Hereville and Cairo
This week's portion: the blessings of Ephraim and Menashe

Prayer life changes

Here's what I wish I had been taught about prayer: prayer life always changes.

My teacher Reb Zalman teaches -- and I agree -- that it's important to have a daily connection with God. If the word "God" is uncomfortable for you, try: a daily connection with something deep within you, or something far above you; with your highest self and your highest aspirations; with the force of change in the universe; with love; with yourself; with your community; with your ancestors; with holiness immanent in creation; with holiness which transcends creation. (As far as I'm concerned, "God" is shorthand for all of those things and more.)

There are all kinds of ways to connect with God every day: meditation, singing, blessing practice -- and, of course, prayer. The Hebrew word which means "to pray," להתפלל, comes from the root meaning to judge oneself; in that sense, classical Jewish prayer is not only liturgical but also introspective. (I know that many of y'all who read this blog are not Jewish, but hey, I'm coming from where I'm coming from -- feel free to share your own traditions' perspectives in comments.)

Most liberal Jews are most familiar with Shabbat prayer, which is primarily a communal endeavor; we gather together to celebrate the blessing of rest. But in Jewish tradition, prayer doesn't just happen on Shabbat. Shabbat prayer and festival prayer are the jewels which stand out against the backdrop of daily prayer. Daily prayer allows us to say "thank you" (as we do on Shabbat) and also to say "please" and ask for what we need (which is more of a weekday endeavor.) Daily prayer allows us to remind ourselves to notice the miracles of each day: the miracle of waking, of having a body which works (to whatever extent that is true for each of us), of encountering wisdom teachings which come from beyond ourselves.

The siddur (prayerbook) collects some of the greatest hits of Jewish prayer from the last two thousand years or so. We're a tradition which loves words, and our prayerbooks grow by accretion. One generation's innovation becomes the next generation's familiar, classic text without which no service would be complete. (You may have experienced something like this on a small scale with the Passover haggadah. In our own generation we've seen all kinds of creative additions, prayers and poems and Miriam's Cups, become elements without which a seder wouldn't feel right. The siddur is like that, but even more so.)

If you're interested in immersing in the words of the siddur, kol hakavod ("all the dignity/honor" -- or, in modern parlance, "props") to you. I can recommend several. Reb Zalman's Sh'ma is a beautiful English-language siddur aimed at introducing the newbie to daily Jewish prayer. I myself use the Koren siddur most of the time, which is available in a bilingual edition though I use a pocket-sized all-Hebrew edition. I'm also a big fan of Kol HaNeshamah, the Reconstructionist siddur, which is visually quite lovely and also contains some excellent contemporary poetry. If you want to go really deep in learning about Jewish liturgy, Rabbi Larry Hoffman has written an excellent series called My People's Prayer Book -- the volumes aren't themselves prayerbooks, but they're great for learning about the liturgy. (If you want to go really deep, I recommend DLTI.)

But here's the big thing I want you to understand: whatever it may be, your prayer life is going to change.

Prayer is an expression of who you are, where you are. Even if you stick to liturgical prayer, using the words on the page as a container for your own thoughts and aspirations, your life is going to change at one point or another, and when it does, your prayer life will change too.

Maybe you're single now: if you become partnered, your ability to immerse in your prayer practice may shift. Maybe you're childless now: if you have a child, your ability to immerse in your prayer practice will definitely shift, especially if you are the primary caregiver, doubly so if you are nursing. Maybe you have kids at home: once they're in school, or once they head off to college, your ability to immerse in your prayer practice will shift. Maybe you're caring for an elder. Maybe you are an elder. Whoever you are, whatever your circumstance, it's going to change. Go into your prayer practice knowing that. Be prepared for your prayer life to shift: that's a natural part of having a prayer life. Don't make the mistake of developing a prayer practice and then assuming that once you've developed it, you're done.

The classical Jewish tradition offers two primary paradigms for regular connection with God. One is the liturgical tradition; the other are private, personal prayers often offered in the vernacular. Historically speaking, the liturgy has been the domain of men (and the presumption has been that it is men who are commanded -- obligated -- to engage in daily liturgical prayer. A relatively recent wave of egalitarianism has changed this in the liberal Jewish world, though not everywhere.) Historically speaking, women have often spoken tkhines, personal prayers; sometimes those were written down (if you don't know Dinah Berland's Hours of Devotion, a collection of 19th-century women's tkhines translated into English, you should -- it's beautiful) and sometimes they were the spoken prayers of the heart which evaporated as soon as they were prayed.

Today our understanding of commandedness may be different from what was traditionally presumed -- maybe especially in the liberal Jewish world, where many of us are uncomfortable with the notion of being "commanded" to do anything. Women in particular may be uncomfortable with the idea of a male tradition telling us how to structure our most intimate lives. But my teachers in Jewish Renewal have taught me that the root of the word "commandment," צוה, can be creatively re-read to mean "connection." So I offer you the idea of regular prayer not as a commandment per se, but as an opportunity for connection which is open to all of us. What a mechaieh, a life-giving blessing! All of us, women and men and those who choose to live outside of gender binaries, have this opportunity for connection with God.

The other thing which has changed, for many of us, is the traditional gender paradigm which presumes that men are commanded to pray regularly but that women, being special or different or perhaps naturally "more spiritual," do not need this practice. For many of us, the claim that women are naturally more spiritual feels like a way of ignoring and discounting the work that many women have invested in developing and strengthening our spiritual lives. (It's like saying that women are "naturally" great at mothering -- some of us may be, but most of us work hard at it, and to be told that we're doing it because it's just innate may feel disrespectful, like blowing off our hard work and our daily efforts.)

I want to suggest an alternative paradigm. It's not that men "need" regular prayer and women are exempt. Rather, I want to say that over the course of anyone's spiritual life, their desire, ability, and capacity to engage in different kinds of prayer is going to shift. There have been times in my life when I relished donning tallit and tefillin and spending a luxurious hour immersed in the glorious forest of the liturgy. And there have been times in my life when all I could manage was a single modah ani l'fanecha (the daily prayer for gratitude.) There have been times when even that one line was beyond me. And this will be true for you, too -- regardless of your gender -- and if you know that, then maybe you won't be thrown for a loop when your prayer life changes.

Maybe you're only interested in one-line chants now, but one day you'll wake up and realize that you want to explore a more traditional liturgy. Maybe there will be times whem God will feel distant or hidden from you, or when you feel distant or hidden from yourself. You may experience depression, or grief, or loss. You may be overwhelmed by new circumstances. And these are natural parts of life. There is no need to feel guilty for being unable to engage in any one particular form of prayer. The thing to do is to be conscious of how your life is changing, and to adapt your prayer life to the circumstances of your existence, not to bash your head and heart against a fixed prayer practice which no longer fits your needs. Don't become so attached to any one set of practices that they become the only possibility. The connection with the Infinite is what matters, not which vehicle you use to get there.

So you're thinking about a daily prayer practice, a practice of connection with (remember, this word is shorthand) God. Kol hakavod. I wish you endless blessings in this practice.

And I want to invite you to try different things. Try praying alone; try praying in community. (Try praying in a variety of different communities.) Try meditation, or chant. Try saying a one-line blessing each morning and a one-line blessing before bed, and see whether and how that changes you. Try putting on a tallit, or a tallit and tefillin, and simply sitting in silence. Try putting on your prayer gear and walking outdoors, weather permitting, speaking softly with God as you go. Try wrapping your tallit around your face so that you are entirely enfolded, and communing with God for ten minutes. And whatever works for you now, bear in mind that something different may be called-for later.

Keep your prayer practice short and manageable. How wonderful it would be to reach the end of your allotted 20 minutes and think, "but I want more!" There will be days when you won't want more; there will be days when you won't manage to pray at all. That's okay too.

There will be days when you'll recite a few morning blessings in the shower and while getting dressed, and then listen to prayers on your iPod after you've dropped your kids off at school. Days when you think prayers silently as you spread the jelly on your kids' lunch sandwiches. Days when you wonder how to pray as you walk the hospital hallways to visit a loved one. Days when you have the spacious time to go to yoga and meditation classes, and days when you barely have time to breathe in between all of your obligations. You may have a partner who wants to join you in this practice, or a partner who's allergic to the whole idea of prayer. You may yourself be allergic to the idea of prayer at one time or another. And all of that is okay. God isn't going anywhere.

Here's how I like to think about prayer. There's a saying in Talmud: "More than the calf wants to suck, the mother wants to give milk." (When I was a new nursing mother, painfully bursting with milk, I understood this saying in a whole new way.) My teacher R' Marcia Prager has taught me to understand this as a teaching about prayer, too. God is overflowing with blessings, with spiritual sustenance which can help us through whatever we may encounter. God yearns to give those blessings over. When we pray, we prime that cosmic pump; we open ourselves to receiving what God has to offer. And there may be times in our lives when we're unable to ask and unable to receive. But the blessings are still there, waiting for us.

That metaphor may not work for you. And that's fine too! You'll develop your own understanding of what prayer means. But be open to trying something a few times before you decide that it is or isn't for you. And when you enter into having a prayer practice, be ready for the possibility of being changed...even as your practice itself will change, and change again, over the course of your life.



If anyone out there wants to chat about prayer life, feel free to drop a comment or two...