When I was a young kid, prayer was not a major issue in my life. My Dad OB”M went to synagogue Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (until Yizkor), plus family Bar Mitzvot; my Mom OB”M less. So, as I became religious, my dad was often curious about my spending so much time in shul. He asked, ‘What are you doing there so long?’ I guess out of embarrassment, I told him that I had friends there. That was true to a certain extent, but at some point, I began to like davening. During this season of super-sized services, I’d like to share some thoughts on the topic of prayer.
I can’t really remember my fascination with prayer as a teenager. I think that I was afraid of things. The thoughts I want to share are how I feel about the topic now, as a senior. They’re probably more sophisticated, but less pure, definitely less innocent.
First off, I don’t expect to get ‘what I wanted’, like a game of fish. I mostly want to express how I’d like things to be. According to Rav Soloveitchik, prayers ‘reflect my own concerns and needs and my own sense of dependence on God. It is not a means of influencing God, but the expression of my desire to do so; I beseech God to address my concerns, to help me with my problems, to relieve my pain and distress.’ I don’t pray to get ‘things’. As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein said, ‘I pray to pray.’
Probably the most inspiring and meaningful thoughts on prayer I know were written by Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel. Back in the 1950s he was concerned that prayer in the Conservative movement was becoming sterile and unfeeling. So, he addressed the issue many times. Here are a few of his thoughts:
Prayer is the essence of spiritual living. Its spell is present in every spiritual experience. Its drive enables us to delve into what is beneath our beliefs and desires, and to emerge with a renewed taste for the endless simplicity of the good. On the globe of the microcosm the flow of prayer is like the Gulf Stream, imparting warmth to all that is cold, melting all that is hard in our life… Prayer is our attachment to the utmost. Without God in sight, we are like the scattered rungs of a broken ladder. To pray is to become a ladder on which thoughts mount to God to join the movement toward Him which surges unnoticed throughout the entire universe. We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting.
So, prayer helps us, at least for a short time, to escape from our daily concerns. There are times that I come home from davening feeling as if I just had a vacation, returning from some exotic locale. Unfortunately, there are also times that I can hardly remember that I was at minyan. But when it clicks, prayer is an amazing experience. Please, never despair after the bad ones, otherwise you’ll never experience the fabulous ones.
The escapism of prayer is, I believe, very real and very beneficial, sometimes therapeutic. Every life has tribulations. Our ancestors, not that long ago, prayed about bread for the table and attackers at our door. But we also have needs and worries and fear. Prayer helps us put these issues into different perspective. Heschel again:
Feeling becomes prayer in the moment in which we forget ourselves and become aware of God. When we analyze the consciousness of a supplicant, we discover that it is not concentrated upon his own interests, but on something beyond the self. The thought of personal need is absent, and the thought of divine grace alone is present in his mind. Thus, in beseeching Him for bread, there is one instant, at least, in which our mind is directed neither to our hunger nor to food, but to His mercy. This instant is prayer.
For me, prayer is an invitation to God to pay attention to me and my concerns. I don’t feel so all alone in this vast cosmos. In those successful times of focus on the davening I’m transported both elsewhere and else-when. I’m really davening with the Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Rachel, Chana, and, of course, David HaMelech. When it works, it’s so very special.
So, here’s my BRACHA for us all during these upcoming long services: May, it be Your will, our God and God of our ancestors that we pray with feeling, meaning and soul, so that we get our most fervent need: quality time with You!