Posted on December 10, 2014 by Suzanne Hutt
The first time I stood in front of the Kotel, almost exactly a year ago, I was so overcome with emotion and awe that I felt completely at a loss for words. I couldn’t think of a single thing to pray for. I sensed that I was supposed to pray, that of all places, this was where G-d would hear my prayers ring clear and true. And yet, as much as I wanted to pray, I couldn’t think of anything to say that was worthy of the moment.
I looked around me and suddenly became aware that I was not alone. In fact, the women’s section was crowded with people. Some, like me, were crying. Some were davening fervently, rocking forward and back. Some sat down in white plastic chairs, some stood with their foreheads pressed against the Wall, whispering things I could not hear. In that instant, I didn’t care that I had no words to express my own wishes, because I felt an overwhelming desire for their prayers to be answered, all of the women standing around me, all strangers to me and yet not really strangers at all. I closed my eyes and this time prayed to G-d to answer the prayers of those women around me.
Early in the year at Pardes, we had a Shabbaton that focused on the theme of “Community.” One teacher led a shiur that left a major impression on me that weekend. He spoke about the value of communal prayer in a community with diverse prayer needs and preferences. He made me confront the question, “How can we create a prayer community if we can’t all pray together?” At Pardes, we have several different minyans, and I initially didn’t feel comfortable in any of them. I was used to communal prayer existing mainly on Shabbat, so the idea of praying in an organized setting on a regular weekday just didn’t speak to me. It felt like I would just be going through the motions. “Shouldn’t I pray when I have something to pray about?” I thought.
This teacher, however, brought source texts to highlight the power of communal prayer. He spoke about how we are our toughest critics, and that we often stand before G-d judging ourselves more harshly than is necessary, certainly more harshly than others would judge us. Part of the power of praying in a community is that we are surrounded by people who, rather than judging us, are sending us positive spiritual vibes. Our role in that setting, then, is also to send out positive thoughts about the people praying around us. As I listened to him speak, something clicked for me. Davening in a group wasn’t about me and my needs, but instead it could be about helping those around me reach their spiritual potential, even just by the support of my presence in the room.
I now try to go to every egalitarian minyan at Pardes. Initially, I went out of a sense of obligation. Now, my reasons vary from day to day. Sometimes I go to the afternoon service because I cherish that opportunity to sing “Shalom Rav,” a prayer for universal peace. Sometimes I go to pray for the restored health of a loved one. Sometimes I go to the morning service because I so admire my classmates who read from the Torah every week on Monday mornings. Sometimes I daven at Pardes for all of these reasons, and sometimes it is for none of them, but I can always find a reason.
I never envisioned coming to Pardes and praying so much in a minyan. I love the familiarity it has afforded me with the prayer service, because practice really does make a difference, but I feel that my time in mincha and shacharit has helped me practice more than the Hebrew prayers themselves. Rather, it has helped me practice speaking to G-d. I can’t say if I will continue to daven so much in an organized setting once I leave Pardes, but I will have a much easier time approaching my conversations with G-d because of all this practice. Now, each time I go to the Kotel, I feel less tongue-tied. I pray for those around me, I pray for those far away, and, as I am only beginning to appreciate, I pray for myself, to fulfill a deep-seated need to connect to something bigger, a need for stability in a time of turbulence.