Sunday, August 21, 2011

In Shul to Talk or to Pray?

I am travelling and spent this past Shabbat at a synagogue that shall remain anonymous (to protect the names of the guilty/innocent). The room was mostly full during what is called the 'main minyan' Shabbat morning. I had the following curious thought:

If you gathered 300 people together for the sole purpose of socializing over a two hour time period - do you think that people would spontaneously breakout into prayer? The reverse of this happened in a not so surprising fashion this Shabbat.

Rather than focus on the issue of praytalk, I'd like to focus on the challenge of matching up one's expectations for a spiritual connection with the subjectivity of place and time. How can we get the most the most out of our time in a tefilla? Let's explore some options this week, but first, a reader of the blog submitted this piece from Yedidya Meir, originally published in Haaretz 15 November 2007.

Run for your life
By Yedidya Meir

One of the remarks a religiously observant person hears most in his life is "Let me tell you what bugs me most about religion ..." Usually the speaker begins by praising Judaism and its ways: "Listen, Judaism has really beautiful things to offer. The shiva [week-long mourning period], for example, is utterly enthralling." Then comes the bit that irritates them. For example, this unnecessary prohibition on traveling on Shabbat. Why? Who needs it? Or all this gobbledygook about "fruits of the sea." A complete nonstarter.

I have a great many responses, believe me, but sometimes I too get the urge to say what bugs me most about religion. It happens almost every day. You are standing and reciting a prayer that is important to you, that speaks to you and which you had planned to recite with total intentionality - and suddenly it's over. You felt nothing. That is, you were definitely concentrating, but on completely different things: the kids, the bank account, why there is still no replacement for the Channel 2 news anchor.

A brief explanation is in order for those readers who by chance do not pray. In contrast to the Sukkot lulav (palm branch), the Shabbat candles or the tefillin (phylacteries), prayer itself is a non-physical commandment. It is difficult and challenging spiritual work. For the greatest rabbis and for righteous people, those for whom prayer is a way of life, it may be easy, but for a rank-and-file Jew, it is very hard to recharge the prayer with new meaning each time. But that is exactly what the person is required to do. Someone once wrote that good prayer should be like a train journey: the landscape doesn't change, yet at every moment you see it from a different vantage point. So it is in prayer: The text is the same text, but a person journeys all his life, he does not stand in one place, and on each occasion he is meant to experience the prayer from the inner point he has reached.

That's the theory; now for the reality. I come to the synagogue on Shabbat morning, recite "Nishmat kol hai" ("The breath of every living being") - one of the most meaningful prayers - but feel nothing. And then, on Monday evening, while on the treadmill at home, clad in shorts and an undershirt, at the third kilometer, I hear via the iPod the song "Nishmat kol hai" - the same words - sung by Shlomo Carlebach, and am suddenly seized by tremendous excitement and potent intentionality: "The breath of every living being shall bless thy name, O Lord our God, and the spirit of all flesh shall ever glorify and extol thee, O our King. From everlasting to everlasting thou art God. But for thee we have no King, Deliverer and Savior to rescue, redeem and give sustenance and to show mercy in all times of trouble and distress; yea, we have no Sovereign but thee".

And the Jew goes nuts. Why? Because on Shabbat, when this prayer is part of the service, I wanted it so much, I absolutely craved it, but it just didn't happen. And now, of all times, on a treadmill in shorts - suddenly it comes? That, people, is the most annoying thing about religion.

According to a sample poll I conducted, I am not alone. Other observant Jews also find it easier to connect with God while cooking, driving, shopping, even while doing the dishes, with Jewish music in the background. For just that reason I recently decided to change my approach: When the Shabbat morning prayer arrives as you're running on the treadmill Monday evening, just to flow with it. If not on Shabbat, let it at least be on Monday. Athletic prayer is fine, too.

And then, after the song ends, after the thrill of the words "Therefore, the limbs which thou has fashioned for us, and the soul which thou hast breathed into us, and the tongue which thou hast set in our mouth, lo, they shall thank, bless, exalt and revere thee. They shall proclaim thy sovereignty, O our King" - I wipe off the sweat with a towel, tuck the undershirt into the shorts - for dignity's sake - and say in my heart:

"May it be thy will that this treadmill be as important to thee as though it were my seat in the synagogue, and this iPod as though it were a prayer book, and this towel that is wrapped around my neck as though it were a tallit, and may the thrill I felt in this song be as important to thee as though it were a prayer at its time and its place."

And then I go on running.


Let me know your most surprising locale for positive tefilla experience!

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