There have already been a few entries in this space discussing the efficacy of prayer, and what we, Morethodox Jews can learn from others about tefilah. I’d like to add to this theme in my post today.
I believe that one of the foundations of prayer is the ability to intertwine fixed/set prayer with spontaneous prayer. Chana, who according to the Talmud (Brachot 31a) was the progenitor of prayer, prayed twice when she beseeched God for a child as recounted in Samuel 1, chapter one and two. Her first prayer was wordless (“And it came to pass, as she continued praying before God…Now Chana spoke in her heart.”
יב וְהָיָה כִּי הִרְבְּתָה לְהִתְפַּלֵּל לִפְנֵי יְהֹ וְעֵלִי שֹׁמֵר אֶת־פִּֽיהָ: יג וְחַנָּה הִיא מְדַבֶּרֶת עַל־לִבָּהּ
(Samuel 1:12-12) This prayer was spontaneous, filled with visceral emotion. In Chana’s second prayer, however, one has the sense that she sat with her quill and parchment for days, composing carefully her words of gratitude and praise to God. Her second prayer was deliberate and formal. In fact the Yalkut Shemoni Shmuel 1 says that it is this second prayer that became the blueprint of the shmonei esrei.
Our challenge is to follow Chana and find ways to combine both set (keva) prayer as well as spontaneous prayer into a meaningful and godly experience. I spent this past week at a Jewish retreat center where I encountered the difficulty of this challenge. At one point on the retreat I stepped into a Jewish renewal style Shabbat morning service, and found that there was very little traditional liturgy weaved into the davening. This type of formless prayer did not appeal to me. On the other hand, I had the opportunity to “daven mincha through Yoga,” as the program advertised it. To my surprise, I found that embodying, literally, the words of the mincha prayer to be an extremely uplifting experience. (The Yoga Mincha did not, of course, replace my regular traditional davening). We threw our hands up in the air in joy as we recited the word “ashrei.’ Then we went into a sitting pose at the word “yoshvei.” And then dropped our hands down, in a cave like manner, to create a home as we said the word “Vaytecha” (Ashrei Yoshvei Vaytecha—How happy or praiseworthy are those who dwell in Your house). Imbuing traditional liturgy with an entirely new element forced me to think about the words in a different way. I found myself reaching out to God “with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might.” I was reminded of the experience Yitzchak might have had as he mediated in the field at evening time (Bereishit 24:63). Or the uplifting prayer of the Levites, who according to Psalms (150:3) praised God with the harp, lyre, and through dance. Spirituality takes on many forms. Tapping into ones spiritual self is the challenge.
Meaningful prayer is something that many strive to attain and maintain. I learned this week to step out of my prayer comfort zone, just a little, even if to experience a taste of how others achieve spiritual moments. As we enter the month of Elul, a month where we focus more than ever on our prayerful selves, let’s keep striving to bring ourselves closer to God.