This week's Haftarah: exhortations before 9 Av

Davvenen, redux

As a synonym for a human being, the Mishnah (Bava Kamma 2a) uses the name mav'eh, an unfamiliar word that the Talmud derives from the root בעה, to pray. In other words, the Talmud defines man as 'the creature that prays...' Prayer is an introspective process, a clarifying, refining process of discovering what one is, what he should be, and how to achieve the transformation.

So it is written in the introduction to the Artscroll siddur -- not my favorite variation on the siddur (I'm not crazy about the androcentric language) but an authoritative one nonetheless.

A few years ago I posted a piece called Definitions of Davvenen, exploring some of the tensions between individual and communal prayer, prayer in Hebrew and prayer in the vernacular, and whether or not "davvenen" and "prayer" can be considered synonyms. I want to revisit those same themes now. Having just spent a week in prayer, and in study of prayer, I'm thinking a lot about my prayer life and the prayer-life of my community.

In his book Paradigm Shift, Reb Zalman writes about what he calls davvenology, the art and science of davvenen. And what, he asks rhetorically, is davvenen?

Prayer (derived from the Latin precare, a synonym for the Hebrew bakashah, adirah, tzaakah, etc) is making requests for help from God. We who are in a precarious, beggarlike position, pray.

Worship is celebrative, joyous, adoring public acclamation of God as sovereign. At different times and occasions we worship in the celebration of year-cycle and life-cycle events.

Davvenen is living the liturgical life in the presence of God. It is transformative of the individual, the group, and the situation.

I love the phrase "living the liturgical life in the presence of God." Both supplication and gratitude are part of davvenen, but davvenen goes beyond either of these postures. It's a practice, one that frames our experience of time, grounding daily life in the presence of holiness.

The three Hebrew words usually translated to the English word "prayer" have different connotations. (Hebrew is, in Reb Marcia's words, a depth language. Because of how each word is linked to other words, Hebrew is densely layered with meaning.)

So what are these three words, and what do they tell us? Avodah can be translated as "work," but more accurately it means "service." In Torah it means the offerings once made at the Temple; in rabbinic times the term was re-understood as the service of the heart, offerings of ourselves which we make through prayer. Korbanot, a plural term that literally means "offerings," comes from the root which means "to draw near." That term teaches that our prayers are -- forgive the odd syntax -- our drawings-near to God. And tefilah comes from the root which means to discern. It's a reflexive verb, showing that prayer is a kind of self-discerning. Theology is not a prerequisite for Jewish prayer; we can still struggle to discern even if we're not sure What or Who we're discerning.

"Jewish prayer is a means to an end. That end is achieving an altered state of mind and, by doing so, reinforcing ourselves in resisting evil and doing good in our daily lives." (So writes Arnold Rosenberg, in Jewish Liturgy as a Spiritual System.) Regular prayer changes us in subtle ways. As my teachers taught me last week, "In prayer the light of the soul can be polished."

So how does, or should, one begin to pray?

I'm going to let you in on a big secret: you pray every day of your life without knowing it. Why don't you know that you are praying? Because you've allowed religion to define the word prayer for you. But not primarily an institutional function. It is a natural part of human existence. It is an attempt to link ourselves to the Seed of Light within.

...We shouldn't think of prayer primarily as a technique, but rather as a process, a process of seeking and growing toward the Center of ourselves...Worship, then, is an attitude, a life posture.

Those are the words of Rabbi Burt Jacobson, in an essay called "Spiritual Centering." Prayer isn't the means to an end; it embodies a personal journey toward spiritual transformation.

Traditionally Jews pray three times a day , though this isn't necessarily true in the liberal branches of the tradition. Maybe because we question the commandment/obligation paradigm, we've de-emphasized the regular practice of daily prayer...and maybe because we're not taught to engage in regular prayer, we don't think of prayer as something we should or would do on a daily basis. Many of us may only pray occasionally (at least, on a conscious level -- I do love the idea that our neshamot, our souls, are always praying, if only we were awake enough to realize it.)

But I'm realizing that when we relegate prayer to something we only do sometimes, we lose something vital and indefinable that arises precisely through the fact of regular practice. Davvenen has the potential to unlock spiritual abundance when we do it regularly, in a committed way. In this, it is not unlike poetry. During the times when I have committed to the discipline of writing a poem a day, my creativity has flourished -- as though the act of doing it regularly primed the pump for more delicious words. (In this practice I tread in the footsteps of William Stafford and David Lehman, among others.) I could say the same of my davvenen. The more I do it, the easier it becomes to continue doing it, and to see how it shapes and seasons my days.

Ten years ago, back when I was a student of a martial art, my Sensei used to teach that the purpose of karate is not fitness, or being capable of defending oneself, but rather the perfection of one's character. The same could be said about davvenen. As Reb Shawn said on our last day of the first week of DLTI, "Prayer is the cultivated practice of a conscious way of being." Amen v'amen.

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