Pirke Avot 2:18

Be meticulous in reading the Shema and in prayer;

when you pray, do not make your prayer a set routine, rather an entreaty for mercy and a supplication before the Omnipresent, as it is said: “For God is gracious and compassionate,  slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and relentful of punishment” (Joel 2:13;

And do not judge yourself to be a wicked person.

The Shema is the most central and frequently recited prayer in Judaism – “Hear O Israel, the LORD  is your God, the LORD is one.”  It gets its name “Shema” because that is the Hebrew for the command to hear and is the first word of the prayer.

So the advice this week from our ancient tradition is to be meticulous and faithful in reciting this prayer and indeed in all prayer.  Make it a habit.  Do it when you feel good and when you don’t.  Do it when you have time – and when you think you don’t.  Do it with your fullest possible attention.

Mother Theresa, in my Roman Catholic tradition, revealed in her letters a long (20+ years!) “dry” period in her relationship with God.  She didn’t feel God’s presence with her.  Yet she kept praying and she kept on serving the poor of India.

Our prayer won’t always feel “effective” – but it will do its job of keeping us in relationship with God.

Do not make your prayer a set routine, but an entreaty for mercy and a supplication before the Omnipresent.  Doesn’t this seem a bit contradictory to the previous advice?

On the one hand be regular about the practice of prayer and with a particular prayer – but on the other hand don’t make it a set routine.

I think the rabbi is suggesting that while our prayer time and habit of prayer should become regular – the content of our prayer should be in constant development and growth, responding to our life situation and that of our world.   And if we are open and honest with God – our prayer will always be aware of our sinfulness before God for what we have done – and what we have failed to do.

Rabbinic commentary also notes that the Shema and certain other prayers remind us of the transcendence and wonder and mystery of our God.  This “elevated” sort of prayer keeps our intercessory prayer (“please LORD, help me on this test!”) in balance.

And if we are daily and regularly aware of our sinfulness – we still ought not to judge ourselves as a wicked person!   While it is not OK to commit sin it is a fact that we all do!  We ought not to be judging others at all for we do not know all the circumstances.  We ought not to judge ourselves too harshly either.  On the other hand we must work to become better persons.  And take comfort in our loving and forgiving God.