You don’t need to come to services any more, you just need a fax machine. Many eyebrows were raised when a wire service story with photograph appeared in newspapers and Television programs around the world some months ago depicting an Israeli Telephone Company employee stuffing faxes into the Western Wall. It is in fact a custom among many of our brothers and sisters to insert small handwritten personal notes and petitions to God between the stones of the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem. The service provided by the phone company allows people unable to visit the Wall in person to fax their petitions to an agent who then carefully inserts the sheets into cracks between the stones.
But you don’t even need a fax machine to reach God. Our sages valued sincerity in prayer above all else. Length, language, or location are secondary considerations. Better a few words from the heart than the whole confessional of Yom Kippur. Indeed, the Prayer of Moses for his sister Miriam is pointed to as an ideal prayer: “Please God, please heal her.” In Hebrew it is five single-syllable words. The traditional prayers are valuable in that by reciting them we are habituated to prayer, we learn the vocabulary of prayer, and we fulfill our obligation to recite the Shema and Amida which are statutory prayers. But beyond the “fixed prayers” one should say what is in one’s heart.
Moses Maimonides firmly noted that a person may pray in any language. Yes, God understands English. We encourage everyone to learn Hebrew and to pray in Hebrew, and for good reasons. But a prayer is valued by God regardless of language. In our prayerbook there are even prayers such as the qaddish that are not written in Hebrew, but rather Aramaic, because that was the language spoken by the people when those prayers were written.
In the time of the Mishna, 2,000 years ago, the question arose as to what to do if one were, say, climbing a tree or riding a donkey when it came time to say the Shema. According to our sages, one can pray almost anywhere — even up a tree. Now, it is a good idea to come to shul, because community adds a whole new dimension, and it is great to pray near the Temple site in Jerusalem, because the atmosphere for some can heighten their spiritual awareness. But ultimately, God can hear you anywhere.
There are many approaches to prayer. As the Psalmist says, “God is near unto all who call, unto all who call upon God sincerely.” May all of our prayers be from our heart and may they rise to heaven.
(c) Jon-Jay Tilsen