My husband asks me the same question each time I arrive about an hour after him to synagogue on Saturday mornings: “How was it this morning?”
The question is innocent enough. He wants to receive a general update on our morning’s activities. Of course, I could meet his innocent question with a generous and satisfying reply: “Good!” My answer is to sigh and focus on my siddur. I take in the Hebrew letters: dependable, unmoving, unchanging. I need their earthbound pull, the heaviness of ancient time, to steady a morning filled with the dizzying motion of my children spinning in their own vortexes and striking out at one another every so often, just for the fun of it.
“Why do you guys fight all the time?” I asked Yael one Saturday morning. She looked at me with the grin of a preteen slightly supersized on her young face. “Because it’s fun.”
Why can’t a good old game of solitaire or reading a book be considered fun activities for my three kids?
Our home can be a pressure cooker. On Saturday mornings when we all begin to rattle, we just barely manage to zip, button, and lace ourselves up and head outside for the 10-minute walk to meet Leon, who has been at synagogue since its doors opened earlier that morning.
Here, in this sacred space, surrounded by white walls, smooth floors, and the friendly hum of prayers, the pressure is released and my children’s energies simmer. There is space and light, and there are other children to play with.
Sometimes we get there late, “just in time” for the end of the service. On one such occasion, as members began to clear their chairs and prayer books, I clutched mine tightly. I needed to pray. And as my children and husband joined their friends at kiddush in the main hall, I left them and the general grown-up chatter and made my way to the back of the synagogue space. I found a quiet spot near the door that opened onto the green foliage of early autumn. I stayed put, the words and letters drawing me in.
“Instead of taking the words apart,” I remembered theologian Henri Nouwen writing, “we should bring them together in our innermost being... We should wonder which words are spoken directly to us and connect directly with our most personal story.” My eyes were pulled to the word ahava (love), which begins the prayer Ahava Raba (A Great Love). In the prayer book, this prayer immediately precedes the Shema, Judaism’s central declaration of faith. I started to play with the word in my mouth and was struck by the vowels: A-Ha-V-Aaaaaaaahhhhh. There is so much breath in that word. It’s a word that both starts and ends with ah. In the middle there is a v sound, vet. When you add a dot in the middle, the letter becomes bet. Bet... as in Bereishit, the first word of the Hebrew Bible: “In the beginning . . .”
Over the span of that morning, I had sounded the first vowel Ah! with exasperation and was waiting for the ahhhhhhh, the moment of release. In the middle, bet, a new beginning, brought on by the prayer that entered me. The words ahava raba opened within me a new awareness, as if to say, “This Great Love of yours can hold everything. It can hold the aaarrrgghhh of the children’s bickering and the ahhhhh of tenderness too. It can hold the frustration and the release.”
This prayer reminded me that even though I can shift quickly between frustration and release, I need to pay attention to the bet. At the climax of the transition – if I listen – is the chance for a new beginning.
Kiddush had ended; my prayer time was concluded. I took this insight, this new perspective, with me as I gathered up my children and we headed home into the autumn air.
Gaining Insight by Turning Inward
I invite you to pray – to pause and gain new perspective – by linking your personal story with an ancient one. My prayer space is often a synagogue, but your prayer space might be a mosque or a church. It might be the edge of your living room carpet, beneath a great tree in your backyard, or in your car before you go to work.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, prayer is not suited for casual, occasional use now and again; “it is rather like an established residence for the innermost self.” Our innermost self needs a place away from the “falsehoods and absurdities” of the world, writes Heschel. I would add that we also need a place away from the real and imagined concerns about our families that we carry with us: Am I doing okay as a parent? How are my children doing? Am I too strict? Not strict enough? Can I ever be sure?
I pray because my soul needs a home – a place in which to “simplify complexities, in which to call for help without being a coward. Such a home,” Heschel states, “is prayer.” How can prayer help us whenever we feel that we need to gather up our innermost selves, when we don’t know what to do? Instead of seeking answers on our Facebook feed, we could incorporate into our routine the simple act of stopping our mad rush, offering a simple question in prayer – “What now?” This moment can often untangle the knot of worry that is wound tightly around us.
When I pray, I step into a different dimension, an internal quiet – Ayeka time par excellence. In this dimension, I don’t feel obligated to answer the question, “What am I supposed to be doing now?” Prayer involves a different kind of probing. Prayer shifts the focus from doing to affirming. When I pause and return to my breath, or use ancient words to call out, I can connect to something far more essential – the knowledge that I have the internal resources to move through what I am experiencing. In fact, we all do.
No matter what our faith tradition, the opportunity for quiet meditation is ever-present. Whether they are words from the Gospels, the Koran, or our own heart, the practice of regular prayer opens a channel to connect to a spiritual life that can simultaneously elevate and ground us.
The traditional Jewish prayer book is filled with words. More and more words have been added over the centuries to this repository of generations of Jews who yearned for a connection to the beyond. These time-worn words of the prayer book can open doors within us. When I utter them, I sink a bit deeper into my experience and feel something within me expand.
I chant the words.I meditate on them.I internalize them.I try to live them.
My regular prayer practice is simple. At the beginning and end of each day, I chant modeh ani l’fanekha, “I am grateful before you, God!” This is the ancient formula for gratitude, meant to leave our lips each day before anything else we do. When I go to sleep at night, I say Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, “Listen, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One,” and I affirm that every discrete activity that happened during the day was part of a greater whole, or a greater oneness. That affirmation gives me a sense of calm before sleep. Each Friday night, as the sun sets, I light candles to welcome Shabbat, I whisper the traditional prayer while in my heart I pray to expand my capacity to cope, hold, and embrace my family more.
This meditative ritual, through its sustained repetition, powerfully reminds me what it is I yearn for.
When was the last time you felt the impulse to pray? What were the circumstances of your life at that time?
What word or phrase, if repeated over and over as a mantra, would give you calm, perspective, and a sense of direction?
Start saying that word, phrase, or mantra, and be open to its impact on you.
Dasee Berkowitz, educator, author, and facilitator, lives in Jerusalem with her family. Contact her at [email protected]