Learning to Pray
I’ve often thought that learning to pray could be likened to learning to ride a bicycle. It’s tough at first, you fall down quite a bit, but over time, you keep getting back up and eventually get the hang of it. If only it were that simple. Actually, I’m inclined to say that learning to ride a bike may in fact be easier than learning to pray.
I have struggled with prayer my entire life, as I imagine to be true for many of you. My prayer life has ebbed and flowed; at times I’ve been more diligent and found it more meaningful while at other times it’s been the furthest thing from my mind. I’ve gone back and forth trying to find the right balance between what’s called kevah (fixed liturgy) and kavannah (meditative prayer/spontaneous prayer). The tension, however, is that I never know which one will nourish my soul until I give it a try. Sometimes I need the liturgy in the prayer book to serve as a starting point and at other times I need something more creative: music, English, poetry, nature, etc.
There are many things that make praying especially hard: the prayers are in Hebrew, the liturgy feels antiquated and doesn’t resonate, we pray for things and seldom get what we ask for, just to name a few. But even praying in our native language can often feel daunting. I remember vividly the first time I offered a spontaneous prayer while serving as a chaplain at Bellevue Hospital in NY. To say that I fumbled over my words is an understatement. It’s no wonder Jews go straight to the liturgy in a moment of spiritual need: it’s already written out for you. Although, to be fair, even the stuff that’s already written out doesn’t necessarily move the heart let alone the soul.
What I have come to discover is that learning to pray requires an individualized approach in order to figure out what does and doesn’t work for you. And just because it works for me, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the perfect recipe for somebody else. Learning to pray requires a willingness to go to the vulnerable place of sharing what is within our hearts and souls. In a way, praying, like most relationships, take a lot of work. A friend, teacher, and colleague, Rabbi Elliot Dorff of American Jewish University in Los Angeles, notes that “It would not be realistic or fair to expect a home run each time one is at bat in prayer any more than it would be in baseball. Those who pray very little often make that mistake. A homerun in prayer, like in baseball, requires much practice, many trials and errors, and, ultimately, consummate skill. Even that is not enough. One needs some luck, too. The conditions have to be just right, and one’s body, mind, and emotions have to be perfectly attuned to one another and to the task at hand. This does not happen very often.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his seminal work Man’s Quest for God, asks the question, “How should we define prayer? Since it is, first of all, a phenomenon of the human consciousness, we must ask, ‘What is it that a person is conscious of in a moment of prayer?’ There is a classical statement in rabbinic literature that expresses the spiritual minimum of prayer as an act of consciousness of man: ‘Know before Whom you stand’ (59).” You might answer that question by saying God, a Divine power, your community or family, or more simply, you. Sometimes we need to recognize and appreciate that the entity we are in fact praying to is the person we see in the mirror.
As we begin 2014, I want to make a spiritual resolution with our PSC family. I want to walk together with you and help you learn to pray in ways that feel authentic to each individual and of course, our community. I genuinely believe that deep down, there is a deep well of inspiration and beauty not only in Jewish liturgy, but in the discipline of having a spiritual prayer life. But going it alone makes it all the more difficult. So, let’s try doing it together.
In the weeks and months to come, I’m going to try several different approaches to help all of us wrestle with our prayer lives. Perhaps it will be an additional explanation or kavannah (meditation) during services, Shabbat or otherwise. Maybe it will be through participating in the monthly Kol HaNeshamah service, the contemplative and meditative alternative to spiritual practice. We’ll try different kinds of singing, writing our own prayers, and working to uncover the wellspring that exists in our traditional liturgy. For me, I want to take a step back and focus less on quantity, and more on quality, and in doing so, I hope to be able to offer you a path for creating a meaningful spiritual practice for your own lives, both in and out of shul, but more importantly, one that speaks to you wherever you are.
To quote Heschel again, “The problem is not how to fill the building but how to inspire the hearts...The problem is not one of synagogue attendance but one of spiritual attendance. The problem is not how to attract bodies to enter the space of a temple but how to inspire souls to enter an hour of spiritual concentration in the presence of God” (Man’s Quest for God, 52). I look forward to traversing the path together as we search and seek a little food for our souls.
Rabbi Corey Helfand