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Whose Prayer Is It, Anyway?

Whose Prayer Is It, Anyway?

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The other day I was sitting with a friend -- a prominent editor of a local newspaper -- sipping a cup of coffee and philosophizing about sacred matters like the afterlife, kaddish for a loved one, and prayer.

The conversation grew animated and quite emotional as my friend expressed his deep frustration at his inability to find a fitting setting and a meaningful way in which to express himself to G‑d. He had looked into different "brands" of Judaism and the different styles within them, yet there seemed to be no "perfect match," none that fit his spiritual needs.

My immediate response was, "You know, I feel sad for you." I truly did. Because anyone who has had the opportunity to pray -- to really pray -- knows that there is nothing like it in the world. One's mundane, everyday concerns fall away; one literally enters a spiritual bath and comes out feeling refreshed and invigorated with a new energy to take on the world, freed from the physical, mental, emotional, financial and other constraints that inhibit our true and total happiness. Decompression for both body and soul.

But what my friend felt was inhibited. What he really wanted, he explained, was to be able to pick and choose prayers, and make up his own prayers, to tailor the prayer experience that would be the most meaningful for him. As an afterthought I asked him, "What is your favorite prayer?"

He answered that it is Hin'ni He'Ani Mima'as, the prayer sung by the cantor just prior to Mussaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In this moving prayer (of unknown authorship), the cantor essentially pronounces his lack of worthiness to lead the congregation in the upcoming Mussaf prayer. It includes many powerful self-deprecating statements meant to humble the leader before the congregation, such as "Behold, I am deficient in meritorious deeds, trembling and awe-stricken, standing before the One enthroned upon the praises of Israel... Accept my prayer as if it were that of a man advanced in years, whose conduct in youth is unblemished and whose voice is sweet..."

I pointed out to my friend that his choice was most ironic. "Your frustration with prayer is that you are not getting anything meaningful out of it," I said, "yet your favorite prayer is one in which the petitioner beseeches G‑d to accept the prayer that he is not worthy to lead; a prayer essentially saying that prayer is not about you. The freedom and exhilaration offered by prayer lies precisely in the humility it evokes -- in the realization that prayer is not about the person praying feeling good about it, but about entering into communion with G‑d. Only then does one reach, albeit inadvertently, the freedom, liberation and hope that prayer incorporates."

This was an insight which I had not fully appreciated until we had this conversation, although, as a concept, I had certainly studied it in yeshivah. My "secular" editor friend taught me a lesson that I had never been able to understand fully my entire Torah-educated life: prayer is not about me and my "feeling good"; it is about G‑d and my connection with Him.

The conclusion of the Hin'ni prayer is most compelling: "May it be your will, O G‑d... that the angels bring my prayer before the throne of Your Glory and spread it before you, for the sake of all the righteous …Blessed are You, who hears prayer."

It does not say, "May it be Your will, O G‑d, that I walk away from this prayer feeling fulfilled, uplifted and unburdened." That is a by-product of a successful prayer experience. That is not a right, it is an earned reward.

There is a famous story from the Chassidic masters in which a disciple of a rebbe is charged with the awesome responsibility of blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Now, in all congregations this is a tremendous honor and responsibility, but in the mystical circles this is an enormous task as it involved months of self-preparation and intense study of the mystical meanings and ramifications of each sound emitted by the shofar.

Needless to say, the disciple spent several intense weeks of purifying himself and poring over kabalistic texts to be fully prepared. He made notes that he intended to have with him at the shofar blowing.

Alas, the great moment arrived and the trembling chassid reached into his pocket to extract his notes when he realized that the paper on which he had jotted them down was gone.

His rebbe and the entire crowd were all huddled under their tallitot waiting for this overwhelming moment when humans and G‑d merge in spiritual ecstasy as they listen to the supra-human sound of the shofar. There was no time to begin searching for the lost paper. With a broken heart he blew the shofar, all the while feeling that he must have truly not been worthy of the sacred task and therefore this tragedy had befallen him.

After the service he approached his rebbe, crying bitterly and apologizing profusely for having let him and the whole community down. Much to his amazement, there was a glowing smile on the rebbe's face. "The sounds of the shofar," the rebbe explained, "are like keys, each individual note a key that opens another gate in the path to the most inner chambers of G‑d.

"I asked you to be the shofar blower, as I knew you had the ability to study and prepare and utilize each key and usher the congregation through each gate of the heavenly palace until the royal chambers would be reached.

"However," continued the Rebbe, "there is a master key, a key that opens all doors. That is the key of a 'broken, humble and subdued heart.' That is the key that you were using when you blew the shofar, and thanks to your efforts, the shofar blowing accomplished its goal in the most efficient manner possible."

Besides being a nice story, to me this highlights the point that my teachers attempted to convey to me, and which my friend succeeded in doing. It says that prayer is not mine. It is not there for me to enjoy and derive instant pleasure. It is G‑d's, and He rewards us with a "fringe benefit" of a feeling of fulfillment and relief and hope. However, this depends on the way in which we enter prayer. Is it about me or Him?

My editor friend himself answered his own question. The whole premise of not finding a place of prayer or a specific prayer that "does it for him" was misguided. Indeed, prayer has all of these liberating qualities, but they are born out of intense humility and lack of expectation for the self. True prayer is about divestment of self and unification with G‑d, and this unification gives us the G‑dlike quality of tranquility and fulfillment. Not the other way around.

Indeed the Talmudic word for prayer is avodah, translated literally as "work." It is a job to pray right. And it is a reward to connect through prayer and receive it's therapeutic properties.

May G‑d bless us all that we be written and inscribed for a happy, healthy and successful new year full of meaningful prayer. Find a shul, find a prayer, and this year let us all connect.

Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman is director of Chabad of Peabody, Massachusetts.
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Rabbi Shmary Brownstein Chabad.org August 19, 2013

To E, Pennsylvania That's a tough problem, that probably every Jew who is serious about prayer goes through. There are synagogues out there where prayer is done by everyone present, without conversation and distraction. Often you can find these in yeshivahs or services for beginners in Judaism. Some Chassidim who wished to pray at length and with proper concentration chose to do so in a room off the main synagogue, so that they could answer Amen with the congregation but not be distracted by others.

As far as appreciating the prayers, the first step is to learn more about their meaning, especially as explained in Chassidic teaching. Here's a good place to start. Second, try to find a part of the liturgy that is particularly meaningful to you each time, and spend more time on it. Reply

E Pennsylvania August 15, 2013

What if it doesn't? My Jewishness is very important to me. I believe in it wholeheartedly and I observe some of it. But I cannot focus in shul. The repetitive text, the flowery language, the cantorial style of singing, the other distractions in a congretational setting ... it drives me crazy. When I pray alone it's much better, but then the repetitions don't make any sense - they're just repetitive. I have struggled with this all of my life. (I'm over 50 now.)

If I can't focus, I can't connect with G-D. Then I realize that I'm not connecting, and sitting (or standing) there in shul it feels even worse.

I try to prepare (kavanah?), but the conversations and distractions before the services begin prevent that.

I'm willing to accept that the prayers are not about me, but if they're about connecting with G-D then I haven't yet found a congregational setting where I could focus well enough. (I've been to orthodox and conservative shuls over the years, in different places I've lived.)

HELP! Reply

Altie Wolvovsky Santa Rosa, CA June 30, 2008

wow impressive! Reply

yossi berkowitz Huntington Beach, CA September 27, 2004

you hit the spot Rabbi Nechamia, your words are truly inspiring and informative. Your ideas helped me as I led the prayers on Yom Kippur. Thank You. Reply

ron columbus, ohio September 23, 2004

great i needed this. thank you for your good work. Reply

Dena Schusterman Atlanta, GA September 20, 2004

Rabbi Nechemia, That was a touching article, not only was it beautifully written it also gave new meaning to my connection with prayer in my own "torah educated" life. May all of our prayers have the power to unlock the gates we need opened, and truly connect us to Hashem. Reply

E. Los Angeles, CA September 19, 2004

Amzaing You write amzingly. Keep up the good work. Reply

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