Have you ever noticed how much of our prayer is composed as a responsive chant? Think about it: Kaddish, Kedusha, Borchu, Hallel, all have a responsive style, a rhythm created by the call of the chazan and the response by the community. Even in Zimun (the introduction to Grace after Meals when there are more than 3 participants), there is a to and fro: a leader's introduction - a prompt - and then the "audience" reply or response to that statement, a "communal echo", and then it continues, back to the leader, and again the response. Many of our central tefilot are structured in this style. Responsive prayer is possibly the most original, the classic mode of Jewish communal prayer.
The Biblical source for this model of "responsive prayer" may be found in our parsha, Ha'azinu (see Sifrei and Gemara Berachot 45a):
"When I call out the Lord's name, give glory to our God!" (Devarim 22:3)
The passuk (verse) changes mid-sentence, from the grammatical first-person ("I") to the second-person form ("YOU give glory"). This grammatical switch is the key to its function in a prayer context. The passuk can be read as saying that the community must respond to the prayer of the individual; "When I (the leader) call God's name, YOU (plural - the Community) praise him too!"
Why is the effect of this responsive structure? Why might it form the core of our prayer tradition? Possibly we can suggest that there is a special synergy created by the two-way prayer, the alternation or reverberation of praise, as one person begins, spurring the next person to burst into song, leading to a crescendo of voices of praise, of prayer, this has the capability to generate a particular vibrancy. It gives a rhythmic nature to prayers and creates a conversation of sorts, a blended harmony of voices in dialogue. The Talmud suggests that this was the manner of the Song of the Sea in which "Then Moses sang" - leading the nation - "And the Children of Israel ... and THEY said" - the nation answering, responding and elevating Moses initial statement to higher and higher levels of praise.
So, interactive prayer is not merely repetition. It is a formula of creative power, of excitement, appreciation and thanks towards God. This prayer-echo - responsive prayer - reverberates and expands its power exponentially creating what we call “shira” - song.
This idea might have ramification:
Might this explain why we have communal rather than individual prayer?
What energy can a group muster - in a footballl stadium, in a concert, in a shul, or a wedding - that a small group cannot?
I would contend that we are all affected by charismatic individuals, and that at times, a leader has the power to raise a group.
Have you ever experienced a prayer leader, or youth leader who has succeeded in energizing and motivating a larger group?
In societies, in groups, in schools and camps, we also respond to powerful leadership.
How are you affected in these situations? Are you the "leader" or the "respondent"?
How can leadership be practised more effectively to harness communal power in a Jewish context?