The siddur, or prayerbook, is both an aid and an obstacle to prayer. Let’s think about a few ways that it is an obstacle. First of all, it’s in another language! But secondly, it seems like it is asking us to do two contradictory things at once: pour out our heart in an honest and unselfconscious way, and to fit this honest unselfconsciousness into set prayers and forms – which often seem distinctly impersonal and formal.
What is gained by using a traditional, collective form when we pray? Our voice is immediately put into relational harmony with generations of pray-ers. Our connection with our ancestors, real and imagined, resonates through the wires of the form. We can experience the feeling of being held, of allowing ourselves to rest in the container of these mysterious words. We are invited to know that even if certain words that we pray do not speak to us, that most likely they speak to someone else in the room.
In some ways, we encounter a similar tension when we read any traditional poetic form, like a sestina, or villanelle. Most of us are conditioned to want nothing but the free verse, since it seems unconstrained and more “natural.” It can seem like the traditional forms are either trying to be clever, or are stuck in a past that no longer speaks organically to us. Yet the forms ask us to do the same thing we need to learn to do as human beings whenever we speak and describe our experience – which is to try to describe the indescribable. In some sense, it is only through boundaries and limits that we can discover our truer voices; not through the fantasy of unfettered freedom. It is only through exploring relational tension and problem solving that we can learn to speak. In other words, the obstacles we confront when we read or write a sestina; or when we daven shacharit in the siddur – mirror our lives. I am not trying to explain away or apologize for all the difficulties we encounter in the siddur, only to say that some of these obstacles can be fruitful.
Also, it should be said the siddur is like a map that we are encouraged to stray from and get lost on trails that are of our own making. If poetry is like prayer, then we should remember James Joyce’s way of describing the question we must ask of any work of art: “Out of how deep a life does it spring?” It is up to us to bring the depth of our lives to the siddur to give it life. Otherwise, it is lifeless.