One of the simplest, most common, most repeated action of Jews is prayer. Whether you engage in prayer once a year, once a week, or once a day, our tradition puts prayer at the center of the human experience of the Jew. It is one of the big three of things that we as Jews do during the penitential season between Rosh Hashanah and Yom kippur, as we read in the machzor:
-uteshuvah, utefillah, utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah ha gezerah
“Returning, prayer, and giving generously to those in need can change our fate for the coming year.”
It’s what we do before we eat, saying hamotzi before we stuff food in our mouths. It’s the first thing we some people in the morning, when we say ‘Modeh ani lefanecha’ upon arising. It makes up the very first tractate in the Talmud. And of all the books in your house, it’s the only one, I bet, that you’ve read over dozens, maybe hundreds of times, unless you are a forgetful home chef like me, and you can never remember whether it’s a tablespoon of salt and a teaspoon of cumin, or a tablespoon of cumin and a teaspoon of salt.
And yet I don’t think most of us have a clue what we are doing when we pray. What are these words? What does the Hebrew mean? For whom am I saying them? Where do they go when they leave my mouth? If I sing them, or say them, or mumble them, or merely think them, does that matter? Do I believe what I’m saying? What am I thinking when I pray?
What am I doing when I pray?
So let’s start to answer that question: What are you doing when you pray?
Some of you are already thinking, oh crap, this is totally gonna be boring. He didn’t start with a joke or a story, and I hate praying. Maybe I can slip out to the parking lot and catch the rockies game on my cellphone for 10 minutes without noticing. I see you, Rob. But I think that, for those of us that hate prayer, these words are especially important. I would surmise that most of you that hate prayer hate it because you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, or that it’s boring, or that you are doing it wrong. This sermon is specifically for you.
As a sign of good faith, I’ll give you that joke you’re hoping for.
Cynthia Rabinowitz, aged 65, packs herself a hiking backpack and heads to La Guardia airport with a ticket to Nepal. She gets on a plane and, three plane changes and 30 hours later, arrives in Kathmandu. After resting in her hotel, she gets on a bus for two days to the north of the country, where, in a small village, she hires a sherpa to guide her up the mountain to a famous but hard to get to Buddhist temple in the Himalayas. After three days of treking, she arrives at a sheer ice cliff, and she and her sherpa use axes and ropes to scale the huge wall for hours, then sleep in an ice cave. In the morning, after a brief trek, they read a magnificent teak and granite Temple.
Knocking on the door, a young monk answers and leads them in. Cynthia says she has come to see the head monk. The monk tells her he is in meditation and cannot be disturbed. Cynthia says “I’ll wait.” Six hours later, she is lead to a room with tapestries and mandalas, and at the far end, a saffron-robed monk sits, eyes closed, in the lotus position. Cynthia approaches and quietly clears her throat. The monk opens his eyes. Cythia looks at him, the monk looks at her. And Cynthia opens her mouth and says: “Sheldon, would you come home already?”
Other than playing on the traditional trope of the overbearing Jewish mother, the joke is that Jews will seek spirituality anywhere but within Judaism. The temples in Dharamsala and the Ashrams in India are filled with Israelis. Buddhist temples in America have a lot of Cohens and Goldbergs in them. We Jews tend to think of Eastern religions as ‘spiritual’, without ever considering the possibility that you can find spirituality right here in synagogue.
That’s partially because we rabbis have done a lousy job of explaining prayer, and partly because when we do explain it, we make it overly complex and specific, talking about what each prayer means. But we don’t talk, in a meta sense, about prayer, writ large.
So here’s the basics, everything you need to know about how to approach prayer, in six bite-sized little rules.
First: Prayer is simply the act of stepping out of the physical world for a moment, the world of your job and the kids and the house and the news and the world we see with our eyes and sense with our bodies, and stepping into an infinite space of self, of contemplation, of thought, and of something we cannot see or feel or touch - a world of being, instead of a world of doing.
To do it, it might be best to think back to that little slip of paper I gave you on Rosh Hashanah, what I called the ‘Ayekah - what am I feeling card’. Prayer is a daily ‘ayekah’ moment - your state of being checking in with you, and you checking in with the state of being. The themes of your state of being:
Those are the importance essential qualities of life. Not your car or your beautiful house or your bank account or the impressive accomplishments on your curriculum vitae. Your sense of being in relation to the universe. Your understanding that your time on earth is but a blip, in which you have a constant opportunity to intersect with the universal truths of awe and justice and compassion and gratitude, or not. Instead of prayer, you might alternatively call it practicing mindfulness, or quiet time, or ‘me time’. That last one might involve Ben and Jerry’s ice cream from time to time, which is certainly allowed.
Second: there is no right or wrong way to pray. Even the word ‘pray’ is misleading. A synonym for prayer that we might better use is ‘meditation’ or ‘contemplation’. In Jewish prayer, we are given a guidebook of prayers composed thousands of years ago to help us, and those prayers might work just fine for you. You might prefer some prayers over others. You might like just one paragraph, or just one sentence, or just one word.
Third: People have different opinions about what you should be focused on thinking while you pray. Some believe you should be focused on and thoughtful of every word you say in the prayerbook as you say it. Others think of the prayerbook as a walk through really great buffet - you aren’t expected to eat everything, and in fact you’d probably bust a gut trying to do that. Rather, you walk though, consider everything before you, and pick out just two or three ‘main courses’ to focus your energy on for the day. Another approach is to let the words cross before your eyes and fall from your mouth, and that when the right word or idea come before you, it will reach up and grab your attention. And one final approach to prayer is that the entire act of mumbling the words is a mantra meditation - that your goal is clear the mind entirely in order to enter a state of calm and spiritual being.
Fourth: Prayer can be for you, or for someone else, or for God alone. We might think of prayer as a letter - we start praying, and God receives it. Or we might think of prayer as a journal - these sacred words are for us and us alone, to make us contemplate ourselves and our lives, but without anyone ever expected to respond. We say some of them hoping for a response, but they are conversations and negotiations, not wish lists or ransom letters.
Fifth: prayer has words that will elevate, and words that will sooth, but it also has words that will trouble you. There are references in the Torah service to our being chosen above all other nations. There are notions of obedience and fealty to a divine king that some may struggle to wrap their minds around. There are prayers that connect rain to the observance of mitzvot and drought to sin. There are requests to return to the days of sacrificial rites. You might not agree. You might not feel comfortable with that prayer. Thats ok, for we are isra-el, the god wrestling people. Prayers will sometimes make you think: what do I believe in, and what do I not believe in. Tell me the last time you had a deep thought like that while checking your Facebook for the hundredth time in a day.
Sixth, and finally, prayer is like everything else in human existence: you get good at it by practicing.
In order to do that, I encourage you to try one of three things in this coming year. For those who want an easy, low stress one, try praying before you eat. That moment is one in which you can acknowledge the infinite and the divine; that which sustains us each day in a million ways. Blessing food is one way to be thankful and contemplative. Before you pop a chicken nugget in your mouth or eat your corn flakes in the morning, stop for a second and say baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz. Forget about about whether the food is kosher or whether that is precisely the right blessing for the right food - that comes later. Just say a 10 word blessing before you eat. It’s a moment out of time and out of space, a window to spirituality.
By the way, sorry to talk about food on Yom Kippur.
Another option is to set aside time to meditate everyday for ten minutes. Maybe you put a short Hebrew or english sentence in your wallet or in the Notes on your phone and your repeat this as a mantra for ten minutes. Or maybe it’s the first ten minutes of your run or your bike ride in the morning, with your headphones off, in which you commit to thinking a big thought or no thought at all. Maybe you set an alarm on your phone or an appointment in your calendar for your ten minutes. Maybe you buy a book that helps you learn how to do this. Silent meditation is simply the act of getting off the merry go round of life for 10 minutes and saying - this is me, right now, emptying the wastebasket of my mind, setting aside the daily stresses.
And finally, something you might want to do, or simply think about building to someday, is trying traditional Jewish daily prayer. I pray everyday for about 20 minutes. I built up to slowly, over several years of master one new sentence in hebrew from the traditional prayers each week, until I was comfortable with them all. Until I had all the Hebrew, I prayed in English. I find it makes me calmer, and happier, and more grounded when I do it, and when I blow it off, I’m not as settled for the day. If I have a bad day, or a counterproductive day, or one of those days where basically nothing happens and it never starts, at least I can say that I put on my tallit and tefillin prayed and meditated that day.
Some of you are gonna walk out of here and, when asked by relatives what the rabbi talked about on yom kippur, will say ‘eh, the rabbi told me I need to pray more’. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m suggesting is that maybe, possibly, instead of running around all day long, of running around in your head even while you pray, you should stop, appreciate, and just be. To say a blessing over a cup of coffee. To talk a walk and stop in a clearing and feel the sun on our face and spend ten minutes thinking ‘this is the sun on my face, and man it feels good.
I’ll conclude with the words of Rabbi Milton Steinberg:
“Here we are, creatures of a day, in the midst of a vast, awesome world. Sometimes it strikes us a big blooming tumult. But through the seeming confusion some traits persist, constant and all pervading. Thus the universe is one, an organic unity, subject everywhere to the same law, knitted together with interdependence.
Whence it follows that no explanation of the entirety can be acceptable if it does not illumine the existence and nature of this most complex, challenging, and mysterious of its components.”
Let us illumine our own existence, and bring order to the chaos of our lives a little.
Gmar chatimah tovah and shabbat shalom