Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Prayer Experience

היום תשעה ימים שהם שבוע אחד
ושני ימים בעמר
Today is the ninth day, making one week
and two days of the omer
גבורה שבגבורה

A day of strength in a week of strength

I'm in my eleventh year of a consistent prayer practice. I showed up in the sanctuary of Beth Sholom for Shabbat services on January 1, 2000--it was the place I needed to be that day. I've been going to Shabbat morning services almost every week since then. I attended my first morning minyan at Beth Sholom in November, 2000. I was starting my meditation practice at Makor Or with the 6a sittings and then went to minyan at 7a. My meditation practice has a different schedule these days, but I remain a "minyanairre", going 3-5 days a week.

Someone once asked me, "what do you pray for? I mean, you certainly pray enough, what are you asking?" Prayer is not about asking for something. In the years that I've been following this practice, I've only seriously "asked for something" once. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer with thoughts of dying overtaking my psyche, I stood there and asked for "5 more years, 10 would be even better." (I'm 8 1/2 years removed from that moment--make your own connections :)

I look at prayer as a form of meditation, with my focus on words and chants instead of breath. It's about being in the present moment, giving up control, taking note of how I am, what I am, where I am, what surrounds me. There are days when the words just come from my heart and I need no siddur - prayerbook. But I do appreciate the structure that has been created through the centuries by our sages, and the poetry of the words they have chosen. And as I recite those words all these mornings, they seep into my being and can be a great comfort when I have no words of my own.

Through the good graces of Congregation Netivot Shalom and my good friend Edna Stewart, I have been able to attend a series of teachings with Rabbi Stuart Kelman on liturgy. I can't think of a better person to teach these classes. Rabbi Kelman has a passion for prayer--in terms of his practice and sharing his knowledge and experience with others. Along with the particular studies of specific prayers, he has given me two teachings that have been transforming for me.

The first deals with how to approach prayer. Rabbi Kelman says you ask three questions: What does the prayer say? What does the prayer mean? What does the prayer mean to me? Reflecting on those questions alone can be a form of prayer. It gives the act of prayer fluidity, for the answers change through the years and the centuries on both personal and tribal levels.

The second is to remember to cycle through different siddurim through your practice. There can come a fatigue, a boredom when using the same book for many years. Visual changes in format refreshes your view of the words, often bringing new meanings to mind. Different commentaries can uncover previously hidden nuances.

That second teaching came just as I was experiencing the boost from changing my siddur. I have recently opted to use the new Koren Siddur for prayer. I first heard of this because I receive the weekly Torah commentaries from Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, presently the Chief Rabbi Of Britain. He wrote the introduction, translation, and commentary for this siddur.

This siddur does have a radical format change. The Hebrew is on the left side, the English translation on the right. From the FAQ on the Koran Siddur website (To view the pages of the siddur on their website, click here.)

Why is the Hebrew on the left side of the Siddur and the English on the right?
This placement allows the Hebrew and English texts to align at the center of the Siddur. It enables you to move between the two languages comfortably, to find meaningful line breaks easily, and to follow page turns intuitively. This placement also creates visually pleasing pages that “breathe,” as white space flows to the margins.

I've only been using this siddur for a couple of weeks, but I imagine I will be engaged with it for a good while. No, it's not egalitarian, coming as it does from the Modern Orthodox tradition. I add and change as I see fit--something I have to do with any siddur I use. But it's given me a lift I need as I shift back into concentrating on my place in prayer rather than always making sure there is a place for everyone else. As I work to find more balance in my life, it's nice to have teachers like Rabbi Kelman and Rabbi Sacks to help me along the way.

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