Image: A person holds a book, hands resting on top of it. (Pixabay)
More than anything else, prayer keeps my boat afloat in turbulent times.
Jewish prayer has two major forms, public prayer and private prayer.
Public prayer keeps me going by reminding me that I’m not alone. I’m part of something much larger than myself: Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. The words of the prayers often remind me of other things, mitzvot I need to fulfill, or of my true place in the world (neither the highest nor the lowest in creation.) The ancient words are a lifeline to sanity.
Public prayer happens in the synagogue or sometimes in the home, very occasionally other places. It involves minyan or a family. It generally is composed of words that are familiar in their repetition.
In the synagogue, there will usually be Shabbat services on Friday evening and Saturday morning. Most synagogues offer services at that time. Some offer weekday prayers as well: Morning prayers called shacharit (dawn), and evening prayers called Ma’ariv (west). There is also an afternoon prayer service called Minchah, which may be said anytime from noon but which in practice is often said immediately before the evening prayers.
If I can’t get to synagogue, I can say the prayers at home in the spirit of saying them with my congregation. Even if my own Temple Sinai doesn’t have a morning service on Wednesday mornings, I can read the shacharit service and know that there are other Jews, somewhere in my time zone, who are saying it too.
In the home, there are prayers before and after meals, and holiday observances like the Passover seder or the prayers for lighting Chanukah candles. I call those “public prayers” because they are usually said with a group of people.
Elsewhere, there are prayers that are said in a funeral chapel or at a graveside, as part of the funeral service. There may also be prayers at a public event, but those are usually said by one person with everyone chiming in after with “Amen!”
For suggestions about how to approach Jewish public prayer and get something out of it, read New to Jewish Prayer? Nine Tips for Beginners.
Private prayer includes both individuals reciting familiar prayers, and spontaneous prayer.
Before I eat a bagel, I quickly say the blessing for bread. I may not think about the words, but it is a pause to appreciate the fact that I have a bagel, and that this little piece of bread comes to my hand as the result of a series of miracles. Other things I ingest have their own blessings: vegetables and fruit, and even a glass of water. The Jewish Virtual Library offers a one-page introduction to kinds of food and their blessings.
Saying each of these blessings slows me down and invites me to pay attention, either to the words of the blessing or, better, to the experience for which I am blessing. Without them, I am more apt to rush through life “sightless among miracles” as Rabbi Chaim Stern, z”l wrote. The blessings are speed bumps, slowing me down to smell the roses.
I say the prayer Modah Ani when I wake up, giving thanks for the fact that I woke up. I say the morning blessings, either publicly or privately, and they walk me through the miracles of beginning my day.
Sometimes prayer is simply silence. Someone might call that “meditation” but I like to think of it as listening. I sit quietly and let the thoughts running through my mind run themselves out. When I finally get to silence, it feels like sitting in the presence of the Holy One.
At the close of day, I say the Bedtime Shema, another reminder that I am not alone in the world, that my interactions and relationships with others are important. It also helps me release the day and settle down for night.
You may be wondering about now, how I manage to get anything done, with all this praying! Some of it happens in a mumble, between one moment and the next. Some of it is imperfectly done, too – I strive to say all my prayers every day, but I am an imperfect person and sometimes they don’t get said or done. What prayer DOES impede is mischief: if I’m doing all the mitzvot I’m supposed to, including prayer, I don’t have time for gossip or resentment or nonsense!
Ideally we bring our imperfect selves to prayer and we become better people – that’s the goal. Praying reminds me of the person I wish to become, and points me down the road to becoming that person. It kicks me in the pants, reminding me of mitzvot I’ve not yet done. In happy times, it insures that I don’t overlook the good in the world. In upsetting times, it readies me for challenges, and steadies my resolve. Prayer keeps me going in times like these.