The Sages tell us that prayer needs [to be said with] attention. Rattling off the words of old is but a shadow of what Jewish prayer should be. “Prayer without attention is like a body without a soul.” But, attention to what?
We should know Who we are talking to
Most people would say, that’s obvious: G^d. Actually, it’s not the full answer. Yes, we surely should speak to our Father, our King. We should talk as we would to a loving, all-powerful, all-understanding father. But also we need to address a classical king who may let his subjects address him but is free to do as he sees fit. But, Jewish Prayer talks to two more.
We should also overhear ourselves. To pray is in Hebrew a reflexive verb. It’s therapy with the best Therapist. We don’t just want a therapist to hear and understand us. (G^d doesn’t need our prayer. He’s not an idol that needs to be placated.) In therapy, we need to listen to and get ourselves.
And, last but not least, when we say the Sh’ma’ and repeat the Standing Prayer, we want other Jews to hear us (Israel, hear!) and agree (Amen!).
Prayer is us talking to G^d. The Torah reading is G^d talking to us. And Jewish learning is us having a dialogue with G^d.
We should know what we are saying
To understand the set words. Israelis who understand Hebrew think that we should mean what we are saying. For non-Hebrew speakers, it’s OK to use a proper (not a too free) translation of the original in a language that they understand. But, surprisingly, it is also kosher prayer when we say it in the Holy Tongue if we don’t know Hebrew because the Language that G^d created the world with is so Holy that it will reach our Soul anyway.
We should choose constantly to be with it
To pay attention. Not to rattle off the words on the automatic pilot. To slow down may help. Not to just sing them and go with the flow (of the notes). Israelis – who easily understand the Hebrew – often take prayer with attention to mean, not to rush through the words as a typewriter.
We should notice how we feel about our prayer
We are not supposed to read the prayer emotionless, as if it doesn’t concern us. We should reflect on what feelings these words give us when we mean them.
We should contemplate the implications of what we pray for
When we grant that wind and rain come from G^d, we accept His Kingship. When we ask for beneficial rain, we show that nothing is a given or to be taken for granted and that G^d is also our merciful Father in Heaven.
We should know why we are praying
As I mentioned above, G^d doesn’t need our prayer. He wants our prayer but for our good only. Our prayer texts sometimes show us how we should feel, talk or act. Sometimes, they tell us not to take things for granted by letting us ask and thank (not because He wouldn’t know our needs). Not to just think about ourselves but pray for everyone’s well-being. G^d gives us a chance to partner with Him in what He does or at least to have our say considered before something would happen that we don’t want to occur (Please, heal). And our prayers constantly remind us that G^d is leading the world to perfection as we speak and that despair is always misplaced.
Our prayer should be fresh
We should say the prayer as if we never said it before. (This actually is true for that moment. Children don’t pretend that every day is a new one. It actually is.) We should be surprised and spontaneous in saying our prayers. We should insert our own thoughts and words that come from the heart. There never was and there never will be a prayer like this.
In daily life, it is generally not good to complain. “You think you have it bad — I’ll show you,” may the Satan respond. But saying how good we have it is a mostly good thing (if we note that we don’t necessarily deserve so much goodness but are grateful for it). Then, the Satan may reply, “You think this is good — I’ll show you what is good.” But in prayer, it is excellent to pour out our hearts. To say it as it comes. Our unpolished feelings are expected.