Note: This response uses the words daven and davening rather than the English pray and praying. The word prayer brings its contextual baggage with it, and daven brings very different baggage. The best I could say is that praying is a religious act, whereas davening is a tribal ritual—and the meaning of that ritual can sometimes get lost. Which is what this response is about.


How could I seriously get myself to pray? I have no problem putting on tefillin every day and saying the Shema Yisrael along with a few prayers, but I just don't have the patience for the entire prayers. This whole "just say the words thing" for an hour seems less than meaningless to me - even if I were to understand the actual translation of the words.


I'm with you completely.

Let's start from the beginning. On the most essential level, prayer is a time to talk to G‑d about whatever you need. That's right. The Biblical mitzvah is to simply talk to G‑d. Over the years, the rabbis enhanced this mitzvah and added a specific liturgy to help formulate our ideas. But for so many, like you, what has been the result? Lip-service. Taking the icing and leaving out the cake. Better: Leaving out the cake with its icing and just taking the cardboard box it came in. A real tragedy.

I'll always remember the story of my friend back in yeshiva who one morning walked up to our mashpia (a teacher who also serves as a sort of spiritual counselor) and told him point blank that he was not in the mood for prayer. He saw no meaning in it all and besides…he was upset about a terrorist bombing that just occurred in Israel and couldn't get himself to pray to a G‑d that allowed such things to happen.

The mashpia surprised me. He told my friend, "That's okay. Just put on your tefillin and tell G‑d exactly that. Explain to Him you are having difficulties connecting during davening. Express your frustration about the recent events in Israel. Tell Him just what you told me."

Over an hour later, the student returned and thanked his teacher for his best prayer of the year. He had not only thought those ideas but actually expressed them while saying the regular prayers.

So step #1 towards a meaningful prayer is being ready to talk to G‑d just as you would talk to a close friend. Only that this friend creates worlds when He speaks.

Then comes step #2: Knowing the general theme of each particular section and then plugging in your own thoughts and prayers that relate to that idea. Now this is far easier than learning the specific translation of every word and phrase. And you'll be surprised to see just how practical this can make prayer.

Want an example? Let's refer back to the above story. These two ideas come up in davening. In the Amidah, there is a specific prayer for Jerusalem. So when you say those words, simply think your own thoughts about Israel. In the blessing before Shema, we ask G‑d to provide us inspiration, feeling and excitement about His Torah and mitzvahs. While saying this, think your own prayer about being able to pray better.

All this begins by learning about the meaning of just one part of the prayers. Once you've mastered that, you can move on to the next. Let me know if you'd like some suggestions on where to begin.

There's one last important step. Really it comes before anything else:

The moments before prayer set the tone for what's going to occur in the next 45 minutes. Run into the synagogue after playing football or listening to talk-radio and your prayer is going to be an uphill climb. You just can't shift 180 degrees in one minute. That's why our rabbis suggested in the Mishna1 to spend a few moments before each prayer thinking about the fact that little you is about to stand before a very big Him and chat. Trust me, it makes a huge difference.

Now, there's a lot to be said about this last step. But first, are you familiar with the study of Chassidic teachings? The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760, founder of the chassidic movement) came to teach that every Jew can awaken the hidden love for G‑d that's buried inside his or her heart. There's a popular little book called the Tanya which was written over two hundred years ago to show just how to do this. And then there are so many Chassidic discourses, really meditations, that are meant to make the deepest experience of prayer accessible to all. If you really want to get into prayer, my recommendation is to get into Chassidism.

Asking this question was already the first step to a more meaningful prayer. If you honestly put yourself too it, making this a priority, you'll be amazed to see just how relevant prayer will become...