Jewish Prayer Keeps Me Going

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.

There are also blessings for natural wonders, large and small: for a lovely fragrance, for one-time events, for seeing a wonder of creation, and for the pleasure of Torah study.

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.

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Storm-Tossed? 10 Spiritual Stabilizers

Image: A ship on a stormy sea. (comfreak/pixabay)

I have spoken to many people who are suffering from extreme emotions right now. Some ideas for keeping your own ship on course:

  1. If you have a spiritual practice, stick with it. Go to services, or meditate, or take a walk in a peaceful place. Connect to the Holy One in whatever way works for you. Don’t say, “I’ll do it when I feel calmer.” Do it in order to feel calmer.
  2. If you have children or vulnerable people in your care, compartmentalize. As helpless as you may feel about the world, remember that the people who depend on you will find it doubly frightening if you radiate panic. Comforting others can be a tonic for a troubled heart: concentrate on making those around you feel calm and safe and you will feel calmer yourself.
  3. Do mitzvot. That is, do the good things that our tradition teaches us to do. Greet people cheerfully, honor parents, teach children, count your blessings and express gratitude for them. For more ideas about this see Living on the Mitzvah Plan.
  4. Get Enough Sleep. If falling asleep is a problem, try out a time-tested Jewish tradition, the bedtime Shema. To learn about it, check out What is the Bedtime Shema?
  5. Be Moderate with Food, Drink, and Chemicals. Chocolate, ice cream, liquor, or drugs may seem very tempting as a quick feel-better fix. Be careful about them, and if any of them have been trouble in the past, don’t invite trouble now – you already have plenty, right? Of course, if there are meds you take for health, then be sure to take them as directed and on schedule.
  6. Help someone else. Helping others can be a great way to get out of our own heads and get a little perspective on life. However, take care to fuel it with love or duty rather than anger. Focus on the person you are helping.
  7. Take time to recognize the humanity of every person you encounter. Do you know the name of the person who runs the cash register at that store you visit once a week? Take time to introduce yourself and ask their name. Then use their name. Focus on them as a person, not as an opinion. This spiritual discipline (and yes, it is a spiritual discipline) can transform your day.
  8. Bless. Take a moment to be grateful for anything that is good. You don’t need to know the Hebrew, just say, “Blessed are You, God, this weather is beautiful!” “Blessed are the hands that picked this produce and brought it to market.” “Blessed are You, God, who created friendly little dogs.” See how many things you can find to bless and for which you can express gratitude. For examples, see Blessings for Vegetables and Fruit.
  9. Pray. This may be a time to try prayer, if it is not something you’ve done before. Prayers take all sorts of forms: those blessings of thanksgiving are prayers, for instance. Another kind of prayer is petitionary prayer, and you don’t have to believe in God to do it: “Please let our country be just and safe for all.” Lift that wish up; express your hope or your fear or your anger. Let the heart of the universe, whatever you want to call it, hear what is in your heart.
  10. Breathe. In Genesis, when God creates human beings, God breathes life into them. The Hebrew word for soul is the same as the word for breath: neshamah. When I cannot be grateful for anything else, I can be grateful that the air is still moving in and out of my lungs. When I am upset, I can calm myself by breathing slowly and deeply. When I don’t know how I feel, I can often find out by noticing my breath: fast? slow? sighing? or holding? Breath is a tangible aspect of the soul.

May the Source of all Tranquility bless us with peace and wholeness, and bring peace to all the world. Amen.