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Understanding is not the key to meaningful prayer

07/14/2017 04:00:00 AM


I was once at a day school doing a report on the students there. It was time for the morning services and everyone began to pray in Hebrew. About halfway through the service I asked a fourteen-year-old boy if he understood what he was saying. What he said next has stuck with me to this day.

He said, "If I think about what I am saying then yes I do understand". I then asked him if prayer was meaningful for him when he was not thinking about the words. He replied, "sometime yes, sometimes no. Sometimes when I am focused on the meaning and thinking about the words it is meaningful and sometimes I just get caught up in the moment and that is meaningful".

I learned a lot that morning from that boy. First, understanding is not the key to meaningful prayer, connection is the key. Second, we cannot have meaning if we do not show up and do, and that sometimes when we show up and do we can be rewarded with a Jewish experience that is meaningful (and other times not so much).

Lastly, I hear many reasons why prayer and Judaism do not work for people. However, the reasons I am given are not always the real reasons that something is not working for someone. I often hear people do not like to pray because they do not understand the words. However, even a boy who understands all the words does not always understand or comprehend what he is saying. In fact, what I truly find is that prayer is just hard. It is hard to connect and most people have not done it enough times to feel comfortable with it. Often the presenting problem is not the underlying one. In this week's Torah portion a priest named Pinchas is rewarded for taking justice into his own hand. He kills two people who were sinning. He is even praised for it in the text. However, his actions do not really solve the problem. In fact what they probably did was just made people more crafty about not being so obvious when they sinned. I am not sure what the underlying problem was here, however, I do know that by Pinchas not taking the time to uncover it he lost the opportunity to truly fix what was happening. I hope we all remember in all of our encounters to look beneath the surface, to be curious and uncover the hidden meaning of people's actions.

It requires more work, but the payoff is enduring in a way that quick fix never will be.

Fri, August 14 2020 24 Av 5780