The communal tenor of our set prayers is clearly expressed by the shared endeavor of the prayer service and by the use of the plural in almost all passages.
It is therefore somewhat surprising to find the concluding paragraph of the central Amida phrased in the singular: "My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking falsehood. May my soul be silent to those who insult me, and may my soul be lowly like dust before all. Open my heart to Your Torah, and may my soul pursue your commandments. And all who plot evil against me, may You hastily thwart their counsel and upset their design."
This prayer is bracketed by a biblical verse, also in the first-person-singular: "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, God, my Stronghold and my Redeemer" (Psalms 19:15).
The source of this final paragraph of the Amida sheds light on the language employed. The Talmud records individual supplications that various sages would add before concluding their prayers (B. Berachot 16b-17a). In these passages, the sages gave voice to their personal challenges or wishes and hence used singular forms. Included in this list is the personal prayer of Mar the son of Ravina, which forms the basis of the accepted concluding paragraph of the Amida cited above.
Drawing on other talmudic material, we can at times surmise what leads our sages to intone these particular supplications. Thus Rabbi Zeira, who was known for trying to influence wayward sinners to forsake their evil ways, added a prayer for Divine assistance in resisting their enticements and not learning from their ways: "May it be Your will, Lord, our God, that we not sin, nor be ashamed or disgraced before our ancestors" (Rabbi Ya'acov Reisher, 17th-18th centuries, central Europe).
This entreaty may have even greater significance considering that Rabbi Zeira's attempts did not benefit from the approval of his scholarly colleagues (B. Sanhedrin 37a). The Talmud relates that there were a group of thugs in the neighborhood of Rabbi Zeira. Contrary to the approach of the sages, Rabbi Zeira befriended these uncouth neighbors. Upon Rabbi Zeira's demise, these hooligans said: "Until now the short man with singed legs - referring to the diminutive Rabbi Zeira - prayed for mercy on our behalf. Now, who will entreat God for such clemency on our behalf?" With that, the ruffians meditated in their hearts and resolved to repent.
To cite another example where the Talmud provides a window into the personal prayer of a sage - Rabbi Yohanan, upon concluding his Amida prayer, would add: "May it be Your will, Lord, our God, that You look upon our shame and behold our unfortunate plight, and consequently attire Yourself with Your mercy and cover Yourself with Your strength and wrap Yourself with Your kindness and gird Yourself with Your graciousness, and may the attribute of Your goodness and humility come before You."
Knowing what we do about Rabbi Yohanan, we can understand why he beseeched the Almighty to look upon his ill-fated existence. Rabbi Yohanan's 10 sons all predeceased their father. Rabbi Yohanan was so distraught by this loss that he could not bear the finality of parting from his children. Thus he would carry the bone of his 10th son with him wherever he went as a reminder of his bereavement (B. Berachot 5b and Rashi).
Even his own health was unenviable as he was plagued by serious illness, such that he was strong enough to wear tefillin properly only during winter. During summer, when his head was not sufficiently strong, he donned tefillin on his arm but not on his head (Y. Berachot 4c). Rabbi Yohanan suffered from the life-threatening disease tzafidna. This scurvy-like condition involved bleeding from the gums and spread from the mouth to the intestines (B. Yoma 84a; B. Avoda Zara 28a).
With these hardships we can understand Rabbi Yohanan's heartfelt beseeching that God should look upon his miserable plight and mercifully put an end to his troubles.
It is somewhat ironic that some of the supplications recorded in the Talmud, albeit with minor syntax changes, have become institutionalized as part of our set prayer service. As we noted, one passage serves as the final paragraph of the thrice daily Amida, and there are other examples: Another personal prayer is recited daily in the morning service, one supplication forms part of the additional Shabbat blessing that precedes a new month, while a fourth passage is added to the end of the Amida on Yom Kippur. What can be said about this incongruous situation where personal prayers giving voice to an individual's predicament become part of our established and standard prayer service?
The inclusion of such prayers may reveal the insightful abilities of our sages to author personal prayers that seem to express our own individual experiences. Who today could say that a prayer asking God to guard our mouths from falsehood is no longer relevant? Could we claim that an entreaty for God to mercifully consider our troubles has no currency in our world? Clearly these prayers are still relevant.
Moreover, these personal prayers may remind us of the timeless nature of human experience. The challenges faced by our sages in days gone-by are distant only in chronology, not in essence. We, too, hope that our stone hearts can be pried open so the gems of our tradition can enrich our existence. We, too, wish the Almighty will frustrate the evil designs of our adversaries. We, too, want to meet God wrapped in mercy and kindness.
Perhaps the institutionalization of these prayers in the first-person-singular has an operative lesson as well, as they remind us that in addition to what appears in our prayer books, a personal element should most definitely be included. This private, individual prayer should give voice to our own needs, hopes and desires as reflected by our own unique personal journey; an addendum akin to the additions of our sages.
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.