Do you daven (pray) fast or slow? Do you sometimes find that you just can’t keep up with the baal tefila (the one who is leading the service)? Let me share a deep secret with you. I often feel that way.
Let me ask another question. Do you sometimes find that you’re way ahead of the baal tefila and get somewhat bored waiting for him to catch up? I also often feel that way. And when I do, I try to go back and ponder a verse or 2 that I just recited in more depth.
One more question: “Does the Siddur—our prepared script of prayers—help or get in the way of connecting with Gd? Is there a point to sticking to a set scheduled text when we pray 3 times a day? Why can’t we just pray spontaneously when we feel like it?”
This was the famous debate during the Middle Ages between Maimonides and Nachmonides—the Rambam and the Ramban. For Nachmonides, prayer is “Gd, I need you,” and so one especially prays when one feels the need. For Maimonides, prayer is “Gd, I serve you,” and one prays when one is supposed to.
Who is right? Our tradition says in a very Jewish way: “They’re both right!” Crisis can be a powerful incentive to pray, but you need not have a crisis in your life to find Gd. Should prayer not be spontaneous? Of course! However, without a formalized prayer service and a set time to pray, we might hardly ever get around to praying.
There’s a story told about Menachem Begin who, as Prime Minister, held meetings, at times, in his home. Once a religious cabinet member asked to be excused and tucked himself into a corner to daven a speedy mincha service.
“What’s the point?” Begin asked him. “Do you think praying like that accomplishes anything?”
“Perhaps not,” the cabinet member honestly replied. “But at least I’m trying. If I keep trying 3 times a day, eventually I’ll make a profound connection. But if I never even go through the motions…I’ll never get there.”
This story has a great lesson. Even if we just go through the motions, there is a point to prayer! The more regularly we pray, the more our chances of making a connection with Gd increases! Just the vibrations of the holy letters, words and chants alone can align our bodies—if not our souls—with Gd. And when we pray, if we can muster a bit of kavana (focus and intention) in spite of the busy surroundings we may find ourselves in, we can profoundly connect with Gd.
I travel from time to time. Sometimes it becomes a real challenge to find a place and the time to daven at the prescribed times. If I’m in an airplane, the new regulations say that I must remain in my seat if I’m not using the lavatories. So if I’m on my way to Israel and the sun comes up and I won’t get there till after noon, I then put on my tallis and tefillin and daven in my seat. Sometimes, when I’m changing flights, I’ll daven in the airport. If there’s no chapel available, then I’ll do it by my seat at the gate in front of the whole world. Yes, I feel somewhat uncomfortable wearing my tallis and tefillin with the whole world staring at me, but it does make a powerful statement about me and my connection with Gd.
The story is told of 2 Chasidim. One davened with great speed. He could get through his morning prayers in minutes. The 2nd, who took a much longer time to daven, said to his friend, “When I pray, I just love the words of the prayers; they mean so much to me, that I savor each and every word. That’s why I take so long to daven.”
“Oh,” said the other. “For me it’s the other way around. When I pray, I love the words so much, that after I say each word I just can’t wait to get to the next one.”
Who’s right? Like the dispute between Nachmonides and Maimonides asking, is prayer “Gd, I need you,” or is prayer, “Gd, I serve you,” they’re both right! I think we can identify with both. Sometimes we may pray very slowly and at other times fast. It doesn’t mean either way is less meaningful.
Moses prayed for the Children Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf for 40 days. In today’s Torah reading, when his sister Miriam is stricken with tzaraat—a leprosy like disease—he offers only a short prayer of 5 words for her healing: Keyl na, r’fa na la (Please, Hashem, heal her now).
There is no set amount of time we should spend praying. What is important is that our prayers be heartfelt and meaningful. The words—whether we recite them slowly or fast—and, as I write in my book, Dancing With Gd—the music and the motions of prayer are all part of an elaborate holy dance we do with Gd. And this dance Partner is ready to dance with us at any time. It’s ironic; however, that just knowing this Partner is always ready might keep us from dancing with Gd. Let me explain.
I once came across a beautiful little book about Judaism called Choose Life! The author, Ezriel Tauber, asks us to imagine a person was told he could go into the vault at Tiffany’s and have one hour to grab all the gems he wanted: The hour begins, but since there is so much time, and he knows he can grab more than he will ever need in half the time, he decides to let himself take in the sights for just a few moments. Mirrored displays, majestic fountains, gourmet food, amusements, and interesting people surround him. There are so many beautiful sights he quickly loses himself. A half hour goes by, 40 minutes, 50 minutes, 55, 59 minutes go by, and all of a sudden he remembers: The hour, it’s almost up! As the last minute strikes he sees a gem lying around and grabs it.
He leaves the store, goes to the jeweler next door, and asks how much it is worth. The jeweler looks at the stone and says excitedly, “You want to sell this?”
“I’ll give you $100,000 dollars.”
If you were this person, how would you feel, asks Tauber? At 1st you probably would be thrilled with your good fortune. Afterwards, however, the regret would sink in. “Was I crazy?” you’ll tell yourself over and over. “If in one moment I grabbed $100,000, in one hour I could have grabbed many millions worth of stones!”
My friends, Gd is always available to hear our prayers. In fact, Kabbalah tell us He waits for us. Sometimes He waits and He waits. If we make Gd wait until we’re in crisis, we’ll miss out on so many opportunities—each one a precious gem in itself—for connection. And then we may not know how to connect with Gd when we really need Him!
My suggestion? Pray every day. Use the words of the Siddur, use your own words. Pray slowly and deliberately or pray rapidly—however you are moved to pray. As Rabbi Yehuda asked in the Midrash (Tehillim 61:2), “How long must one stand in prayer?” His answer: “Until one’s heart aches!” May our prayers reach that level.