The Talmud tells the story of a student who once led prayers in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer. He abbreviated the service a great deal, much to the annoyance of Eliezer’s own students who objected. “He shortens the prayers too much”, they complained to their master. Rabbi Eliezer replied, “Does he shorten them more than our teacher Moses? As it says: ‘Please God, please heal her’.”
As Jews we are blessed with a wonderful liturgy; a common text that unifies our worship; a shared language that focuses our minds and communicates our needs. The siddur is an extraordinary part of our literary inheritance, an expressive poetry full of ideas, complex theology and intellectual challenge. Yet this story points to another feature. Occasionally services can feel over-long; the experience of prayer disconnected from where we are; the liturgy an anchor that holds down our ability to really pray.
The possibility of being disconnected from the experience of prayer was as familiar to the sages as it is to many of us. The Jerusalem Talmud records a conversation between sages about their distractions during prayer: “I count birds,” says one. “I count the bricks in the wall,” says another. We can’t always be in the right mood to pray.
The sages also understood that the best tefillah must respond to the need of the moment; that a shaliach tzibbur, prayer leader, must never just go through the motions. Immediately preceding the story of the student who shortens the service is the story of a student who prolongs it. To the complaints of his students, Rabbi Eliezer quotes the forty days and nights Moses prayed after the Golden Calf. Sometimes our prayer should be long, sometimes short, but always thoughtful, always heartfelt. As it says: “Please God, please heal her."