In the year after my father died, I lost my ability to speak to God. I couldn’t open the siddur, the words which I had read my entire life fell meaningless on my lips. My heart wasn’t in it. I couldn’t share a prayer of a loving God when I felt so unloved, and I couldn’t praise the creator of the world when I felt like my world had been so deeply crushed. My prayers were more filled with silence or rage than calm and compassion.
There are clearly times when the words on the page of the siddur, the formatted, clear-cut, and poetic verse, simply does not fit the moment, the experience, or the mood of prayer that day. I often find myself questioning, “What words truly speak to my heart today?” I know this experience is far from unique to me. As an educator I often hear profound prayers and thoughts about God from the tiniest human beings. A laugh at the silent Amidah in shul is a beautiful way for a baby to lighten my soul, and a request for God’s “presents” instead of “presence” in prayer is in a way a beautiful misunderstanding of a really important concept. But, what would God think about all these outside-the-box prayers?
Luckily, we have our portion this week, Parshat Ki Tavo to shed some light. This is the section of the Torah that reminds us again of the blessings and curses that come to us as we choose to follow or ignore the laws of the Torah. Specifically, we learn of the requirement to make an offering of “first fruits” for the priests in the Beit HaMikdash, and the different ways in which we are supposed to thank God and give praise (before prayer was a daily activity). Finally, the text reminds us of how we’re supposed to take time to rebuke one another when we’ve taken a misstep and the ways in which we can do so with compassion and kindness.
Within the text is the commandment to build the altar using “unhewn stones.” These stones are not perfect. They are not cleanly and evenly quarried; they are not polished or shiny. The altar on which we are to offer up our sacrifice, and with it our prayers, to God is not perfect or pristine. It is made up of whole, natural, imperfect stones. Martin Buber, the great philosopher, is quoted as saying, “Eloquent polished prayer is like hewn, polished stone. Here the ‘unhewn’ (lit. whole) stones represent the inarticulate yearning of a sincere heart – which God prefers.”
Perfection is not prayer. Prayer is made up of the words of our heart in raw, unfiltered form. While the words in the siddur are beautiful and polished and a great jumping off point for prayer, the words in our hearts are those that are offered up as a sacrifice to God. As we approach our sacred time of repentance and teshuvah (returning), Parshat Ki Tavo reminds us that perfection is unnecessary in our relationship with God. Anger, rage, understanding, sadness, and joy are all real human emotions, and when those emotions are shared in prayer, that is when we are truly offering up ourselves in prayer to God.