Why Your Tefilla Education Program Needs A Social Action Component
This article was originally part of a four-part series on tefilla education posted on JeducationWorld and is reprinted with permission.
We identified three possible goals of any program of tefilla education: tefilla literacy, tefilla inspiration (meaning-making and connection building), and tefilla community building. In this article we will explore how a social action component in a program of tefilla education can be an effective way to achieve the third goal identified – community building.
When Rabbi Heschel returned from marching shoulder to shoulder with MLK in Selma he reflected that “When I marched in Selma, I felt my legs were praying.” This quote has for so long fascinated and inspired me in equal measure. But the question is what did Heschel really mean? Can an act of social action be considered a prayer in and of itself? Can we pray with our actions?
Rabbi Avi Weiss describes the process of tefilla in the following terms: “Prayer, then, begins by reaching in (to tap into our inner godliness). This involves contemplation of who we can become, and our responsibility to work on ourselves to become that person. Reaching up (toward God Himself) makes us realize we are connected and responsible to a Being far greater than we. Reaching out (to unite with our fellow person’s tzelem E-lohim) establishes our relationship and our responsibility toward others. These three themes are fundamental motifs of prayer.”
In this framework for Jewish prayer Weiss has described the three paradigm relationships in Jewish thought and law – the relationship between a person and themselves (bein adam leatzmo); the relationship between a person and God (bein adam leMakom); and the relationship between a person and the other (bein adam lechavero).
These three paradigm relationships can be found reflected in various rabbinic texts, such as Mishna Avot 1:2 and 1:18. Shimon Hatzadik and Raban Shimon ben Gamliel respectively both describe the world standing on three pillars, each an expression of these three relationships. Torah, Avoda (worship) and Acts of Kindness (1:2) and Justice, Truth, and Peace (1:18). The three cardinal sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder (Sanhedrin 74a), also fall into these three categories, and finally we also see them in the powerful liturgy of the High Holy Days where the following rectifications are said to change the divine decree for the coming year: repentance, prayer and charity.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his introduction to the Koren Siddur identifies the tripartite themes of creation, revelation, and redemption repeating themselves throughout the siddur: “The movement from creation to revelation to redemption is one of the great structural motifs of prayer. One example is the three blessings in the morning service, surrounding the Shema and leading up to the Amida. The first is about the creation of the universe in space and time; the second is about the revelation of the Torah; and the third is about the miracles of history, ending with the words, “who redeemed Israel.” The three paragraphs of the Shema display the same pattern. … The weekday morning service as a whole is constructed on this principle. First come the Verses of Praise, taken from the Book of Psalms, with their majestic vision of creation. Then follows the central section – the Shema and its blessings, leading to the Amida – in which we sit, then stand, in the immediate presence of God (revelation). Finally we come to the concluding prayers with their central line, “A redeemer will come to Zion.” The second paragraph of Aleinu is likewise a vision of redemption.”
I would like to suggest that these three themes of creation, revelation, and redemption, are another expression of the three paradigm relationships discussed above. When we consider creation in our tefillot we are encouraged to consider our place within creation and our relationship with ourselves (bein adam leatzmo) – “On the glorious splendor of Your majesty I will meditate, and on the acts of Your wonders (Tehillim 145:5).” When we contemplate revelation we consider our relationship with God (bein adam leMakom) – “If you indeed heed My commandments with which I charge you today, to Love the Lord your God (Devarim 11:13).” When we consider the redemption of the world we consider a redeemed world where man finds a way to live in harmony and peace (bein adam lechavero) – “when the world will be perfected under the sovereignty of the Almighty (Aleinu).”
But not only in the areas of liturgy that focus on redemption do we find the themes of community and human solidarity. Jewish liturgy has this written in to its very words as on the whole the tefilla is written in the plural and focused on the multitude. Rabbi Soloveitchik describes how the communal aspect of Jewish prayer is critical: “The prayerful community must not, likewise, remain a twofold affair: a transient “I” addressing himself to the eternal “He.” The inclusion of others is indispensable. Man should avoid praying for himself alone. The plural form of prayer is of central Halakhic significance. When disaster strikes, one must not be immersed completely in his own passional destiny, thinking exclusively of himself, being concerned only with himself, and petitioning God merely for himself. The foundation of efficacious and noble prayer is human solidarity and sympathy or the covenantal awareness of existential togetherness, of sharing and experiencing the travail and suffering of [others].”
As Tefilla Educators this central aspect of tefilla must also be central to our tefilla education programs. Practical examples of how we can do this include elevating the prayer for the sick in the community to prominence, using prayer as a way to approach local and national traumas, as well as focusing students toward events in Israel and the Jewish world. But I would like to suggest that tefilla is also the most appropriate time to consider social action, as an integral part of the tefilla education program. Whether that be a tzedaka drive, or social action initiatives in the local community. In this way we can live the words of Rabbi Heschel, and use our bodies themselves to cry out against injustice and hardship in our world by making our contribution to redeeming and perfecting the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty.
Dr. Daniel Rose was the Director of Educational Projects at Koren Publishers, where he edited and contributed to the Koren Magerman Educational Siddur Series.
 Weiss, A. (2014). Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality. Magid.
 Sacks, J. (2009) Understanding Jewish Prayer in The Koren Siddur.
 Soloveitchik, J. B. (1965). The lonely man of faith. Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 7(2), 5-67.