Like any well-organized text, the Amidah comprises three sections: a beginning, middle and end. The first three blessings, considered as expressions of praise, and the final three, expressing gratitude, are the same every single day (besides some small variations around the High Holidays).
The middle section varies. On Shabbat and holidays the center of the Amidah is a single blessing describing the particular “sanctity of the day,” which itself can vary from morning to afternoon and the other services. On weekdays, the middle section consists of 13 petitions [bakashot] for basic human needs, like wisdom, freedom, justice and food.
Petitionary prayer can be a serious obstacle to contemporary davveners, entailing all sorts of not very appealing images of God. Are rainfall, drought, health or illness really the products of divine whim such that I just need to ask, pretty please? I do not want to treat God as a cosmic vending machine, dispensing blessing if I will just insert the right prayer-coin, or arbitrarily withholding if I say the wrong word or say it insincerely. And as Freud would say, is it a collective psychosis and delusion to want a big Daddy (or Mommy) in the sky to give us what we want? Moreover, do we really expect God to subdue the wicked? Isn’t that our covenantal task? Isn’t it ethical shirking to want God to do our work for us?
I’m open to the possibility that prayer can have some effects in the world beyond, but my real aspiration is to let prayer change me. I should feel different, see and hear differently, be different, after worship. Yet there is no denying that at the semantic level our Amidah is about imploring God to take care of us and give us what we need. What resources can we cultivate draw upon to help us davven the petitions with a full but not naïve heart?
I draw on two great 20th century Jewish thinkers, Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joseph B. Soloveitchik, both of whom read the bakashot as opening our eyes to features of the world and of ourselves. [Quoting them, I have mostly left their masculine pronouns for God and for indefinite. They were people of their times.]
Heschel was alive to redemptive possibility, the moments of order and value that overwhelm the chaos and perversion that we often experience. Prayer discloses a vision of that world which could be, which almost is – the world in which eyes open and hearts open and shackles open. “To pray is to dream in league with God, to envision His holy visions” for what this world should be [from Quest for God]. Davvening the bakashot, then, need not be a base or selfish or deluded plea for a heavenly present. With each petition you davven, try to imagine the world pervaded by these blessings of health and wealth and wisdom. Let them teach you to dream God’s dreams and open your eyes to what is worth dreaming for.
Soloveitchik takes a parallel but more inward, existential look. Prayer emerges from the human heart because we suffer, he says. It is “the outcry of man, confronted with a ruthless reality” [from the essay “Redemption, Prayer and Talmud Torah”]. The “happy, contented [person] does not know the secret of prayer.” Only when we sense our constriction, our shortcomings, our many unfulfilled needs – only then do we open our hearts and mouths and implore God: please! The bakashot of our Amidah, he says, instruct us, in our poverty, what to pray for. They open our eyes to what a fully realized, noble life could be. Now, you or I might add a few to the list we have. But the bakashot we have are also essential. But notably, any list we would make would also have important omissions: there are some needs unworthy of casting before God. As you davven the Amidah, think also about what you would not include in your worship.
To pray for your most important needs, says Soloveitchik, is an act of human self-discovery: “Through prayer, man finds himself.” Articulating our needs teaches us “the story of [our] hidden hopes and expectations… how to behold the vision and how to strive to realize the vision, when to be satisfied with what one possesses, when to reach out for more.”