I don’t know what took me so long to figure it out, but it finally dawned on me. By hour three of the Bar Mitzvah I attended last Saturday, I realized that services were just too long. Of course, anyone who goes to synagogue regularly on Saturday morning knows that services are long. But what I realized is that long services are not simply boring or off-putting to people who do not regularly attend. Such long services inhibit our abilities to be better people, and by extension, better Jews.
Without question, prayer is a central part of Judaism, and it certainly should not be eliminated. I, for one, derive immense personal meaning for the daily blessings that I state both before and after eating, and I believe that I am a better person for recognizing how lucky I am to have food every time I eat. Even at times when I am not spiritually moved to bless over my food, I still do so, as I consider myself obligated.
However, these daily blessings take up a very small part of my day. In general, I believe it is healthy to take a few seconds to appreciate whatever it is that we are doing. Indeed, I see the same value in taking time out of my day three times a day to reflect on the world, reflect on myself, and praise God.
The problem is the amount of time that we devote to that prayer, especially in the morning and on Shabbat and holidays. If we have an hour in the morning, are we better off spending that hour entirely in prayer, or praying for twenty minutes and spending forty minutes going for a jog? We are commanded in Judaism to take care of our bodies, after all.
Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) famously stated that the world rests on three things: “the study of Torah, service, and acts of loving-kindness.” The rabbis of that period certainly meant “service” as prayer, just as surely as that same word meant sacrifice during the period of the Temple. Today, though, we need to ask ourselves if devoting so much time to prayer is the best way to serve God.
I believe that when Pirkei Avot refers to acts of loving-kindness, they mean good deeds, not necessarily acts that we are commanded to perform as Jews. I believe that it is time that we replace our understanding of “service” to mean prayer exclusively with an understanding that service means doing the commandments of Judaism to make the world a better place.
Of course, this sense of service is based on our understanding of God. If God is akin to the gods of Greek-mythology, then I imagine that He/She appreciates people singing His/Her praises for hours on end. But that is not my God. My God is served when the world is made to be a better place. This means looking out for one’s own interests, but also looking out for the interests of others.
Service of God needs to include not only fixed prayers, but fixed acts of tikun olam, of making the world a better place. By doing so, we as Jews will be serving God in an important way, by making God’s world better.
Currently, an observant Jew will make time for the traditional prayer services every day, but not necessarily make time to visit the sick, to help feed the needy, or to help keep the environment clean. This points to our need to radically redefine service in our time. When the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis expanded prayer greatly to be the new way to serve God. Now it is time for the religious leaders to redefine service once again so that people are obligated to make the world a better place, not just do it out of the goodness of their hearts.
Arie Hasit is an educator at Ramah Programs in Israel and studies at the Israeli bet midrash program at the Schechter Institute. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone.
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