The Spiritual Dynamics of Prayer
by Tamar Frankiel, Ph.D.
The month of Tishrei, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, presents a special challenge: so many prayers, so much repetition. By Yom Kippur we are ‘prayed out,’ and the Sukkot is still to come!
But this is only a special case of the eternal problem of Jewish prayer: our liturgical life, our ceremonial life – in short, our common spiritual life – is grounded in the Siddur and uses the same prayers, day in and day out, Shabbat after Shabbat. Even when we (or our denominations) make changes, it does not take long for those prayers become the new normal. At some point, we must shift our perspective, or our prayers die, that is, they have no more life for us. We say we are bored when we pray alone, and synagogue services become mere social gatherings instead of an inward journey we take together.
We have, it seems to me, only two choices: we detach from the prayers at least for a period of time, or we choose to inhabit them more deeply. I have done both, and sometimes, I admit, I have been relieved at the separation—but not for long. I love the siddur and I miss the prayers. Greater rewards have come from the other choice. A poet friend used to say, when his poetry readings didn’t get the warm reception he wanted, “When I’m not reaching people, I just have to go deeper.” So with us and prayer.
I learned much from a particular teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Holland, who used to speak of the “worlds”of prayer. He would speak of the “world of the Shema,” the “world of Hallel,”and the like. At first I thought this was just colorful language, on the verge of being enticingly kabbalistic, but then I began to understand. It was at once more mundane and more wondrous than the systems of kabbalah. Every prayer is an entry point into a world of feeling, of consciousness, that one can inhabit, just like the world that you and your family and friends create in your home, or the “workaday world” as we call it. Just as those worlds are designed and populated, then energized by experience, so are our prayers. The designers were the poets and Sages of ancient times, and they populated the prayers with carefully chosen words and phrases. The Jewish people inhabit them. But, just as, when you first visit someone’s home, it can take a while to appreciate its unique atmosphere, so we must spend time with any prayer to connect deeply to the world it portrays. We can best see this by example.
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Ahavah Rabbah, we say as we approach the central affirmation of our Jewishness, namely the Shema. This is the second and shorter of two blessings before the Shema. Please familiarize yourself again by reading this commonly used recent translation (Koren-Sacks):
A prayer of thanks for G*d’s love -- it seems straightforward. As often, however, a close look at the translation opens up more dimensions. Ahavah Rabbah does not mean “with great love,” which would be b’ahavah rabbah, but simply, Great Love. Literally, “You loved us Great Love.” As a portal, it is like a sign above the door of a storefront saying: Abundant Love – enter here! What can happen when we walk into the world of Divine love?
Another phrase meets us: Chemlah gedolah, which Rabbi Sacks translates beautifully as “surpassing compassion.” The root ch.m.l is less often used than chesed (kindness) and rachamim (mercy) but it appears in the Yom Kippur liturgy, “Have compassion on Your handiwork…” It also appears in the prayer said on waking in the morning, “Modeh ani…I thank You, living and eternal King, Who has returned my soul to me with compassion [chemlah]….” The context in both cases stresses the chasm bridged between King and human, Creator and handiwork, through compassion. When the Sages put it in our daily prayers, they added a dimension to the idea of divine love. I think the two phrases should be read in parallel:
Moreover, we soon see that the hint to the High Holy Day liturgy was not a chance occurrence. It immediately echoes again:
During the Days of Awe, the Avinu Malkenu helps us beg for forgiveness, clearing the slate from the past, and preparing a good year. Here we ask for something different: a gift that was given “to our ancestors who trusted in you,” namely, “the laws of life.” We ask that G*d’s loving compassion be manifest in guidance, teaching us the way to live – divine Father as loving Teacher.
Practice this: Close your eyes, go into your body now and feel divine love: a flowing from above, showering you with love, compassion, and trust. Your heart responds, and now you want to ask—what to ask?—only to hear words of goodness and life that will guide you today.
Then the prayer deepens—here with a more literal translation than above:
Our hearts leap up; we beg even more strongly for compassion. We want to be transformed. And how? We ask that G*d not only give us the words of guidance, but also infuse our hearts with the desire to listen and learn and then act on all those laws of life: “To hear, to learn, to teach, to be watchful and to act -- to fulfill all the words of the learning of Torah in love (b’ahavah).”
The language of the prayers becomes more physical, asking us again to feel this in our bodies: “Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah”—imagine the brightness filling your vision. “Let our hearts cling to Your commandments”—imagine your heart expanding to embrace the words of life. “Unite our hearts”—all of us now, all the people in the room where you are praying, or all those that appear in your mind’s eye—feel our hearts pounding and breathing together.
From here the prayer moves us swiftly, and somewhat unexpectedly, into a yet more expanded experience of this world:
With these words, we are suddenly lifted into another dimension, that of redemption. Love and G*d’s gracious teachings, we now realize, can bring us to holiness, so that we rise above all possible earthly “shame.” Joy and gladness emerge from love and devekut (“clinging”), as a collective experience. The prayer continues by affirming the physical redemption as well, bringing Jews back home in peace to the land of Israel. At this point, if we are wearing a tallit, we gather the four tzitziot into the left hand, representing the four corners of the earth. Again, our tradition creates a bodily symbol of the reality of which we pray.
Now the prayer closes, linking redemption and love:
From here, we proceed with exactly what the prayer has told us: affirming G*d’s Oneness through reciting the Shema. As this prayer ends with the word “love,” the Shema, after its powerful affirmation, begins with the word V’ahavta, “You shall love.” The circle is complete.
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Certainly, the themes of the Ahavah Rabbah are well known to anyone familiar with the morning liturgy: God’s love for us, and our desire to respond in kind. Once we become familiar with it, the rhythms of the Hebrew carry us through the prayer. Even so, it is a different matter to inhabit the prayer, feeling love and yearning. Leaping from there into the joy of redemption is yet another step. What is perhaps most surprising is that the words themselves often allude to our potential for a bodily experience—words like enlighten, cling, unify. Prayers, I believe, cannot be read like the morning newspaper. They have to be worked through, with mind and heart and body. Try it. Once you have worked in this way, may you find, as I did, that the experience will resonate on other days, on the many occasions you say this prayer. Inhabiting the prayer with your own body, even in an imaginal way, leaves an impression, what the mystics call a reshima, like the impress of a seal in wax. You have been shaped, ever so subtly, by the holy words, and your body is enlivened by them—and like wax, softened perhaps, to be more receptive to words of goodness and holiness in the future.
Every prayer is a portal, an entry to a unique world of its own. May your journey into this multitude of worlds be blessed.
© Copyright by Rabbi Mike Comins. You are welcome to reprint this article in your local newspaper, email list, Temple Bulletin or other communication if the following is appended: "This article is provided by the Making Prayer Real eJournal at RabbiMikeComins.com, where you will find outstanding resources on Jewish prayer."
Dr. Tamar Frankiel, Ph.D., was appointed President for Academy of Jewish Religion, California in January 2013. She previously served as Provost and Professor of Comparative Religion. Dr. Frankiel received her PhD in History of Religions from the University of Chicago. She has taught at Claremont School of Theology, Stanford and Princeton Universities, and UC Berkeley and Riverside. She is the author of four books on Jewish mysticism and spiritual practice, including The Gift of Kabbalah and Minding the Temple of the Soul, co-authored with Judy Greenfeld (both published by Jewish Lights), and one on Jewish women’s issues, The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism. She has also authored two books and numerous scholarly articles on religion in America, as well as a widely used textbook on Christianity.
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