Updated: Jun 27

The physical space that encloses us and our prayers is often exquisitely beautiful and majestic, speaking to a different realm entirely. The architecture alone can be uplifting and inspiring. But is that enough for us to feel transported to a place of depth and meaning? Can an attractive environment help move us (our meandering minds) to a place that is sacred and without distraction?

I have not found it to be so.

But, can't I expect more? Can't I hope that by being in this space it will help me feel that I can reach higher heights in prayer?

Instead, the formal prayer services tend to make me feel isolated---and not the kind that prompts me to feel alone in the presence of God, but the kind that makes me feel uncomfortable and self-conscious.

To make things worse, the usual tools of prayer choreography and chanting (often droning, not singing) makes meaningful prayer for me even more distant.

It turns out that I am not alone in this. In many conversations people shared that instead of spiritual transformation, they felt a spiritual emptiness while sitting in a synagogue service. Instead of feeling an uplift after engaging in prayer, they've felt a palpable void instead. They felt worse for actually having attended, because it made the lack they felt, that perhaps had been ignored, actually bubble up.

What should fill us up with contentment instead left a gaping hole of discontent.

We need to experience joy. After all, in the ideal, we are communicating with God.

I've written about a prayer experiences before, most recently in this post called "Funny, I only hear from you when you need something", and also about my experiences in an unlikely prayer space, so I guess this issue is important to me.

This yearning desire to experience more from synagogue and prayer comes from a deep space within us that longs for connection with a higher presence. And really, we shouldn't settle for any less of an experience when we enter into prayer.

Yet, most of us were not given the tools we need to be able to reach this state. Think about it...our sages, who were on such a high level spiritually, took one hour in preparatory prayers just to get ready to pray! Prayer was seen as such a holy endeavor, and it required a negation of the self, in order to be able to begin to pray.

It makes so much sense. How can we approach God if we are full of ourselves? How can we be open to experiencing something that is so 'other-worldly' if we are focused on the physical? There literally is no room for more if we can't get past our own noses.

What does this mean, negation of the self? Are we talking ego here? Freud was thousands of years in the future, and yet, we find this type of thinking existed all the way back to the source, in Torah. This idea of opening ourselves appears so often throughout the Tanakh (Torah, Prophets and Writings).

The first sentence of Bamidbar / Numbers states that the Torah was given to us in the wilderness of Sinai (1:1). An interpretation of this verse states that "anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire the wisdom of the Torah [Bemidbar Rabbah 1:7].

Later, in Devarim / Deuteronomy 5:5 we read the phrase "I stand before you and God". A mystical interpretation is that the "I", the self, is what stands between us and God, preventing us from entering into relationship.

We need to become 'ownerless', less occupied with ourselves, less focused on our own needs and thoughts of the moment in order to get to a different place. Researchers tell us that on average, we have 60,000 thoughts a day. It takes work to let those interruptions go right through us without following them around.

What we need to do is engage in learning how to pray. Preparation for prayer has the intention of helping us get past our own selves, into a realm where we can be changed by the prayer experience.

There are many wonderful educational programs that synagogues offer to help us understand the words we're saying. But we also need tools for how to actually get there.

We can't expect that we have the knowledge to do this by ourselves. It is difficult to approach prayer unless we've done some spiritual work first.

Adults need courses in meditative prayer, chanting, and how to accept silence. We also need a safe space in which to talk about our belief (or not) in God. Courses that offer technical information about the meaning of the words and the choreography of prayer are essential also.

In thinking about this more, perhaps I will begin to offer options for some of these experiences. But it needs to happen in many more places. If we are carving out any amount of time in the effort to develop a relationship with God, we should at least be equipped for a meaningful experience. It won't just happen by walking into a building, even the most beautiful.

Updated: Jun 17

Perhaps we can understand the following by examining the ways of the pendulum. In this era of constantly expanding communications (posting, tweeting, pinning, texting, and instagramming) we are also moving in the opposite direction by contracting understanding. We have more outlets for what's on our minds than ever before, yet we comprehend each other less.

Our texts and speech are peppered with so many phrases that offer little in the way of understanding, but instead our words serve the moment. When words capture too much time, we seek to defer to visuals. I am not immune to this trend. I am guilty of scrolling through endless rounded faces, looking for just the right sad face to include in a message.

As if to confirm the losing battle of communicating with words that matter, there are social media platforms which are successful with users precisely because texts, pictures and video disappear after just a few seconds.

Words used to be subservient to ideas and concepts. Now, it seems that methods of communication are subservient to ego.

I'm from the generation that used a real keyboard, a typewriter, that you loaded one precious paper at a time. You couldn't erase what you typed, so every word had to be carefully thought out beforehand. If you made a mistake, it took twice as long to remove the error as it did to type it in the first place (you used a liquid substance called "white-out" or the more advanced "correcto-tape"). Erasable paper was a huge advancement in this process. And in hindsight, perhaps erasers in general, with the ability to actually make words disappear was not the best invention.

In the Hebrew Bible / Torah, the word engraved is used to describe the way in which the Aseret HaDibrot /Ten Utterances / Ten Commandments were formed:

The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon the tablets. Exodus 32:16

וְהַ֨לֻּחֹ֔ת מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים הֵ֑מָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּ֗ב מִכְתַּ֤ב אֱלֹהִים֙ ה֔וּא חָר֖וּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹֽת

This is a beautiful teaching. According to Torah, words are not just words, but permanent statements of an everlasting bond. Words are more than just letters and inherently have substance (in Hebrew, davar means both word and thing).

We have lost our way with our speech, for which there are more laws about in the Torah than any other. Think about that for a minute. The idea that you could destroy a person with your tongue, was recognized thousands of years ago as a deep sin and betrayal.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue. Proverbs / Mishlei 18:21
You must not carry false rumors... Exodus / Shemot 23:1
Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech. Psalms / Tehillim 34: 13 -14

What I'm sharing with you might not strike you as new information, but I will persist because we are living in an age where speech has simultaneously become almost irrelevant and on the other end of the spectrum, exceedingly fraught with emotion.

The charge of micro-aggression can be leveled against someone who mistakenly uses the wrong pronoun.

The golden mean is that we need to be able to control what comes out of our mouths as much as we control what goes into them.

We are bombarded with one eating plan after another, with trend upon trend regarding foods that are healthy and good to eat, but what is actually beneficial for us as well is to guard what we say. Just as eating bad food accumulates in our bodies, speaking without regard for consequences builds layers of damage to our soul. The physical toll that comes from bad habits is not evident in our bodies at first, and the same is true for our inner self, which sustains losses whenever our tongues let loose.

We need to hit the pause button to allow ourselves time to think before we speak.

We can train ourselves, in time, to change our habits. When I read stories about our great sages, masters of character development, I am brought to tears over the way they agonized over their speech and the impact it would have before even uttering a word. Surely, a slighter degree of this behavior is within our reach. We can take a few moments to see if we really need to speak in the first place.

Is what I'm about to say additive? Has someone else already said it, albeit in a different way?

Will what I am about to say elevate the conversation? Will it add some truth? Will it be uplifting to those listening?

If every word coming out of my mouth was made of a precious stone, would I easily release it?

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How tolerant are we of our own mistakes?

Do we forgive others more easily than we forgive ourselves?

Should we hold ourselves in contempt for all the times that we commit the same wrong that we promised ourselves would never happen again? You know, the times when you say to yourself "So, this is the last time...." but almost predictably, that time occurs over and over again.

Habits are hard to break, and even harder to adopt.

I recently read that it takes 90 days for a habit to develop a neuropathway in the brain, solidifying the connection to behavior. Ninety days!

Our tradition says that we cannot properly comprehend a Torah teaching unless we first make some mistakes (Talmud, Gittin, 43b). So, in order for a new understanding to take hold, it will take trial and error.

This is the slow but sure way to learn. As children, we stumbled many times before we learned to walk. Can you imagine getting angry at a child who is learning to walk and more often than not, falls down? Or losing patience for the child who is learning to ride a bicycle?

Yet, we are hard on ourselves when we seek to change our own patterns and behavior.

Making mistakes is part of the learning process, but we tolerate little in that regard.

Elsewhere, we read that even the most righteous 'fall down': "Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up, While the wicked are tripped by one misfortune" Proverbs / Mishlei (24:16)

A person beyond reproach, a tzaddik - righteous person falls seven times yet rises again, never giving up, not giving in. They are not deterred from their goal. In fact, perhaps it is the falling down that precisely enables them to continue on. Yet, it is the 'wicked' (read selfish, egotistic---or any modern word that you see fit) who cannot handle failure. The loss of perfection is just too overwhelming to continue. The temptation to be perfect by not making a mistake is itself a mistake.

So can't we find it in our own hearts to be a little kinder to ourselves? A little more tolerant?

There is a beautiful comment about errors one may make while praying. If you make a mistake and start to say the wrong prayer, (e.g. the regular weekday silent prayer (Amidah) instead of the one for Shabbat), you first complete the blessing you started when you first realized your mistake, and only then do you begin the proper prayer. (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim, 268).

In other words, don't shortchange the process. Don't chastise yourself, don't blame, simply recognize the mistake for what it is, and then move forward.

What missteps will you allow yourself?

How will your choices inform your future?