.

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