As I’ve written previously, I’m not very good at tefilla, prayer. Yes, I do know the words and can read them fluently and fluidly and with understanding, very fast if necessary, so that’s not the problem I’m referring to. I also have a deep love and appreciation for these words, how they seamlessly refer to and invoke so many deep concepts, making our thrice-daily journey one that runs the gamut of written and oral Torah. But the experience almost always remains stuck in my head, never reaching my kishkes.
It’s not a matter of accumulated discouragement in not receiving everything, or even very much of my “shopping list” of needs and wants. My expectations aren’t that high and, anyhow, I don’t think that’s actually the purpose of tefilla, although it might often be the motivator. The deep purpose of tefilla is to engage The Creator along this parameter, just as the purpose of Torah study is not to gain facts or even to generate “the halacha“, but rather to engage God along the intellectual “channel”.
My problem is to feel engaged at all, to bring the thrice-daily practice our of the mere rote mode.
There have been periods of my life when I “religiously” attended synagogue every day, and there might well be periods when I’ll do that again, but these days, I find that most synagogue environments have me engaging much less than my already unsatisfying solo efforts. I don’t like the speed davening, broken up by over-long chazzanut (musical stylings by the prayer leader). The music is rarely to my taste or style. The pace is usually too fast, followed by moments I find agonizingly slow. More than that, I feel very alone since it seems that I’m the only one in the room who’s not engaged. Sure, I say all the words, but I feel like I’m just going through the motions. It’s a struggle to put the brakes on and remain merely discouraged and not depressed.
Lately, I’ve been trying a new (for me) approach, but one that with very few exceptions would not be welcome in many synagogues (I was first exposed to this concept when, sampling the smorgasbord of traditions in Jerusalem as a new arrival, I spent a Shabbat morning at the Karlin (one of many chassidic groups) kollel and shul.) It’s usually only Shabbat, since there are no pressing obligations I’m running late on that day, but I’ve started shouting, chanting, whispering, singing, crying each word, beginning with the preliminary morning blessings, all the way through the last word of Adon Olam (a song/prayer which, in many traditional liturgies, both opens and closes the service). I make up new melodies on the spot, trying to avoid dirge-like minor keys which seem so prevalent in many shuls, also trying to avoid campfire-sounding sing-alongs which, for me, are distractions. (My terrible singing voice is only one reason this wouldn’t be welcome at most synagogues…..) I try to let the words, both in meaning and pure sound, lead me. Other moments and I’ll be chanting through the cascade of words, just letting the sound of each letter and vowel make whatever impressions they will. Other times, my focus is on the visual shape and form of each letter, letting the energy of each impact my brain through my optic nerve with little cognitive interference (i.e. interpretation) from me.
There are moments of exhilaration, moments of boredom. Moments I lose myself in a thought or a sound or a shape, moments when I rush through, waiting for another moment of inspiration. Sometimes I finish with nothing more profound than lunch on my mind, other times, quite rare, I’m overwhelmed with more thoughts and feelings than I track, let alone share. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern, no reliable, repeatable “formula” which will lead me back to an inspiring and fulfilling experience. They come, as if on their own, even though more often than not, they don’t at all.
I feel lucky and thankful that yesterday was one of the exhilarating days. Now the work begins.