This week's portion: a place for God

DLTI post 2: gleanings

The question is how to develop a prayerful consciousness in all that we do. This is what will feed our davenen in the long term.

Kavvanot (mindful intentions) are themselves tefilah (prayer.) They're not a prelude to prayer; they can be prayer themselves. The deeper one goes into a prayer, the less necessary it becomes to preface that prayer with extra words, since the prayers have their own kavvanot embedded. Our challenge is to lift the words off the page with intention. To pray not just the words, but the heart inside them.

Being open to lived experience means one will, from time to time, shatter. This is inevitable. But it's also what enables one to expand. (Think of a snake, shedding an old, too-tight skin.) Whatever arises in the prayer, or the prayer-leading experience, that one may not expect: that is the prayer. Wherever I'm at, I can make that the korban (offering) that brings me into the moment.

Phrased another way: as the poet Jason Shinder taught me years ago, "whatever gets in the way of the work / is the work."

Shacharit (morning prayer) begins with p'sukey d'zimra, a selection of psalms and songs to warm us up. Then the bar'chu, the call to prayer, moves us into the first formal part of the service. Just before that shift, we close p'sukey d'zimra with yishtabach -- and at that point the nusach modulates to a different kind of minor, a way to tell us in our bones that we're about to go someplace new.

Yishtabach includes a list of 15 expressions conveying praise for God (which, some say, correspond to the 15 songs of ascent attributed to David), and it's easy for those words to become a kind of laundry list, chanted speedily and without mindfulness. Don't let this happen. Don't let it be like saying "milk, bread, tofu, spinach" -- this isn't a list of groceries to buy or things to do, it's an articulation of praise. These are real words about God. Find a way to really mean them.

In the story of Jacob's dream about the ladder (Genesis 28:12), we read that the ladder was rooted deep in the earth and tickled the very heavens, and that he saw angels ascending and descending upon it. The tradition asks, what kind of angels are these which ascend before they descend? This suggests, after all, that they're starting out here, among us.

One answer is that these angels are born of our prayers. They begin here; they ascend; and when they return down again they bring God's love and compassion with them. When longing goes forth, it stimulates a response -- as any nursing mother so intimately knows.

And what is the ladder? For us it may be the matbeah tefilah, the deep structure of the liturgy. On these rungs we can ascend and descend, and though we return to ordinary consciousness at the end of the experience, we can strive to end just a little bit higher than we began.

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