A Time to Pray: Our Quest for Perpetual Purpose

One of the most profound attributes of a religious lifestyle is the gift of prayer. Though prayer can certainly be accessed from other avenues, I have found the rigidity of traditional Jewish liturgy particularly valuable in helping me to develop and maintain a mature relationship with prayer. Prayer is not only a commandment; it is a cornerstone of my spiritual life. Prayer has become an opportunity to engage with my G-d and myself in ways that I had failed to attain through other means. For me, prayer is a moment of simultaneous selfishness and selflessness, a moment where I can experience boundless aspiration, coupled with complete complacency. Prayer is an articulation of my ineffable, an ultimate spiritual remedy.

At times, however, it seems as though Prayer stifles my praying. The very rigidity which makes prayer accessible, often renders it inefficacious. There are moments when I do not want to get out of bed (or, for that matter, when all I want to do is go into bed), yet I feel compelled to daven (prayer). Jewish law dictates three daily prayer services, each limited by strict time guidelines (for example, the morning prayers, shacharit, can only be said within 4 halakhic hours of sunrise). I often find striking the balance of kavana, an intentional and fulfilling experience, and keva, a reliable and consistent prayer regiment, is quite difficult.

Striking this balance, it seems, has been at the heart of Jewish consciousness throughout the development of a systematic prayer routine. To be certain, I am not the first to feel this tension. Many have struggled to find a balance between consistency and inimitability.

It seems that this tension was, in fact, alluded to in a famous Talmudic passage. While discussing the origins of prayer, the Talmud discusses two divergent possibilities. Prayer, it is suggested, corresponds to the sacrifices made at the temple. Yet, it is also suggested that prayer is a product of our three forefathers (avot). It seems to me that while the sacrifices represent rigidity and consistency, the avot highlight the serenity of a moment. On a certain level, while defying logic divergence can, in fact, intersect and create tremendous insight.

The Korbanut (sacrifices) represent “the tamid,” the constant need to engage. The Abarbanel, a 15th century Portuguese Torah scholar, taught that the Korban Tamid was offered twice daily in accordance with or duel freedom: spiritual and physical. It represents our perpetual state. The consistency was necessary in order to mimic the eternality of our gratitude.

The Avot, on the other hand, signify the fleeting moment. In discussing each of the avot, the gemara relates a story, a particular moment of spiritual depth. This conception of prayer focuses on our sporadic yearning; our compulsion, in particular moments, to cry out in prayer.

Ramban and Rambam, too, had a disagreement about the source of the obligation of prayer. While Rambam held that, irrespective of emotion, we are obligated to pray daily, Ramban held that the commandment existed only in times of need. The Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, taught that perhaps they were not disagreeing at all! Rambam, he taught, was simply alluding to mankind’s perpetual state of need. Though need may be more discernable in particular moments, it is, in fact, a perpetual condition.

A healthy prayer regiment need not solve this quandary. Indeed, a proper balance may be highly personal, if it exists at all. Yet, for so many of us, both the Keva and Kavana warrant much attention. For so many of us prayer can become both more consistent while more powerfully moving. As we strive towards a more fulfilling experience, we must keep both in mind, and in heart.

About the Author
Jordan David Soffer is a fourth year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and is pursuing a masters in elementary education at Yeshiva University's Azrieli Graduate School of Education. Since graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 2010, Jordan has spent the past years studying at various yeshivot in Jerusalem, Maaleh Gilboa, and New York. Next year, Jordan will serve as the Rabbi-in-Residence at Carmel Academy; a vibrant Jewish day school in Greenwhich, Ct..