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April 2014
Learning to Pray
It's slow and not easy. But that's not all.

A few nights ago, working together on Hebrew, my 15-year-old daughter and I checked the conjugation of "hitpa'el" verb forms in a grammar text. Introducing the lesson, the grammarian defined hitpa'el as the form that expresses either reflexive or reciprocal action. Thus the verb "to wear" in the simple form becomes "to dress oneself" in hitpa'el; "to write" becomes "to correspond."

Our author then went on to explain that some verbs appear in hitpa'el form even though their reflexive or reciprocal meaning is "not apparent." He gave as his sole example the verb l'hitpalel, to pray.

I guffawed, and my daughter understood why. Praying is a perfect example of both reflexive and reciprocal, an activity which involves self-reflection and dialogue at the same time.

Our author, we agreed, might be an expert in Hebrew grammar but he didn't know much about prayer.

Not that it's easy to know anything about prayer. My own difficulties in prayer over the years have included lack of fluency in Hebrew, a general difficulty of concentration, problems of faith (whom am I talking to?), a sense of boredom and a schedule that has squeezed times for prayer down and sometimes out.

So "saying" morning prayers has often been an obligation to which I assign 20 minutes and then rush out the door, or - to confess my sins fully - complete quickly in order to have time to linger over the morning paper, which provides the advantages of English, controversy, gossip and the illusion of quantifiable self-improvement.

Even though I am addressing a Jewish audience here, I note my inner hesitation to discuss praying. That's not just because prayer is private or because I fear to disturb my own fragile connection to dialogue with the Almighty by blabbing about it. In truth (and it sounds like an awful, if innocent, condemnation as I say it), I have the sense that my audience of Jews, God's people, are likely to be uninterested.

In English, after all, the word "pray" has an icky sound. A bit archaic, a bit prissy, it seems to advertise an activity serious only to those incapable of distinguishing between magical thinking and common sense. In popular culture, old ladies pray, and men who are like old ladies, such as "clergymen."

And then there's synagogue itself, the "house of prayer." If the problems inherent in prayer don't kill your taste for it, the synagogue is almost sure to. Synagogue prayer is nearly everywhere little more than rote reading of words (or talking to your friend while the rabbi reads them for you). Most synagogues demand polite audiences, not inspired dialogue with God by people wrestling with their private terrors or asking for help. No wonder attendance is down: There are better shows elsewhere.

A Chasidic tale tells that the Baal Shem Tov was once approached by an elderly chazzan, a prayer leader, who boasted that his voice was hoarse because he had "prayed before the lectern" for 40 years. "Quite right," the master told him. "But if you had prayed before the living God, you would not have become hoarse."

All of this is an old story. I rehearse it here because, of late, something has changed in my ability to pray. Because the change has happened since I've been in Israel, I'd be glad to credit the holiness of the Land itself, but - in addition - I have given myself the time to pray (and, equally important, the time to prepare for prayer) and have consequently been able to penetrate some barrier that had long been established between me and God.

Another help came from Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav, a Chasidic teacher who died in 1810, by way of a small volume called Outpouring of the Soul. (The Bratislaver Chasidim, who continue to publish Nachman's writings, have never replaced him as their rebbe. "Better," they say, "a dead rebbe who is alive than a live rebbe who is dead.")

Nachman's advice is twofold and simple. The first instruction is to concentrate one's emotion honestly in the words of prayer while at the same time using the routine words as a tool for meditation. Somehow it turns out to be possible to do both at the same time.

The second advice -- and here time becomes essential again -- is simply to spend some time each day alone, talking to God with absolute frankness in one's native language, learning to pour out complaints, requests, praises, even interesting news, as if to a dear friend with whom one felt no obstacle of thought or ego.

This is not nearly as easy as it sounds, but it has the advantage of requiring no tools beyond intention and concentration. I can't pretend to have reached any sort of higher consciousness, but sometimes now I look forward to the times of prayer, and the purpose of Jewish religious practice - an awareness of the divine infused into the everyday - does not always seem beyond reach.

Attention to my own inwardness has provided another benefit, as well. As always when one expands one's own world, one appreciates the larger dimension in others. In synagogue now, I see the worshippers, not (God forbid) as rote players at a monotonous charade, but more likely as soldiers of inwardness themselves, voyagers on their own spiritual quest.

But really, how else would one think of one's fellow Jews, pray tell?

Published January 1, 2000, on Beliefnet.com.