What is prayer and what is its purpose? Hassidism boldly taught that prayer was akin to making love to God. Milton Steinberg called it "a bridge to God." Abraham J. Heschel said it is an "act which makes the heart audible to God."
There are two kinds of prayer - spontaneous and prescribed. The first is that which we utter at any time when we feel the need or the desire to express our feelings to a Higher Power - times of trouble, times of joy, times of need, times of thankfulness and times when we need guidance. It comes spontaneously, in our own words or even without words in a feeling expressed in a sigh.
Prescribed prayer is the daily routine that Jewish tradition has created, with the specific words and formulas that have come down through the centuries.
For numerous reasons, many people find prescribed prayer difficult today. Sometimes the ideas expressed do not seem acceptable in light of modern knowledge; prescribed prayer requires us to pray even if we do not feel like it; the language is frequently archaic and hard to understand.
Yet prescribed prayer has value. When we utilize the words that have come down through the centuries, we are creating a bond between ourselves and all previous generations. Using the same words that other Jews are using throughout the world also creates a tie with the Jewish people and a feeling of belonging to a great and ancient religious civilization. If some ideas seem unacceptable, we have the challenge of reinterpreting or modifying them.
Someone once asked Louis Finkelstein if he was able to achieve true meaning - kavana - in his prayer three times every day. He replied that he did not, yet he sometimes did succeed and the only reason he was ever able to achieve that was because he made prayer part of his regular routine.
Without that, he would never attain true kavana.
According to Heschel, the point of prescribed prayer is to arouse in us a feeling of awe, a feeling of awareness and appreciation. The soul that does not sense the presence of what he called "the Ineffable" in the world is numb, even dead.
All of us are overwhelmed by the countless tasks that confront us in daily life. We are caught up in routine, in work, in household chores, in running here and there and even in simply having a good time or exercising our bodies.
When do we pause to exercise the soul? When do we pause to ask ourselves the questions that really matter: Who and what am I? What purpose do I serve? What can I do better than I am doing it now? What really counts in my life? What is it that God wants of me? Unless we stop ourselves and make a conscious effort to find these moments away from our routine, we will never lift ourselves above the mundane.
The Sages taught that the Patriarchs originated the three daily prayers.
Abraham was the first to pray in the morning. He did so after his dialogue with God concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra - thanking God for the safety of his family there, Lot and his wife and children. Isaac was the first to pray in the afternoon, going out into the field to meditate as he awaited the arrival of his bride, Rebecca. Jacob originated the evening prayer, praying when he was lonely and afraid, fleeing from his brother Esau (Berakhot 26b).
Abraham was praying in thankfulness, Jacob was seeking strength for his struggles in life and Isaac was simply meditating on life, finding peace and meaning in his existence and perhaps contemplating the prospect of marriage and family. Each of us has moments like these. We seek strength, we are grateful for the good things that have happened, we seek a moment of peace, of meaning and significance.
Praying is not an intellectual exercise. It involves the whole self - body and soul. The key word in Jewish prayer is kavana - "direction." It comes from the phrase "to direct your heart to our Father in Heaven." Kavana also means inwardness, for the Divine is found not only in Heaven, but also in the human heart, the human soul. Kavana requires concentration; prayer should therefore be an intense experience.
The words of a prayer - the words written in the siddur - are the text. But there is a sub-text as well, and that is the feeling that each of us brings to the words, which is often more important than the text itself.
Professor Ernst Simon, a saintly man, once said, "Prayer is one of man's greatest but also most difficult arts." It is worth the time and effort it will take for each of us to master that art and thus to raise our lives to a new level of meaning.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.
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