A little over a month ago, I wrote an article for Jmore exploring the values that would motivate a person to set aside time from their busy schedule to participate in communal prayer. Daily communal prayer has been a cornerstone of Jewish living for millennia. Jewish communities around the world depend on the dedication of select individuals who choose to make minyan attendance a part of their lives.
A perfect example of this commitment was Al Lapin, who passed away in late June. Al was a daily minyanaire who attended thousands of minyans at my synagogue and could be counted on to be there every day. Though he had very few surviving family members, Al’s fellow minyanaires became family, and his passing was mourned by the entire Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah community.
In my first article, “To Pray or Not to Pray,” I mentioned five motivations which could justify the time and effort spent in prayer — a sense of obligation to God; a sense of responsibility to a family member or friend; a sense of responsibility to your community; enjoyment of the social or calming aspects of prayer; and prayer’s promise of spiritual growth and insight.
Though synagogue attendees are motivated by their own complex cocktail of these motivations, each will have one reason that carries the heaviest weight. I come each day hopeful that I will leave with heightened spiritual insight, creative wisdom and connection to Godliness. In that spirit and in awareness that so many of us will be praying in synagogue for much longer than usual later this month, I want to offer two paths toward using communal prayer as a source of spiritual growth.
The first path follows the assumption that prayer allows an infinitesimal human being to openly communicate with the infinite source of everything. What a thought! What would you want to tell the universe and its creator? Thank you for this new day. Please help me live up to my potential. Thank you for my beautiful family. Please keep them safe.
Prayer is also a time to give voice to the concerns and stressors weighing on you, then to verbalize your deepest desires and needs. By bringing them to concrete form and “giving” them over to God, you will find that they weigh less on you. Many times, I find that my prayers are answered. Sometimes, they are not. But the Silent Meditation refers to God as “Shomaiya Tefilla — The One Who Hears Our Prayers.” We should internalize that all our prayers are “heard” by God.
Talking to God is not a one-way street. I believe that God speaks to me as I pray. Actually, I think that God is always speaking to us, but we typically only listen when we are calm and focused. My best ideas and creative thinking occur during davening.
I’ll be reciting the Ashrei and a random good idea, solution, deep thought or moment of clarity will just pop into my consciousness. I keep a clipboard by my seat and start writing. Sometimes, I don’t finish writing until the final Mourner’s Kaddish. Perhaps a pen and notepad are as important for prayer as your siddur.
The second path toward spirituality is derived from the Hebrew word for prayer — tefillah. It is a reflexive verb which literally means “to look inward and judge oneself.” In this sense, prayer is self-reflection — a dialogue with your soul. The idea of “talking to yourself” has undeserved negative connotations. Far from making a person loony, honest internal conversation is an essential component of spirituality.
Our negative inclinations only rule over us when we turn off our inner voice. It’s like the famous image of the angel and the devil standing on a person’s shoulder trying to convince them what to do. The proverbial devil rules when we live our lives on “autopilot,” and the angel rules when we are engaged in internal dialogue. We rarely lie to ourselves when we let our soul speak.
In this way, prayer becomes strength training for moral clarity and self-discipline. As the chazzan chants, take time to close your eyes and enter your inner world. In full sentences, remind yourself of your beliefs, commitments and goals, and critique your shortcomings with as much honesty as you can.
During the approaching High Holidays, and their accompanying hours in synagogue, we can either “get through it” or use it as precious time to communicate with God and with our own souls. Though the latter may take a little more effort, you may find the gates of prayer are open wide waiting for you to enter. May we all be written and sealed for a sweet new year!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro is spiritual leader of the Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah-Greengate Jewish Center.
Top photo: Tallit and tefillin (Photo by orenhayon, Flickr)
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