September 29, 2005
Breaking the Boredom Curse
One rabbi takes on the ultimate quest -- how to bring meaning back to prayers.
As a child I was so bored in synagogue that I hid novels in the creases of my prayer book. I thought no one knew. Until one Shabbat morning when the rabbi was escorting the Torah through the aisles, greeting his congregants and he whispered to me, "See me at the Kiddush after services."
The jig was up.
Each minute of the remaining Torah and Musaf services felt like an hour. I sat attentively, listened closely and made sure to look at him almost the entire time trying to redeem myself. The cantor began to sing Aleinu, which was the one prayer I knew by heart because (well, you know why) it signifies the end of the service. As it ended I was frozen with the fear of a 10-year-old. He gave me "the look" from the bimah to remind me that we had a "meeting" after Adon Olam. I was panicked. My heart raced and my hands trembled.
He was "The Rabbi," a large German man with a heavy accent and a foreboding face. He looked and sounded intimidating. And when the service ended, I began what felt like a mile-long trek to the table of mini cups of wine, brownies and lemonade.
"Sherre, are you bored in services?" he asked me.
I paused. Did he really ask me if I was bored? Was he living on another planet? Everyone is bored in services.
I wanted to laugh out loud.
However, I did not want to get grounded by my parents so I hesitated, "Do you really want the truth?"
He looked me straight in the eye.
I whispered, "Well, rabbi, yes."
Suddenly his face was right in front of mine. I thought, "I'm in big trouble now."
But then he whispered back: "So am I."
I could not believe my ears.
The great and awesome rabbi just told me that he is bored in services.
Before I could digest that, he asked, "So what are you going to do about it?"
I think I have been trying to answer his question ever since.
Over the years, I have come to realize that services are meant not to be endured. They are supposed to move, transform and enlighten us.
They are supposed to be a place where we learn and practice how to pray.
Surprisingly, it has been through study that I have discovered that prayer in Judaism can be dynamic, inspiring and moving. But over the years, Jews have made it otherwise.
"Prayer is the direct and unequivocal act of relating to God," said Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a leading scholar of the modern era.
But that definition and Jewish tradition leave a lot of room for variation. The sages of the Torah, after all, agreed that the biblical commandment for men and women to pray did not include specific times or set formulations. Prayer had no fixed venue so there was no need for assistants or intermediaries in order to pray. Everyone had equal access to God at any time.
People prayed alone and with others. They prayed to share their suffering, to ask for help, to say thanks or just to feel connected to something greater than themselves.
Even when synagogues began to emerge at the beginning of the Second Temple period, people did not always pray at the synagogue or some designated site. Prayer was never dependent on location. Many people were known to go to fields and forests in order to commune with God in their own way. They prayed while walking, traveling, lying in bed or sitting quietly in contemplative thought.
People prayed in a language that they understood without strict linguistic rules. Some of the most well-known prayers were spontaneous pleas of the heart. In Exodus, Moses prays on behalf of his ill sister Miriam, these five short staccato words: "Heal her, heal her now."
Over time, the sages of the Great Assembly began to delineate guidelines to transmit prayers from generation to generation. They were concerned that due to exile and oppression, Jewish prayer would lose a sense of continuity. They formed basic prayers such as the "Amidah," and they set times to pray that mirrored the time periods fixed for the public sacrifices in the Temple.
But public communal prayer was not supposed to be an end in itself.
The mishnah teaches that "one who makes his prayer a fixed routine, his prayer is not considered a supplication." From the beginning we were not supposed to repeat words by rote. Rather we were supposed to find a deep sense of intention, kavanah.
Pious men used to seclude themselves to concentrate their minds and strengthen their intellects in order to attain a sense of kavanah. They would focus and study to make sure that their prayers came from the depth of their hearts.
Daily fixed prayer became commonplace based largely upon the argument that because most people did not voluntarily search for deep religious awareness, then the set times would enable them to have a sense of commitment and an ongoing connection with God.
The trouble is that fixed prayer has created the reverse problem. Instead of drawing us nearer to God, it has, at times, made us more distant.
We have abandoned our creativity and spontaneity in order to follow the "rules."
At 10 years old, I read novels at synagogue but I prayed in the recesses of the walk-in closet in my room. It was the place that I had the most intimate, private encounters with God.
Now is the time for us to rediscover where, how and when to pray.
When Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century Jewish theologian, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights, he said, "Today my legs are praying."
Every place and moment in time can be converted into an opportunity to speak with the Divine.
We can pray on a mountaintop, in a rock concert, in traffic.
We can pray with our children, with our spouse, with complete strangers.
We can pray with music, with instruments or without.
We can pray in downward dog or skiing.
We can pray when a child is born and when a parent dies.
We can pray when we meditate, eat, drink -- even when we make love.
The Kotzker Rebbe said that God dwells wherever we let God in. God is not relegated to certain times and places. God does not listen to the prayers of only a select few. Rather, God is available, interested and able to listen if we are willing to begin the conversation.
One of the most famous stories of our tradition tells the tale of a certain herdsman who did not know how to pray. Everyday he would say, "God, it is known to You that if You had cattle and gave them to me to tend, although I take wages from all others, from You I would take nothing because I love You."
One day a learned man heard the words of the herdsman. He told him that he was foolish and that he would teach him the right way to pray. The learned man taught the herdsman the "Shema" and the prayer service. In time the teacher left and the student forgot the prayers. He was afraid to say anything at all, for the righteous man had told him only to pray as he had been taught.
Then one day the learned man had a dream and in it he heard a voice, "If you do not tell him to say what he was accustomed to say before you came to him, know that misfortune will overtake you, for you have robbed Me of one who belongs to the World to Come."
The learned man rushed back to the herdsman and persuaded him to, "Say what you used to say."
The original words of the herdsman were the most eloquent offering to God -- for they were honest, sincere and from the recesses of his heart.
To begin to pray remember the teaching in Deuteronomy, "It is not remote or mysterious; it is not across the sea.... Rather it is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can fulfill it.
Just start the conversation. In Farsi, English or French. Talk in the shower, write in a journal, sit quietly for a moment and begin to converse with God about your dreams, your anguish, your hopes, your struggles. A burning bush may never appear, but praying, really praying, may give you insight, serenity, awareness and peace.
For each one of us the benefits will differ. But there is no doubt that with practice and determination, praying will transform, move and inspire you in ways that you can not imagine.
Everyday, I pray.
I teach prayer, lead prayer, I even write prayers.
And everyday I actively seek to answer my rabbi's question in my work and in my home. The answers have not yet come. But I pray that one day a student of mine will continue the search.
Sherre Zwelling Hirsch is a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.