Making God present: protecting human rights
A prayer before departing this life

A short teaching from Reb Zalman on how prayer can change our minds

Prayer"There is a mantra in our heads which says to us that we are no good and we need to change."

"Like erasing a tape by using a high pitched sound, beyond audibility, which then allows the new stuff to be recorded, we need a newer, more positive mantra so that we can change how we think about ourselves."

"This is what davvenen / prayer is for."

-- Reb Zalman, in A Guide for Starting Your New Incarnation
(available as a pdf download from the ALEPH Canada store.)


"There is a mantra in our heads which says to us that we are no good." Who among us hasn't heard that voice? Sometimes I associate that voice with the voice our sages called the yetzer ha-ra, the "bad inclination."

In the traditional understanding, each of us has a good inclination and a bad inclination. For our sages the bad inclination and the good inclination are always inevitably bound up together. We need both of them. (There's a great midrash about how the rabbis once managed to imprison the yetzer ha-ra and for three days, until it was freed, no eggs were laid throughout the land. Without the tension between our impulses, between good and bad, there's no fruitfulness, no generativity.) But one of the ways I've experienced my own yetzer ha-ra is as the voice of excessive internal critique.

Sometimes that critique is productive and nudges me to do better, in which case I should listen to it. Other times it just makes me feel lousy, in which case I should ignore it. The challenge is discerning which times are which! I remember talking in rabbinic school with my friend (now Rabbi) Simcha Daniel Burstyn about how the yetzer ha-ra is the voice which whispers to us that we don't have time to daven properly, with full intention, so we might as well not even try. It makes the perfect into the enemy of the good. The way to triumph over it is to plough ahead and engage in our practice, even if we know we're not going to do it with perfect full heart and perfect focus and perfect everything. Even if we know we aren't going to be perfect.

We were talking about davenen, but it could as easily apply to other practices: meditation, yoga, exercise, volunteer work, spending time with one's family. It's so easy to slip into feeling as though, if we can't do something 100% the way we wish we could, then we might as well not try. I still work at noticing that pattern; recognizing it for what it is, without judgement; and then letting it go. Maybe this is why I gravitate toward Reb Zalman's idea that the tape of negativity can be erased (or at least mitigated) through the use of a new mantra which will overwrite the old one -- and that davenen, prayer, is our tradition's primary tool for doing that work.

Davenen is a Yiddish word. In Hebrew, we have two words which mean prayer. One of them is avodah, service. The priests of old performed the service of the sacrifices; in our day we engage in avodah she-ba-lev, the service of the heart, when we offer up our words. And the other word is tefilah, which comes from l'hitpallel, which means to discern or to judge. When we pray, we serve something greater than ourselves; we reaffirm for ourselves that we did not create everything around us, that we are not the center of the universe, that there are reasons to offer thanks and praise. And through our practice of prayer, we can discern things about ourselves. What speaks to you in a particular prayer today may not speak to you next week. There will be days when the prayers feel alive and sparkling, and days when they feel rote. The words don't change, but we do.

And our practices change as our lives do. (See This is spiritual life, 2011, and especially Prayer life changes, 2010.) For me it was becoming a parent which led to that realization. My prayer life couldn't be what it was before I had a child. I was too taken-up with the details of childcare, physically and emotionally. But I learned that my prayer life could be something different, something equally beautiful and meaningful, when I embraced the kinds of praying I was uniquely able to do at that moment in my life. For others, this realization might arise because of a job change -- a move to a new place -- an unexpected illness -- any of life's curveballs. One of the hidden upsides of trying to daven with a newborn was that I figured out pretty quickly which prayers were essential to me, which prayers I absolutely had to find a way to say.

One of the things I've learned over the years is that I am healthier and happier when I articulate gratitude every morning (via modah ani and other gratitude practices), and when I pause to forgive everyone who's hurt me that day as I approach sleep (via the bedtime shema and the forgiveness prayer I so love.) The corollary which I've also learned, to my chagrin, is that when I'm in a tough emotional or spiritual place, I have trouble doing those very things. Or, perhaps it works the other way -- that when I can't access gratitude and forgiveness, that's a signal to me that something is awry and requires tending and care. Being attuned to my prayer life, and its ebbs and flows, helps me stay attuned to my own internal landscape. This is how I understand the the definitions of the verb l'hitpallel, to pray/to discern/to judge -- when I make time for prayer, I'm able to discern what's happening in my interior life.

In that same section of this booklet, Reb Zalman writes:

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav has this wonderful teaching. He says that if I want to undertake to do something good, like I want to learn, then the best way to help myself get started is to spend some time imagining what it feels like to learn.

I love this little teaching, too. If I want to experience gratitude, I can spend some time imagining what it would feel like to get there. If I want to pray with my whole heart, I can spend some time imagining what it would feel like to do that. The imagining becomes a kind of mental road map. If I've "been there before," even only in imagination, that can help me get there again.

One of the great gifts for me of being a working rabbi is that one component of my job is leading davenen. When I lead services, I have an opportunity to recite (and hopefully to feel and to mean) some of the prayers I need to be saying. But on days when I'm not leading others in prayer, my own prayer life varies wildly. Although our son is now four, it's still rare for me to give myself the spaciousness to spend a long time in solo prayer (much less to daven in community) unless I'm on retreat. But there are a few prayers I try to say every day. And sometimes when I'm driving I'll quietly sing as much of the evening service as I know by heart, harmonizing weekday nusach with the tone created by the wheels of the car.

Here's something else that strikes me about this short teaching from Reb Zalman. He says prayer is the practice designed to help us overwrite the voice in our heads -- the one which says "we're no good," and the one which says "we have to change." I think that he means both clauses. Not only the "we're no good" part, but also the "we have to change" part. Maybe practicing prayer can help us not only to discern who we most deeply are, but also to recognize that in our deepest selves, we don't need to change -- we're wonderful already, imperfections and all, just the way we are.


Photo source: my flickr photostream.