These and Those

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

What is a prayer? [pt. 2 in a series]

Posted on December 26, 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)

At Pardes, it is easy to look at our faculty and see inhumanly perfect beings. This is an unfair assessment. Don’t tell Rabbi Eliezer I said this, but sometimes kavod rabbeinu (respect for our teachers) can go too far in making it impossible to see something of ourselves in our teachers. I worry that when a culture develops around making that gap pronounced, it becomes hard to see how I as a student can ever make it to the direction of my teachers.

This is why I was so glad to hear Rahel Berkovits’ contributions to our shiur clalli last week. (to remind yourself why we’re here, check back in with part 1. I’ll wait) As the self-described token person who has difficulties with t’fillah, Rahel (like me!) is envious of Meir, and those who know how to daven. Because when she tries, and she does try, she isn’t able to connect.

rberIt’s emotionally upsetting because I feel like I should be able to. But I can’t. I’m not good at it. I think that growing up female in an Orthodox community negatively effected me. Unlike Meir, I had no junior congregation, no opportunities to be the leader and get involved and feel connected. I know less about parts of t’fillah because I don’t know how it happens in a formal setting. Even at Shira Chadashah, I still have questions, when I see the women leading it, because unless you’re involved, you really don’t know how it happens.

I find this incredibly comforting. Having come from a home that was not observant, that went to temple rather than shul, it’s incredibly easy for me to raise up the faculty as people who, by virtue of having grown up in perfectly frum (observant) households, know everything and can do everything effortlessly. But I prefer it (and I think many of us do) when my teachers, my guides, can quite honestly say that they too have been where I stand now.

Rahel’s biggest challenge for t’fillah is focus. “Focus is very difficult.” It’s amazing the way in which it feels like prayer can be a battle, where if you don’t have constant vigilance, the whole tide can turn.

I tell myself this time I will really focus, concentrate, pay attention. No matter how much I say this, I always find myself three pages later wondering: did those really happen? How did I get here? There’s a time warp aspect to prayer in a community that’s difficult.

Additionally, I’m not a good reader, nor am I a precise reader. It makes t’fillah difficult, even though it’s something I say over and over again.

On a different level, the theology can be a sort of stumbling block. “Meir spoke so beautifully about pouring out his heart, but it is hard to believe in a God who is interested in my need and my wants; who needs or wants to hear my prayers.” It can be hard to believe in these prayers that demand things, that have no objective result. And so, in general praying is challenging and Rahel does not feel good at it.

There’s this notion I bring with me, at least, to the Pardes Beit Midrash, which is that I’m not good at the sort of Judaism that we teach here, even though I love learning it. And for Rahel too there’s a “preconceived notion that there are those who are good at it.”

When is it meaningful? In nature, standing on a cliff and seeing the awe-inspiring moment of experiencing the divine in the world–that’s better than a personal god. That’s when prayer is meaningful. That experience of being in nature links to the divine in this world. Being in a group making statements about the divine, calling out as a group.

And the experience of praying in community for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur–the t’fillah is fill of short one-liners that the whole community says aloud. It’s powerful in it’s compactness; I can clearly see the meaning in the words. They’re so clearly formulated and precise that the meaning is clear. They are statements of belief, not asking.

For Rahel, what Meir gets from t’fillah, she gets from learning. She encounters the divine in learning Torah. It’s all there and she’s focused on it one-hundred percent. “It’s funny, because I teach t’fillah, and I’m pretty good at talking about t’fillah. I relates to the idea of standing before the divine and trying to find connections–I feel like learning about t’fillah and learning in general is an encounter with something greater than myself.”

The beit midrash, I want you to know, was clinging to these words. Perhaps out of the desire to sort of gawp at the difference between reality and perception; but more likely from taking comfort. There in front of us was one like us, who cannot always pray well. Rarely prays well. And yet still she struggles with it. Then the moment was past, and we turned onwards. But just for a second, I had felt understanding radiating across the room. Recognition.

If you’re like me, it comes down to personality. People are different. It’s ok. But I still try to live bound by halacha (ritual law). It’s a check-marked mitzvah, and then I move on. It’s ok to say that not everyone is the same but still find ways to connect to the divine.