This week's portion: collaboration
Bread and soup and blessing

Notes toward a morning prayer practice

A friend emailed me recently to say that she's considering taking up the practice of davening in the mornings; she asked whether I would share a little bit about my own practices, how they've evolved, what siddur I use/recommend, etc. I started a response, and it ran long, so I thought I'd share it here in case others find it useful. The first thing I want to say is that morning prayer rocks. Every time I do it my whole day brightens. So I applaud you for considering taking it on! May it be a blessing for you.

If you're just getting started with morning davenen, start with something manageable. If you set out with the intention of davening a full morning service every day, you may discover that ordinary life doesn't easily permit that kind of sudden shift in practice, and you risk winding up discouraged when you can't live up to what you were picturing. So start small. Reb Zalman used to teach a practice called the Seven-Minute Daven, which I wrote about here. That might be a good place to start.

In my own practice, sometimes I pray silently. Sometimes I sing aloud. At minimum I aim to recite the shema (and her blessings) and the amidah, since in my understanding those are the prayers required in order for one to be yotzei (to have fulfilled the obligation to pray.) In season, I like to daven outdoors; sometimes when my day is really crunched I even daven in the car. (I have a good recording of the full morning service -- Hazzan Jack Kessler's Learn to Daven! -- with which I can sing along, though I've also been known to just sing the parts of the prayers I know by heart.) And, of course, once a week I daven with dear friends over the phone.

When I was first starting to develop my prayer practice I used Kol Haneshama, the Reconstructionist prayerbook. It has good translations and good poetry. Reb Zalman has also a spiral-bound all-English siddur for weekday davenen, available through the ALEPH store, which is quite lovely. These days I use the Koren siddur, which is all-Hebrew. If you have the luxury of being able to browse actual siddurim on a shelf somewhere before you choose your siddur, it's worth taking a few minutes to do so. But specific suggestions aside, what's important here is that the siddur feel user-friendly to you. And don't become so attached to the siddur, or so hung-up on the choice of siddur, that you lose sight of the prayers of your own heart.

Okay, now I'm going to get a little bit far-out. One of my favorite Renewal teachings is the idea that our davenen is a journey through the Four Worlds.

We start out in the world of assiyah, physicality, with birchot ha-shachar -- blessings of gratitude, blessings for the body and the soul, blessings for Torah. I know folks who do some yoga and some stretching during this part of the service, as a way to wake the body up. (For me, laying tefillin is part of how I embody my prayer. If this interests you but you don't feel able to afford a set, there are nonprofits which make tefillin available either very cheaply or for free -- check out the tefillin library at Maqom, for instance. Wrapping oneself in a tallit is also a good way to bring the body into the experience of prayer.) The basic element of this part of the service is a set of 15 one-liner blessings, mostly blessings of gratitude. This is a great place for creativity, if you're so inclined -- after saying a few of these basic blessings, you can freestyle a few of your own.

Then comes the world of yetzirah, emotions, which is where we're at during Psukei D'zimrah, the collection of psalms that the rabbis tacked on to the beginning of the service so we could ramp up slowly toward prayer's spiritual heights. Sometimes I read a couple of psalms here, or sing them. Sometimes I read poems. Sometimes I sing one-line chants that arise out of psalms. Sometimes I just sing one psalm and then move on -- weekday prayer is supposed to be short & sweet, after all. (On Shabbat, there's time to linger; weekdays have a different energy. Usually my weekday morning prayer lasts about 30 minutes.) The prayer yishtabach marks the transition from the end of this part of the service into the next. Recite it in whatever language works for you, and see how it feels to savor that list of praise-words one by one.

Then we move into the world of briyah, the intellect, which is the world we inhabit during the shema and her blessings. (Yotzer or, the blessing for light; ahava raba, the blessing for love; the shema; and then the geu'lah blessing for redemption.) This is a time to focus on consciousness, to be aware of patterns and meaning. You might read or chant or meditate on the full text of the shema here. You might contemplate light and love and redemption, what those words and ideas mean to you as you begin this day.

Then comes the amidah, which arises in the world of atzilut, the world of essence. The weekday amidah is really cool; I'm working on memorizing it, though it's slow going. That said, there's also an abbreviated version in some siddurim, meant for those who are in a rush or those whose Hebrew doesn't permit a comfortable recitation of all 19 blessings. (Kol Haneshamah has a lovely version of this shortened amidah; I used to daven it when I was working at the hospital, where my time always felt constrained.) Alternately, my teacher R' Marcia Prager has produced a set of Amidah Cards which feature beautiful images and meditation suggestions that go with each of the 19 brachot. You might try her cards as meditation aids. Or, just stand before God and use this as your own time for personal prayer.

If you end with the amidah, you're technically all set, though it's useful to ramp down in some way. Sing a song, read a poem, daven the aleinu, say thanks to God for the time together, whatever. I use the time I spend literally unwinding (tefillin and tallit) as a way of pulling away from prayer-space and returning to ordinary-life-space.

All in all: do what's possible for you. If you can't maintain the focus you want, cut yourself some slack and be okay with where you're at. (A dear friend of mine has helped me realize this year that the voice in my head which whispers "you don't really have time to pray properly... you're distracted... skip it and try again another day when you're more focused!" is the yetzer ha-ra, the voice of constricted consciousness, and not a voice to which I want to listen. So I'm working on not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.) Be willing to experiment until you find a practice that works for you -- and be open to the possibility that your needs might shift over time as morning prayer, of one kind or another, becomes part of your practice. May you go from strength to strength!


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