Perhaps it’s an “age thing” or maybe it just has to do with how long, regardless of age, you’ve spent engaged with Torah as a serious pursuit. I guess it’s natural when you first encounter the power of Torah to expect a magic, instantaneous transformation but many people find themselves disappointed to the point of utter despair when they learn it doesn’t work like that. Rather, it’s a gradual lifelong path of continual effort.
Many features in our tradition point to the critical value of tiny, seemingly insignificant steps. ברק השחר (barak ha-shachar), the “‘lightening” flash of dawn, עמוד השחר (amud ha-shachar), the pillar of dawn, מאיר פני המזרח (me’ir p’nei ha-mizrach), illuminating the eastern horizon and נץ החמה (neitz ha-chama), the blossom of the sun, all refer to those few moments between when the sky begins to lighten and the sun actually rises. These points of the morning are also described as enough light to be able to distinguish between purple/blue and white (to detect the string of תכלת t’cheylet in the ציצימ tzitzit) or between the blue of the sky and the green of the earth (i.e. to distinguish the horizon) or to recognize a friend from ד׳ אמות (dalet amot) 4 cubits (6-8 feet). Subtle distinctions, they become significant when we weave them into our daily mitzvot (obligations) and tefilla (prayer).
Likewise, as I wrote previously, a single drop of wine, a single touch of חסד (chesed) is all it takes to make the otherwise inflexible universe sustainable and inhabitable. Much more than that single drop, however, and our wine is ruined and the world would probably plunge into the opposite deadly extreme of chaos.
When we pray, it’s rarely healthy to expect our wishes to be instantly granted. Rather, the importance in tefilla is the thrice-daily regularity with which we offer them, the subtle differences they make in us and in the greater universe. Similarly, it’s often a shock for a beginning musician to learn that it takes, literally, thousands repetitions to actually create beautiful music! No single performance, just like no single recital of a prayer, makes that much difference. But, with hard work brilliance can result.
On the other hand, of course, in tefilla or in any other mitzva we perform, we never know just which recital or performance will create the “critical mass” for the change we hope for. This was certainly one idea behind the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l’s approach to encourage us to just add one mitzva at a time–it might, after all, be just the one that transforms all reality.
Of course, when The Creator intervenes with that natural course of event, what we call a נס (neys) miracle, such as at the Reed Sea, the change is immediately experienced. Likewise, when we read texts or prayers describing or pleading for God to reveal His Love, His Power, His Unity, the effects are also immediate, but we need to remember that these are written either from a state of נבואה (Nevuah) prophecy (which does not mean predicting the future, but, rather, the highest state of connection with God available to a human) or רוח הקודש (Ruach HaKodesh) Divine Inspiration, the second highest state of connection. Neither of these states are common; they are, according to our texts and tradition, exceedingly rare and difficult to reach, but they offer even the student who reads or makes these prayers a taste of God’s perspective. We must, however, always remember that we are not and never can be God, that His Perception, as it were, is never available to us in “real life”. We’re “doomed” or “graced”, depending on our attitude and wisdom, to the gradual path, the path of patience, hard work, repetition, frequent failure and, thank God, the opportunity to try to do better.
Perhaps this begins to answer the common complaint of why we have so many, 613, rules and regulations. Merely performing one act or refraining from another, while potentially dramatic, proved beyond the capability even of Adam, the primordial man, who spanned the distance from Earth to Heaven, was clothed in pure light and was able to see from one end of the world to the other. It’s a blessing, bracha, and a mercy, chesed, that we, ordinary humans, don’t need to have everything ride on a “single roll of the dice”. Rather, we’re granted almost endless opportunities to eventually get it right. Baruch HaShem.