As they have many times before, Rachel's words about the structure of prayer, and how formal rules are necessary but beg to be broken, got me thinking again about why I like to pray. I never cared about this stuff until I found my synagogue, and then only cared a little until I learned to chant Torah five years ago. That decision didn't change my life, but did in many ways change how I fit into life. I'm lucky to know many safe, nurturing people and places, and chanting has become another. Like my most treasured relationships, it's challenging, rewarding, and a source of comfort, a respite from reality that has strengthened my connection to community as well pushed my own self-defined limits. The structure of learning, repeating, and memorizing has become kind of sanctuary in its predictability. (A nice contrast to work, since I'm a freelancer and the appearance of jobs, and payment, is never assured.)
But the moment of public prayer, when I sing what I've learned, is never predictable. Within the shifting parameters of my voice, confidence level, emotional presence, and physical health, I need to tell a story in a language I really don't understand. The result is always a surprise to me, even if the congregation can't tell. It's said that the Torah is different every time we read it because we change from year to year. So every d'var and drash, in a way, is also an improvisation, because the meanings we elicit are never known to us before we sit down to compose them. By that definition any kind of singing is improvised, as well, since we can never sound exactly the same each time no matter how much we've practiced. I'm constantly challenged to recognize the new landscape and adjust accordingly, and not remain stuck to the way I think I should sound.
So it seems we're still praying the ancient way--as Rachel quotes from Lawrence Hoffman's book, The Way Into Prayer, "like jazz improvisation around a known set of chords and themes." We can convince ourselves that we're bored because the words are the same as last week, but in truth that moment of prayer, and our presence and consciousness, is always different. Once we're aware of the freedom to break away from structure while in the middle of it, who knows where we might end up. The job of the prayer leader, I think, is to communicate his or her own instant of discovery and interpretation in order to remind the congregation of their own.
At my synagogue we're often literal about the improvisatory nature of prayer. Choices of melody, instrumental arrangements, and the order in which the service leaders begin are often decided on the fly. The congregation usually doesn't notice; services are seamless, and there's never any stopping to make decisions. But the leaders do make mistakes--and keep going, because as in life, in general, you just can't stop in the middle of something important. Basically all choices are valid, since even the most obvious and predictable will, jazz-like, eventually lead you to an unknown place.