What does it mean to be a pray-er?

Today our 1st graders and their families celebrated receiving their first Siddurim (prayerbooks). This moment got me thinking a bit about the roots of Jewish prayer, and what it means to be a Jewish pray-er. The Latin root of the word prayer means to entreat or to ask earnestly. In contract, L’hitpallel, the Hebrew word for the infinitive “to pray,” is formulated in a reflexive construction with a root meaning “judge,” yielding a technical translation of “to judge yourself.” Do these two conceptions of prayer play out differently?

Even more interesting, given the Hebrew meaning, is the Rabbinic instruction that when possible, we are meant to pray in a group of at least 10 people. Why would we need a group of people in order to judge ourselves? Back to this in a moment…

As we celebrated the learning that our 1st grade accomplished, we gave them this amazing tool; a book that will help them grow in their ability to pray. It is full of history, music, and wisdom, and the study and practice of the words within will help those students explore both themselves, and their place in our community and in the world.

Perhaps that is why the word for prayer is reflexive. To be a pray-er, in the Jewish sense, is to engage in self-reflection, but not for self-serving or narcissistic ends. It is to learn about yourself within the context of your relationships with others, and within the larger context of improving the world. Therefore, prayer helps us understand ourselves, but it can’t be done alone all the time.

Given that this week’s parsha is Yitro, in which the children of Israel are consecrated in covenant with G-d, this ceremony could not have come at a better time. G-d refers to the people as Am Segulah “a treasured nation.” Our children are our own treasures, and watching them move forward on their Jewish journey to this milestone was truly a covenantal moment.

Shabbat Shalom,