“The Purpose of Prayer?” By Adina Allen

Posted on January 15th, 2011 | Filed under InterViews, On Campus

As rabbinical students, from the moment we announce to our friends and family our plans to begin training for the rabbinate and likely even before, we are called upon to lead all types of prayer experiences for our community. Throughout rabbinical school most internships and work experiences that we take include facilitating prayer as a primary part of the job. To me, it feels essential that as we train and develop as leaders of prayer that we devote equal attention to sitting in the midst of our own struggles and questions and continually ask ourselves: what is the purpose of our prayer?

Just into our first semester of school our community may already be looking to us to play a rabbinic role and we want to live up to their, and our own, expectations. The jobs we are being offered, on the whole, are not asking us to come sit with a group of folks and talk about how confusing or complicated our personal prayer life is. They want us, understandably, to decode the basic outline of a Shabbat prayer service, or to teach new tunes for the holiday liturgy, or perhaps to look at the meaning of certain central prayers.

I have found for myself that it can become all too easy to slip into the role of leader and facilitator without fully allowing myself the space or giving myself the permission to be in the not knowing. And though the job opportunities may not include this in their descriptions, the place not knowing, at least with regards to prayer, is where most people reside. It’s useful and important to learn the skills—the pronunciation, tunes, choreography, nusach (traditional melodies)—but to evolve a deep and authentic prayer life we also need to continually asking ourselves: why? Not only do we need to sit with those questions to experience prayer in a true and rich way for ourselves, but also so we can relate honestly and compassionately with those who will be looking to us for leadership and guidance.

This past semester at school we tried something new. In addition to gathering as a whole community twice a week in the morning before school for prayer, we added a component called Tefilah (or Prayer) Groups. Each Thursday after our communal prayer experience we gathered in small groups of about 10 students and one faculty member. In these groups we had the opportunity to process, investigate, question, and uncover our relationship to prayer as guided by the prompts of our faculty member and the probing questions of our fellow students.

Our tefillah group, lead by my teacher and mentor Rabbi Ebn Leader, explored the large and perpetually-present questions of prayer. We looked at our conceptions of Gd and asked the question: where is Gd in my prayer? Through our discussions I became more cognizant of the fact that I regularly go through a week of participating in prayer without really bringing Gd into my consciousness. The systems we’ve designed to connect to the Force of the Universe are powerful and have been honed and molded over centuries, but it’s the quality of attention that we bring into these modes that makes them work for us or not.

A powerful question that we asked during our sessions and the one that took central stage in many of our discussions was: what is my goal in tefillah? It seems like such a simple and uncomplicated question in many ways but asking it has helped me to clarify what it is I am looking to get out of a prayer experience. Do I aim to feel gratitude, to worship Gd, to connect to community, to go inward, to sit with sadness, to repent, to feel myself in relation to the grandeur of the universe, to find a place of deep meaning within the Hebrew words, to feel comfort, to gain strength?

I learned that it was not so simple to figure out what my goal was in prayer, but that when I was able to do so establishing a goal helped me to focus my attention and energy in a specific direction. It also helped to open up many more important questions. If I determined that my goal was to worship Gd, I had to then ask the questions: what is Gd and what sort of tefillah would be fitting for Gd’s worship?

Towards the end of the semester we began to look at a question I found fascinating: what role does risk play in my tefillah? Is it a positive aspect that helps challenge us and open us up? Is it a negative aspect that limits us and closes us off? Is it the essence of our prayer? Ebn described that what he sees in the majority of synagogues across America is prayer being used to comfort people and to help strengthen ideas that they already hold, or already desire to hold. At a time when we require a radical shift in consciousness in order to live more sustainably on this planet, and, ultimately, to ensure the future survival of life on Earth as we know it, our prayer needs to go beyond helping us to holdfast to our entrenched ideas. Comfort and support is important, especially during these radically changing and challenging times, but so too is risk-taking and openness, not just to adapt to change but to initiate change.

In a traditional Jewish practice one engages in prayer four or five times per day. With this amount of time, energy, and attention directed toward prayer, what is our goal, and what sort of prayer life do we imagine could serve that goal? To the extent that our prayer is about serving Gd by serving the world at large, a key aspect of our prayer must be to help us learn to risk. To step across the great divide from the known that isn’t working to the unknown that contains our future. May our prayers help us to risk releasing that which is no longer useful and to risk opening ourselves to that which we can’t yet imagine.

This article was originally published on State of Formation.

Comments are closed.