Week 6: It Takes Practice
We have arrived at Week Six of our seven-week countdown to the New Year 5777! It's almost Rosh Hashanah! If you would like to catch up with the previous teachings scroll down.
Thus far, we have focused primarily on the first theme of the season, teshuvah - repentance / return / restoration. This week, we move onto the second theme, tefillah – prayer.
Orienting ourselves to the fundamental purpose of praying allows for our prayers to take on greater meaning. Consider the following three possible purposes in prayer:
1. Rav Hirsch bridges introspection and prayer, claiming that they are essentially one in the same:
“[The Hebrew word for prayer] was originally meant to deliver an opinion about oneself, to judge oneself… to step out of active life in order to attempt to gain a true judgement about oneself, that is, about one’s ego, about one’s relationship to God and the world.”
In other words, prayer provides us with a meditative time and space wherein our truer selves and our place in the world becomes revealed to us. Perhaps this was the purpose of the meditation ritual mentioned in the Talmud which suggests that we take time before prayer to intentionally prepare and take time after to transition back to regular activities.
2. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits offers a complementary perspective:
“In its original form, prayer is not asking God for anything; it is not a request. It is a cry; an elementary outburst of woe, a spontaneous call in need; a hurt, a sorrow, given voice. It is the call of human helplessness directed to God.”
According to these first two perspectives, prayer / meditation offer human beings connection to the Divine. For Hirsch, it’s about connecting to the internal Divine spark and understanding our truest selves. For Berkovits, it’s more externally focused, offering us the comfort that comes through surrender, an acknowledgement of human helplessness amidst a huge and chaotic universe.
3. One final perspective on prayer which resonates with many Jews, especially those who are more agnostic, is the belief that Jewish prayer is actually about instilling human responsibility. Our texts teach imitatio dei – that we are to imitate God. Just as God clothed the naked, healed the sick, fed the hungry – so also must we clothe, heal, and feed.
This third perspective allows for a more detached relationship with prayer. Instead of focusing on connecting with the Divine, one might be able to scan the liturgy to understand how to be most fully human. For instance:
a. If our daily prayers praise God for protecting foreigners, widows and orphans, perhaps that can help us prioritize the social justice causes in which we choose to engage.
b. If God is called a healer or provider of peace, insight, prosperity, justice and much more during the 3x daily Amidah prayer, perhaps that can inform our daily activities as well.
Spiritual practice is literally something we must practice.
Meditation takes its fullest effect after several weeks of sustained practice. Committing to a more contrite prayer ritual builds humility only if it’s practiced over time. And seeking to understand Jewish priorities by examining the Amidah will yield additional benefits only with repetition.
This week, we challenge you to ‘try on’ one of these prayer orientations from now until Rosh Hashanah (which is the evening of Oct 2). Get into the practice. And as you’re feeling the effects of the routine, drop us a line and share what you’re learning!
**This week’s lessons in our Prep Course was inspired by Rabbi Aaron’s recent conversation with his Rebbe and thought partner, Rabbi Avi Weiss, who took the time last week to share his thoughts on the purpose of prayer. Several passages quoted above can be found in his insightful book, Holistic Prayer.
We at Hillel at UCLA would love for you to participate in prayer with us, if you are interested in performing an honor during one of our High Holy Day services please email Rachael Petru, [email protected]!