These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

What is a prayer? [pt. 1 in a series]

Posted on December 19, 2012 by Avi Benson-Goldberg

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(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Pardes students daven mincha at Mitzpe Rimon.

Pardes students daven mincha at Mitzpe Rimon.
(*click* for larger photo)

Pardes was rocked by a shiur clalli (public class) about prayer in the Jewish world, particularly as experienced by three of our teachers: Rahel Berkovits, James Jacobson-Maisels, and Meir Schweiger. It was certainly an honor to see these teachers of ours open themselves up and expose the real humans inside! Some of us had to go on tiyyul to experience that truth–the rest of us just stayed put and knew that it would happen inside the walls too!

David Bernstein moderated, as it were, and opened the discussion with three questions: what does t’fillah (prayer) mean to you? How does t’fillah challenge you? What’s your best suggestion for the rest of us in the room?

The panel, though prepared, was definitely uncomfortable with these questions–in the way that all questions that require answers from the heart, true answers, make one uncomfortable.

meirFor tonight, let’s listen to what Meir had to say. Keep checking in to see what the rest had to say.

Meir began with a story of a little boy participating in Jr. Congregation for chocolate bars! Well, maybe not just for chocolate bars, but the smile on his face as he recalled the chocolate proved that it was more than just a funny anecdote. “It’s important because I’m standing before God. In general I have tremendous difficulty with processing sessions, I don’t like doing it except when I’m davening.” For Meir, praying is processing:

This is a way to pour my heart out to God and to find counsel. I really feel that when I am davening it’s an opportunity to bare my soul and put it all on the table–it’s not just a monologue but a dialogue: the experience of prayer is an I-Thou encounter of the most profound degree.

It may be unfair to add extra weight to a moment already heavily freighted, but Meir’s explanation of prayer; the purpose and value of it, certainly felt itself like a sort of I-Thou encounter. In this sense, between Meir and us. It was an opportunity to truly hear what was being said. Most interestingly, Meir also believes that successful prayer, and that the experience of prayer, is indicative of how successful your conversations are, as well as how full your life is!

The degree to which you experience God in prayer is connected to the degree in which you see God outside of prayer. To prepare yourself for prayer you have to bring your experiences to prayer and then take the experience out afterwards. There’s no dichotomy, the experience of prayer in the beit cenesset is intimately connected to experience outside. If you’re really alive, then every moment you pray differently, because you live differently every day.

The degree to which you focus on t’fillah is connected to how much you can focus on when you speak to anyone. T’fillah impacts how I can focus on engaging in conversations with others!

But prayer doesn’t live in a vacuum, and neither do we. It’s often hard to find a community in which we feel comfortable praying–this makes sense, because of how vulnerable we make ourselves: “it’s extremely difficult to find a community of like-minded people,” Meir says. For a time, he didn’t pray in a minyan (ritual communal setting) because he couldn’t get the kavannah (spiritual intention) and now in his home of Efrat, the only minyan he prays with is Sephardi. Because it’s always taken Meir a long time to pray.

In a minyan where everyone takes a long time, and they aren’t rabbis–if t’fillah is something you take seriously it can be done anywhere by anyone. If it’s going to be a meaningful experience, you have to take your time! Better to say less and focus on it than try to do everything and mumble.

It’s important to learn the language of prayer, which might preferably be Hebrew–but even in English, focus on learning the way the words work. Because the English of prayers is not the same English of day to day speech, nor is the Hebrew. “You have to understand what you are saying and where it is coming from. If you don’t, it can’t be what it’s meant to be.”

Finally, Meir offers what he considers the most important tasks of creating successful prayer. Pirkei Avot for a modern time.

You have to find optimal conditions for prayer. Maybe not in community. Maybe you need to be alone. What’s the ideal time and place for you to do this? Go slow. If I believe that t’fillah is part of a larger context, it’s not just enough to study t’fillah but to study period. I can’t just experience t’fillah but experience everything. Then it is all in context.

[This is part one in a series on prayer at Pardes]