I’ve now been praying exclusively with a minyan for almost a year. The concretized service, ideally, is conducted with a quorum of 10 men and is done three times a day. The afternoon and evening services are about 15-30 minutes, while the morning service can be substantially longer.
But why is this codified, immutable structure THE way to connect to God? Why is there a rigid system when so many of us are so different? Different temperaments, different attentional processes, different ways we connect spiritually. Why would anyone think that the generation who received this template (set by the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah in the middle of the 400s BCE) would still be appropriate for us today?
In short, why can’t I go out into the middle of the woods and meditate to find my own authentic connection to God?
If we, as human beings, were created b’tzelem Elokim (in the Image of God) that means we should have an intuitive understanding about our uniquely personal connections with God. Why would a person need external input on how to better relate to that holy part of ourselves? Especially via a traditional method that can lead to stagnancy.
Connecting with Ourselves vs Connecting with Hashem
There is a fine distinction to understand when we pursue spiritual growth. The desire to connect with one’s self vs the desire to connect with God. Don’t get me wrong, coming to a profound understanding of yourself is not only noble, it’s essential. Rabbi Noach Weinberg is quoted as saying, “If I don’t know myself, I don’t know anything.” If we’re not in touch with ourselves, we are lost. Doomed to fall into the trappings of our faults, we will lack the ability to grow and change.
But even though we have the spark of the Infinite within each and everyone of us, that’s only a fragment and it’s internal. To connect to the bigger part and grow outside of our own boundaries, it would be good to seek guidance. Let’s say you are trying to connect with someone. A coworker, someone you might like to date, etc. and your attempts haven’t worked. What would be the best thing you could do? Probably talk to someone who knows them.
The generations before us had a clearer understanding of God than we could ever fathom. In the way some of us can take one look at a smart phone and know; it’s an iPhone 5S, has 64 GB of HD space, was the first model with finger print ID, and someone with one in 2018 isn’t the biggest technophile. A member of the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah from a single line of Torah could unpack tomes of wisdom and understanding. If you authentically wanted to have an understanding of God, why wouldn’t you seek their input?
Rising Up vs Pulling Down
This week’s parsha is titled Behaalotecha. On the surface it refers to God’s instructing Aharon for lighting the Menorah. But Behaalotecha’s root is the word olah, meaning to raise up or ascend. The Rabbis understand that the light from the Menorah was connected to the Oral Torah and Aharon’s lighting elevated all of Israel with it.
But I think that notion of rising up is applicable to the above duality. When a person pursues what feels natural and refines their understanding based on what is familiar, they are bringing that subject (in our case connecting with God) down to their own level. But if a person instead pursues unfamiliar and even uncomfortable territory they a much more likely to grown beyond themselves.
Though I spend time praying for my needs and wants, if it weren’t for the structure of the Shemonah Esrei, I often wouldn’t pray for unity, the return of the Temple, or the redemption of the Jewish people. Sure I know they are good things to pray about, but I must admit they’re not really on the forefront of my mind. But it’s from this structure that I go places I never would have on my own. We, especially in this generation, don’t like to praise conformity. And I’m not saying Judaism demands abandoning individuality. But it’s through a unique and authentic individual’s engagement in the format that leads to greater heights of connection.
But the repetition does become… repetitive. Three times a day, the same format over and over again. How can it not become rote? But it’s not just prayer and mitzvahs, anything habitual in life runs the risk of becoming stale. Here are some tips to keeping yourself inspired and engaged.
1. Furthering education
Torah is infinite and you can always learn deeper levels about a prayer and a mitzvah. Why do you think a person wasn’t supposed to learn Kabbalah until they were 40? It was a whole new dimension of understanding once a person had half a lifetime of study. Whatever part of prayer you’re checking out of, I guarantee there’s more to learn on the subject.
2. Practice intension
I had a teacher who talked about playing Macbeth. There is a scene where Macbeth kills Duncan that occurs off stage. But immediately after, the actor has to come back in embodying the act of having just committed murder. How does an actor deliver that line “I have done the deed” with trauma and depth? My teacher said the actor must visualize the moment off stage with such specificity that it affects them. But what about the next night? And the next? For that, the actor has to find something new, something that he didn’t imagine the night before that bubbles up their artistic interests.
It’s the same with mitzvahs and prayer. Finding something new in the text that applies to our lives today is essential. We learned this structure of service years ago, when we were different people. Finding specific intensions that resonate with us now is key.
The final step is to remember that our connection with God shouldn’t end when we leave shul. All the things we pray for in the Shemoneh Esrei are ideas we should be contemplating and practicing throughout our day. Do I really believe God is going to forgive me when I asked for atonement? If I’m supposed to emulate God maybe I should forgive the guy who cut me off. If I’ve prayed to God for money, why am I still so stressed? Can I actually trust God will answer my prayers?
If we’re only cultivating our connection to God during Shachris, Mincha, and Maariv, we’re missing a big piece of the puzzle. It’s when we take the ideas that we pray for and live with the belief that God will answer them, then it can transform the whole day. It’s at that point we go from talking the talk to walking the walk and our bruchas morph from something we ask for into something we embody. And that’s what connection with God is really all about.