‘Prayer is made of attention. It is the direction towards God of all the attention that the soul is capable of. The quality of the attention makes for much of the quality of the prayer. It cannot be replaced by the heart’s warmth.” This comment by Simone Weil reminds us that prayer is not essentially request or routine, but kavanah, focus, intensity, intention. It is the soul’s upward climb.
Rachel Varnghagen said in one of her letters: “Search without vanity is prayer.” When we pray for ourselves alone, with only our interests in mind, we block the chance to find something transcendent. Prayer is the ability to set aside the ego and coax the soul higher.
Prayer comes to pass, writes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “When we forget ourselves.” Perhaps our society’s increasing focus on the self and our inability to pray are related. As we concentrate on each quiver of self-regard, we push away the self-forgetfulness that is central to prayer. So in contrast to all the places that propose to help you to realize yourself, fulfill yourself, celebrate yourself, perhaps our motto should be: “Forget yourself — come to synagogue and pray.”
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow his teachings at www.facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.