These and Those

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

Intention and Repetition

Posted on December 8, 2013 by Itay Zaidenberg

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1381725_10151892260923826_1830861205_nLiving in Jerusalem, it’s easy to feel like Israel is abundantly observant. But when I get off the 480 at Tel Aviv’s Arlozorov bus station, I’m immediately reminded, it’s not. And if I didn’t take the 480 so many times that I now recognize several of the bus drivers, I don’t think I would have arrived at my current understanding of prayer.

The constant transitions were at first a source of unease. At Pardes, I felt admiration for my teachers. I watched as they were passionately engrossed in either their study, or passing on their wisdom. I couldn’t count the number of times teachers asked their students whether they wanted to talk about this or that. I wondered whether anything could erase that smile from their faces. These qualities don’t come naturally, at least not in my experience. And though I haven’t actually asked any of them, I believe prayer has a thing or two to do with them being the way they are. I toyed around with the idea of praying. Yet every time I got off the 480, I thought about the implications that would have on my connection with the world I come from. A secular world where prayer is just, different. With time and reflection though, a piece of the world I come from is what showed me the value of prayer.

Back in my college days, I learned about how the brain reacts to situations by sending signals throughout the body telling it to produce specific hormones. For example, a brain reacts to the birth of a child by sending signals that tell the body to produce the happy hormone, and thus the body feels happy. Likewise, a brain reacts to the death of a family member by sending signals that tell the body to produce the sad hormone, and thus the body feels sad. So, if I pray with intention, which to me means doing what I need to do to get my brain to send the signals I want, I can momentarily be whatever I want to be. The caveat is that praying with intention is hard and produces only temporary results.

This is where repetition takes center-stage. One lecture I remember very clearly was when my professor used biology to explain how the more frequently an individual consumes alcohol, the more tolerance he builds, and vice-versa. In very simple terms, your body reacts to the repetitive consumption of alcohol by making it easier for itself to produce the hormone responsible for breaking down alcohol. And it reacts to the non-consumption of alcohol by favoring the production of other hormones, thereby making it harder to produce the hormone responsible for breaking down alcohol. Likewise, the more frequently you pray with intention, the easier it becomes to be what you want to be.

Prayer, for me, is a cultivation practice. The same way a great tennis player intently swings his racket countless times in an effort to become a better tennis player, so should I intently pray countless times in an effort to cultivate the traits I want.