“You lost,” my 18-year-old son somberly informed me in shul the other day, and we both laughed.
Davening had just ended. I recite Kaddish these days at the end of each service in the merit of a distant relative. At this particular Mincha, a visitor was saying Kaddish too, and he did so very quickly. I’m no slouch, though; while I prefer to recite holy words at a slower pace, I can speed-daven with the best of them. So, in an attempt to not confuse the congregation with out-of-sync recitations, I switched to third gear. Approaching warp speed to reach Yehei shmei rabba alongside my fellow Kaddish-sayer, I came close but didn’t quite make it. Rounding the bend of Oseh sholom on the equivalent of two squealing wheels, I hoped to at least conclude in coordination with my partner. Alas, as my son observed, I came in only a close second.
I’ve always been struck, over years and in many cities, at how the most important words most of us say each day, those bonds that tie us to our Creator, are so often spoken auctioneer-style, with nary a pause for breath (and sometimes with the text heavily edited).
An experiment I ran (which you can try at home): Using a stopwatch, I read all the words of Aleinu from a siddur as quickly as I possibly could. I don’t think it can be done in less than 45 seconds. Yet I suspect that I have often clocked in at less than that.
Some other speed records I’ve compiled:
Ashrei: not less than 50 seconds.
Kri’as Shma: not less than 1 minute, 30 seconds.
Shemoneh Esrei: not less than 3 minutes, 30 seconds.
And those times are for a bare minimum of enunciation (and no time at all allotted for pausing to better concentrate, or, in the case of Shemoneh Esrei, to add any personal prayer).
Call it an occupational hazard of observance. The quality of things we do regularly can naturally become degraded with time. But natural needn’t mean acceptable.
A funny-sad story (considerably less humorous in writing than when it was told by my father, may he be well, at the Shabbos table when I was a child) concerns a shtetl Yid who owes a powerful landowner, or poritz, a good sum of money. Yankel somehow convinces the poritz to forgive the debt if he, the Jew, can teach a bear how to pray.
Faced with the need to produce results, Yankel obtains a cub and hands him a siddur with a drop of honey on its cover and on each of the book’s pages. The bear wipes up the first drop of honey with its paw and puts it on his tongue. Bright bear that he is, he opens the book and locates and eats the other drops of honey too.
The next day, Yankel gives Smokey the same siddur, this time with a drop of honey only on every other page. The bear, with a murmur of disappointment at each page bearing only words, still manages to service his sweet tooth from the others. The following day the honey is only on random pages. The bear goes through the sefer, wiping up what drops of sweetness he finds and licking his paw, murmuring all the rest of the time.
The Jew is now ready. Presenting the cub to the poritz, he declares the animal shul-worthy and hands him the here-and-there-honeyed siddur. The bear opens it, turns a few pages, murmuring all the while, stops a minute to lick his finger, then resumes page-turning and murmuring. The poritz is not impressed. “That’s not praying,” he says.
“Come with me,” says the Jew, leading the poritz to the local shul. Yankel opens the door. Lo and behold, the poritz sees an entire congregation of supplicants doing pretty good imitations of the bear. He has no choice but to forgive the debt.
And everyone lived happily ever after. Well, other than those of us listening to the story, left to wonder whether our own prayers are something more than page-turning and mumbles.
© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE
[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]
The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.
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