Putting a Good Face on Prayer

I have seen more of myself in the last year than I could have ever imagined.

One of the unintended consequences of the pandemic and our forced distancing has been a fundamental change in how we pray. By now, this is hardly news. I’m sure that almost everyone reading this knows that most services have been transformed into virtual experiences—whether on Zoom or one of many livestreaming platforms. People have had to get accustomed to praying, singing, engaging, and listening in their own mini-sanctuaries—whether that’s a den, home office, or kitchen counter.

But what many worshippers may not realize is that the act of leading services has undergone a tectonic shift as well.

I have written and spoken repeatedly about the Hebrew word l’hitpalel, meaning “to pray.” The fact that this verb is grammatically reflexive tells us that the act of prayer is something that we undertake in order to effect a change in ourselves rather than passively sending our words into a void and hoping for a response. When we inspire ourselves, we are then motivated to engage in tikkun olam, working to repair what’s broken around us.

The familiar Hebrew words that are inscribed on countless sanctuary walls read:

 Da lifnei mi atah omed

Know before whom you stand

I once thought this was a clever existential metaphor for being aware of ourselves and our place within our community. Instead, it’s quite literal. I have spent almost a year actually standing before myself. Each time I lead a service, I am staring at myself on Zoom or monitoring the livestream with me in the picture. Even when I lift my eyes and gaze out into the empty sanctuary, I clearly see my face reflected back in the plexiglass which is installed in front of my podium. I can’t avoid myself!

There are two complementary themes that bookend the entire Torah. In the opening chapters, we read that humans are created in the image of God. Then as the Torah closes with its final words, we read of Moses’ exceptional relationship with God—they knew each other panim el panim, “face to face.”

Never before have I appreciated the beauty and significance of these parallel words. We are the spiritual descendants of Moses—and if we are all in fact created in God’s image, then more than ever before can we find a newfound understanding of our own face to face relationship every time we open up our computer to worship and see ourselves staring back.

Deus ex machina–literally.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

3 comments on “Putting a Good Face on Prayer

  1. Lenandglo

    I just think you are terrific😎 🔯hugs. Lenny &Glo Sent from my iPhone



  2. Well said. I have been joining services with a lay led congregation. The opportunity is there if I want to lead a service, and I led musaf service once, but I found it to be rather challenging, less because I was staring at myself and more because of not having the participatory feedback from the congregation. Standing in your living room, praying audilbly to G-d and to a congregation when you can’t hear their response (everyone but the leader is muted to reduce feedback) is an unusual experience.


    • Cantor Matt Axelrod

      Totally agree about the lack of any kind of response or audible participation. I have found that I prefer Zoom to a one-sided livestream because–even muted–I can see people rise and be seated as well as their lips moving.


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