So What Is Prayer?
It doesn't have to be services or words, though it can be both.
It can be a feeling that God is present.
It doesn't have to include asking for anything.
It can be just awe or wonder, or a wave of affection breaking over you.
It can be like plugging into an electric current.
It can change while you're praying.
It can be surprise.
It can be... Fill in the rest from your own experience.
On Monday, I taught a lesson on tefilah to the students in our b'nei mitzvah prep program. The Hebrew word להתפלל (l'hitpallel) means "to pray;" it also means "to judge oneself / look inside oneself." Prayer, then, can be understood as a contemplative practice, a practice of looking inside.
Of course, it's other things, too. I offered a list of eleven approaches to prayer (courtesy of Steven Brown's Higher and Higher: Making Jewish Prayer Part of Us): prayer as a way of expressing feelings, as a way of making requests / bringing our desires to God, as a mode of developing / maintaining relationship with God, of articulating our fears, of connecting with our community through time and space, of sparking our sense of ethical responsibility, as a form of learning (Torah study is itself considered a form of prayer), as a self-discipline which makes one sensitive to connection with the sacred, as a way of accessing the joy of language and words, and as a mitzvah, e.g. a commandment given to us by God.
I asked my students which of the above ways of understanding prayer resonated for them, and which didn't. I was not surprised to hear that most of them found the idea of praying simply because it's commanded to be a little bit weird -- "like how reading a book for fun is fun, but reading it because a teacher told you to isn't fun anymore." Nor was I particularly surprised to hear that most of them liked the ideas of prayer being a way to articulate one's innermost feelings.
But the real a-ha moment for me came when we were talking about how making a blessing or saying a prayer can attune us to the wonders of the moment. Maybe saying a prayer, they told me, is like leaving a comment on a blog post written by God. Sometimes one just wants to hit the "like" button (as on Facebook) and give something a thumbs-up: this sunset? "Like!" This ice cream cone? "Like!" And other times, one has more to say than just the sign of approval, and that's when one might write a long comment, or post a video, to tell God thank you or to make a request or to continue the conversation in detail.
Can you imagine posting a video-prayer as a way of saying thank-you to God? I wouldn't have, until they suggested it. Moments like that one are why teaching b'nei mitzvah kids is so much fun. For every class when I wonder whether I'm getting through to them, there's a class like today, when they help me see something I thought I knew in a whole new way.