As part of my
midlife crisis exploration of Jewish learning, I have been pushing myself to attend weekday tefillah at least three times a week. I have begun this task from a place of almost painful ignorance. My children are more fluent in the prayer than I am (and take it for granted, as children do), but I am determined to better myself. Not for nothing is my first child named Akiva. I am discovering day by day – sometimes minute by minute – the ferocity and love that are required for lifelong learning.
Most days I go to the davening at Hebrew College, for convenience, variety, and familiarization with the Rabbinical School community. The tefillah there is a laboratory for the students to try things, which means I get to taste a lot of different flavors.
One flavor this week was thoroughly unique for me, and I find that I am still churning, much later. When I entered the room, the chairs were pushed back, leaving a large space at the center of the room for standing prayer. There were a few chairs around the edges of the room, but we were clearly meant to stand throughout, to the best of each person’s capacity. The davening had just begun by the time I arrived, so after I took a siddur off the shelf, I found a spot and tried to get centered, tried to feel OK.
The experiment was that everyone would simply use the time for personal tefillah. All around me were people wrapped in tefillin, in tallit, in their own prayer. Sometimes mumbling. Sometimes singing. Flipping pages.
And me? As a latecomer and one with the barest novice-level familiarity with the liturgy, I found myself feeling alienated and discouraged at first. Lost, actually. I had a siddur in my hand but I didn’t know where to start. Would people hear me? Would people be able to notice I was wandering from Hebrew to translation to looking out the window at the incredibly beautiful trees? Would the flipping of my pages somehow give me away as the impostor I still am?
I wanted desperately for someone to show me what page I should be on.
But also — I realized how much Rabbi Harold Kushner’s teaching that, “Jews don’t pray for, Jews pray with,” means to me. While I was surrounded by people I like, I felt in no way connected to them. Each person in that room, though we share so much, was turned inward and upward for that hour. Each person prayed at his/her/their own pace and volume. I felt so alone. I wanted to pray with.
It was the perfect prayer experience for the smartphone age: everybody absorbed in a private experience, regardless of communal surrounding.
I forced my mind to think about prayer, about using this time in service of the Holy. What would it mean to be fully in charge of my relationship to the Divine? Aren’t I already? Why aren’t I already?
And what if my service to the Divine finds its fullest expression in relationship and in community? Perhaps I am missing the Divine in that theology. If, at any given moment, it’s all about the people in the room, am I truly engaging with G-d?
I opened up the siddur and found this.
Is this the companionship I seek?
To be continued…