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The Art of Preparation for Prayer

The Art of Preparation for Prayer

A conversation with Rabbi Adin Even-Yisreol (Steinsaltz)

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Jewish prayer is an "I-you" relationship with G‑d. Nothing can be simpler. Nothing can be more difficult. "If I'm going to talk with G‑d, this kind of talk begins with the basic notion of saying: 'Hello, I'm here to ask something of you,' or 'I just want to say thank you.' These things – and many more – are part of what prayer is," Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz says.

Rabbi Steinsaltz is one of the world's leading Jewish scholars and rabbis. He founded the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications, which has published 38 volumes of the Steinsaltz Edition Talmud in Hebrew and English with commentary. If he had translated, updated and made the Talmud accessible as "a living and developing essence" to a new generation, it would have been enough.

The rabbi also is a gifted writer. His classic work is "The Thirteen Petalled Rose," a book about the nature of reality and belief from a Kabbalistic view. The book has just been reissued in an expanded edition with two new chapters, including one on Jewish prayer.

A Hebrew term for "prayer" is avodah, which is translated as worship. It is the same word used to describe the Temple sacrifices. This implies a twofold aspect of avodah, a tension between public and private prayer Rabbi Steinsaltz writes in "The Thirteen Petalled Rose." There is the communal aspect of prayer which corresponds to the Temple service. And there is personal, individual prayer, established by the Patriarchs: a self-expression where one turns to G‑d.

"Public prayer is more formal prayer," the rabbi says. "It has a formula in which you express those notions that you have in your heart, not in a spontaneous way, but through a structure. Informal prayer is essentially private. It is spontaneous: one wants to say what one thinks, especially in times of war, famine, illness, [where one] is unprepared to say what one wants to say."

For formal prayer, the Siddur (Jewish prayer book) is the standard and most popular repository for Jewish text. But there are also other sources of prayers such as Mishnah and Kabbalah. And new prayers are being written today.

Theoretically, there shouldn't be a big difference between the two forms of prayer, the rabbi says. "Let's say you are in love and want to propose," he says. "You can propose in any way you want according to the personal relationship. Sometimes you are tongue-tied or don't know the right way [to express yourself]. So, you learn some formula. The intention is the same but the structure is something already made.

"Basically, public prayer represents praying in a community, as a family. When a family prays, each has their own desires. If a family wants to pray successfully, sometimes it would be [through] the prayer of a child. And that would come from a different part of the prayer book. The Siddur is not a collection of private prayers but an attempt to create national prayer. It has different details, some of which would be pertinent to me now; and some of which would simply be details. For example, we have a blessing for full health. [In times of illness,] this prayer will be very emotional. Other times, it won't be something that is bothering you. But I want to express these prayers in a way that reflects the whole nation in prayer."

The essence of prayer, the rabbi says, is turning to G‑d in our hearts. And ideally, prayer should blend our inner desire to pour our hearts out to G‑d with the communal service. It's a point at which a person is connected to his/her prayer to such a profound extent that he has no need of aligning himself with the words of prayer or with an external framework. The person praying and the words being prayed are one.

Rabbi Steinsaltz compares that sort of unity to when one dances to a piece of music – and the dance and music blend into one. But what happens when one doesn't know how to dance? Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed formula to get to the point where one prays with genuine feeling and understanding. But the rabbi suggests three methods that can point us in the proper direction.

One method is to wrestle with the prayer book; that is, attempt to squeeze some meaning out of every word. "When I come to a prayer or a blessing, and I don't find any affinity with it, I can still say it," he says. "But to have any emotion or deep involvement, there comes wrestling with it. I'm trying to see how much do I feel it?

"In prayer, one thing is important: the point of personal involvement. I can study – and that's a matter of intelligence – so I can say I understand [a prayer text] better. But when it comes to involvement, it's a matter of personal connection. Sometimes, my wrestling is not with the meaning of the words but where do I stand vis-à-vis the text. So, I have to find, inside myself, those things I can have a connection with. Yesterday, I was basically aligned with a text. But today, I don't feel it. People are very changeable. Every day, we are different. So, prayer becomes very different on a daily basis or even three times a day. Because of the changes in me, those things that sometimes, in the morning, make sense or are an expression of what I feel, need to be revived or they may not connect in the afternoon.

"That's wrestling with prayer. If I am not open in the moment I pray, I am just repeating words. It's the same thing if you have a phone conversation with someone you love and finish by saying 'I love you.' If it is a girl you are engaged to, [the 'I love you'] may be a strong emotion. Twenty years into a relationship, it carries a different impact.

"My prayers reflect and express what I feel, if I am aware of what I'm saying. Sometimes, I may not even be sure I should say the words of the prayer because that's not how I personally feel. If you are praying, prayer is not just an exercise in pronouncing words. It's an intellectual and emotional connection. Look, I'm not living in an ivory tower. I notice that for many people, who do their daily prayers, they have an obligation, and so they say the words. I want to tell people these things can be done formally. But if you identify internally with at least a quarter of what you say in prayer, you will be a different person."

The rabbi discussed a recent experience he had with a young, observant man, a religious teacher. The young man had become so distant or disconnected from the prayer service that he confessed he felt "dead inside" when he prayed.

Rabbi Steinsaltz suggested that the young man wrestle with one sentence of one prayer. He suggested the Modeh Ani, the prayer a religious Jew recites immediately on awakening. The text translates as "I offer thanks to you (or, I am grateful to you), living and eternal King, for having mercifully restored my soul within me."

One sentence – work on that one sentence. Grapple with that one sentence. Wrestle with that one sentence, and say it with intention. That will change the whole day that lies before you, the rabbi counsels.

"The prayer book contains so much material," he says. "Sometimes, it's only once in a lifetime of experience that you feel you are completely aligned with the words of a particular text. To say it is easy. To do it properly every day is much harder."

A second method of getting to the point of involved prayer is through study. Rabbi Steinsaltz defines study as intellectually plumbing the depths of one's prayers based on a preparatory learning session. Of course the purpose of this study is to incorporate it into prayer. The more in depth the study, the more details one can contemplate until each word and sentence appear as an image with meaning, echo and implications.

"I can make myself intellectually prepared since study awakens knowledge and understanding," he says. "When you understand what you are saying, there are times that you are attuned not emotionally but intellectually. It's a religious way of understanding and can have an impact. Take a text, study it deeply, and sometimes you begin to connect the text with your life. Sometimes, studying the text helps you to understand your connection with the text. Even when you have complete understanding of the language of the prayer, you need the pronunciation, the objective mood. And you must translate the text to something pertinent and meaningful to you. One can know about a text for many years. But when you create an emotional relationship, that's another level."

A third method is to set aside the time to prepare oneself for prayer. The rabbi describes preparation before prayer as an aligning of one's heart and mind, of clarifying one's personal experience, of extracting truth as it pertains to oneself.

By way of analogy, Rabbi Steinsaltz returns to the example of a man who is preparing himself to propose to his beloved. One thinks about how to make the proposal properly, to say the words in the right way. Sometimes you may think a long time, he says. Are you ready, or do you have cold feet?

"It's the same thing about prayer. I prepare, and that may take a long time. There are surely times that I think I'm not actually praying, and I think: how can I be right about it? One may use a huge amount of time [to prepare] and not come to a good result."

How would you know you're there? The rabbi tells the story of a famous rabbi in Ukraine whose fondest wish was to be able to say one prayer properly. Then, the rabbi went to Israel. When he returned, his students asked if he had achieved his goal. The rabbi replied, "Now I wish to be able to say one word properly."

How do you know you're there? When you recite the blessing, "G‑d who causes wind and rain," and the wind begins to blow, and the rain begins to pour. "There are not too many people like this," he says. "You can't manufacture them."

Copyright 2006 Jewish Herald-Voice and reprinted with permission
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