Imagine if prayer was easy—if we all understood the texts and found that they expressed our innermost feelings; if talking to G-d was a perfectly natural thing to do. Here are ten thoughts to bring this dream a little closer as we head for the synagogue this High Holiday season.
1. Respect Your Point of View
People often ask, Why do we need to pray? If G-d is perfect, shouldn’t He want to do good for us whether we ask for it or not? According to the Torah, G-d handed you your life —it’s yours to lead. You have to develop your own point of view of what’s good and what’s bad and ask G-d to make it happen. The greater your own appreciation of how much good there can be in G-d’s world, the deeper and more meaningful your prayers will become.
2. Know What You Want
Most people know a lot about what they would like but they don’t necessarily know what they really want: Not a lofty dream, but a down-to-Earth value. What do you want ? Not just what would make you feel good—something you believe in deeply. Something you can be proud of that represents who you are. For many, this is the most challenging part of prayer (if you usually spend more than 5 minutes with a menu, you know what I mean). Take the time this year to discover what’s most valuable to you and be prepared to pray for it.
3. Want as Deeply as You Can
Once you have your own sense of what’s worth praying for, don’t be half-hearted about it. You get one shot at this life and its value is endless. Think often about how good things could be and develop as thoroughly as you can the desire to see it happen. The fuel that drives prayer is caring deeply about the object of your prayer. G-d responds especially to how deeply you believe in something and how invested you are. Warning: Be sure not to need it or to expect it. It’s a subtle difference, but crossing this line is emotionally unhealthy.
4. Know the Definition of a Successful Prayer
The sole purpose of prayer, according to the Torah, is not to get what we want or to serve some divine need for attention. Prayer is about defining our relationship with G-d through our investment in His world. A prayer is most successful when we feel our dependence on G-d by coming to Him for something we want, knowing He is intently listening. When we come away from such a prayer, we should know that G-d has considered our presentation and, whether He believes in this particular idea or not, we know we went to the right place.
5. Imagine G-d as Your Father, the King
If you’ve ever seen G-d, you’re in the wrong religion. In Judaism, imagining an encounter with G-d is the ultimate challenge because, as we learn in the Ten Commandments, G-d has no image. Rabbi Akiva taught us, and it has become a highlight of the High Holiday prayer, to think of G-d as “Our Father, Our King” (Avinu Malkeinu). As your father, G-d wants what’s good for you more than you do. As your King, His vision is as broad as His Kingdom and His power is immeasurably beyond yours.
6. Step into G-d’s Presence
This is practical advice that is built into the way we pray. We are taught to take three steps forward before praying and this physical aide can make all the difference. As mentioned above (#5), imagining the encounter with G-d is not easy. Before you pray, think about the fact that you are not yet in G-d’s presence. When you are ready, take three steps forward, imagining you are entering His presence and that He is, so to speak, turning His full attention to listen to you.
7. Know You Are Eternal…
When you approach G-d (and especially when you are preparing to), keep in mind the big picture. G-d does not just see you the way you are today and neither should you. Especially on the High Holidays, G-d appreciates where you fit into His whole scheme of Creation. As a member of G-d’s people, your life is more important than you can ever know. By developing a sense that you are connected to G-d’s plan, you will raise the level of your prayer beyond the mundane…
8. … But Know Your Human Needs
…but don’t imagine that life is not mundane also. The Talmud even refers to a prayer that we should find a nearby bathroom when we need one. As human beings, our needs are many and they are often maddening (Ever pray for good cell-phone reception when you happen to be entering a tunnel as an especially important call is coming in?) We are never more human than when we engage the little details of life that we wish would take care of themselves but rarely seem to. Pray for the small things along with the great ones.
9. Study the Prayers Before You Pray
One of the most oft-cited barriers to meaningful prayer is the inaccessibility of the traditional prayers themselves. There is so much there, the translations are often unclear and the themes can be hard to connect with. So why do we need them? Because (a) they are the deepest expression of our ideal relationship with G-d and (b) they save us from our own fantasies. Start by finding prayers you identify with. By learning more about them, you can deepen your appreciation of your own values. From there, study other prayers the same way and you will discover new dimensions to prayer you can grow into.
10. Don’t Obsess Over What Page to Be On
Even for those who go to synagogue regularly, the High Holiday prayers are new and sometimes hard to follow. Don’t obsess over what page everyone else is on. G-d does not grade you based on how well you kept up with the service. As the Talmud says, G-d wants you to open your heart. If you need to spend more time on one prayer than everyone else, do it. The central value of prayer is what takes place between you and G-d. Praying as a community is meant to strengthen you, not to distract you or to substitute for your own feelings.
American Jewish Spirit, Fall 2005, page 14 – 15.
Author: David Goldman