My father, of blessed memory, though an observant man, was not the most knowledgeable in terms of Jewish sources. Nevertheless, he found many important ways to express his belief in God and in Judaism. Most prominent among them was his dedication to prayer.
Professionally he was a traveling salesman, selling plumbing and heating supplies throughout New Jersey. I remember him getting up at four o'clock in the morning so that he could leave our home in Brooklyn and make it to services in a synagogue somewhere near a building site that was the location of his first appointment for the day. He could easily have gotten up at six or seven and prayed at home, but for him it was necessary to attend synagogue services as often as humanly possible.
Even in his seventies, my father would walk the eight blocks to the synagogue in rain and snow on the premise that "perhaps some old man won't show up and we won't get a minyan." In that regard, he was not so much unique as he was a member of a generation for whom prayer was far more essential than it is for us today.
Our generation expresses its religiosity in dialogue. Study, analysis, lectures, reading, commentary, debate: these are the stock in trade of our religious experiences. For his generation, prayer was much more essential.
One dramatic indicator of the generational change: over the years, my father went to synagogue half an hour before the regular time for services. He did this to recite psalms with the other members of the congregation. My synagogue has recently begun an early morning activity some 45 minutes before services, but in our case, it is the study of Talmud, not the recitation of additional prayers, that brings people together at the crack of dawn. There are many reasons for the decline of prayer as the central mode of expression of our religious identity, but I want to focus on only one of them in this discussion. I do so particularly because it is one that those who live in the modern era, with its emphasis on productivity and excessively long work-days, will recognize.
One of the truisms of prayer is that it is a non-expedient activity. By this I mean that praying as long and as intensely as one likes accomplishes nothing practical, at least as far as is immediately obvious to the one involved in prayer. In essence, then, perhaps God will respond affirmatively to my prayer, (1) perhaps not, (2) but at the time that I pray, any response is almost always unseen. Even over time it is rare to see a direct correlation between a specific prayer and God's response.(3) I can spend an hour and a half in the synagogue praying with all my heart, and at the end of that time, not one thing has moved from my in-box to my out-box. Further, much of our liturgy consists of praise of God or thanks to Him,(4) not requests.
Proper prayer is a suspension of other activity and a diminishing of one's focus on material things for the sake of the spiritual and connection with God.
We live in a world that very much measures all activities by their productivity. It may be professional productivity, it may be personal-satisfaction productivity, it may be financial-gain productivity, but our standard of value is measured by what we have accomplished with the time we have spent. This is a uniquely Western and materialistic view of the world and of the way we decide whether or not things are important.
Proper prayer cannot occur against this backdrop and this measuring rod. Proper prayer is a suspension of other activity and a diminishing of one's focus on material things for the sake of the spiritual and connection with God.
The Talmud says that of our three daily prayers, the one that may be most effective in gaining a response is Minhah, recited in the afternoon.(5) Minhah is, in fact, an invention of the Jews.
Many societies pray early in the morning when they first wake up to thank God for having gotten them through the dangers of the dark and of sleep. For us, this is the prayer that we call Shaharit.
So, too, many cultures pray at night as protection against these dangers. For us this is Ma'ariv.
But Judaism invented the idea of midday prayer, or Minhah. When one prays in the middle of the day, one is required to put down one's work and say that one's relationship with God is simply more important.
This is a spiritual, anti-materialistic stance. It is also anti-expedient. It is no wonder then that the Talmud suggests that this is a prayer that may be well responded to by God.
For those who wish to develop the capacity to pray and to create a relationship with God through the act of speaking to Him, it is this mindset which must be developed. Prayer means the cessation of worldly activities. It requires the realization that they are in so many ways less important than more spiritual things. It demands the ability to focus elsewhere than only on the most immediate and most expedient.
The rewards are the act itself. In the sense and to the extent that I feel that I do not have to be a slave to my work and to my worldly pursuits, I have had an experience of empowerment and freedom that most moderns never encounter. Sadly, those who cannot experience this freedom are lacking something important in their lives.
I am not talking here about down-time or vacation-time. I'm talking about something that goes far beyond that. For us, down-time and vacation-time tend to mean filling our days with other types of expedient activities that are different in behavioral content from our professional activities, but that are not different in spiritual content. The individual who, having some brief time alone in his automobile, cannot drive without the sound of the radio or the CD player, the individual who, on vacation, over-programs every minute with golf or tours, has not achieved the transcendence of the physical implicit in the non-expedient prayer experience.
For most of us, the constant need to surround ourselves with stimulation and input means that we do not allow ourselves this transcendent state of being. Hopefully, more people will try the non-expedient prayer experience and learn to put aside all the small concerns that torment us and fill our days, minute by minute, so that a more spiritual connection with our existence can be made. It does not matter whether one is Jewish or not, observant or not, religiously connected or not. If one utters a truly heartfelt prayer, the closeness to God is real. This is explicitly stated in the Book of Psalms (6) and is recited three times a day as par of our prayers.(7) Certainly, it is easier to pray properly when one worships frequently and is used to the experience of prayer, but the possibility of real prayer exists for everyone at any and every moment.
For those who need a more expedient reason, I will close by telling the following story. Years ago, I worked in the garment center in Manhattan. My job was the strenuous task of carrying goods and clothing through the hot city streets of the July and August when I worked that job. I was the only person of the many whom I encountered in such a position who was wearing a kippah (skullcap).
One of the people I often spoke to in my work was a fellow who sold zippers. I would be sent to him whenever the order for 5,000 zippers for the 5,000 dresses being made by my company showed up two or three zippers short. In fact, this happened almost every day, which is itself a sad commentary on the business ethics of some zipper manufacturers of that time. Inevitably, I would make my way to this fellow's shop to make up the shortfall.
The owner was Jewish, and noticed my head-covering. He told me that although he had never before been observant, when his father died, he began to go to synagogue to recite Kaddish, the mourner's prayer recited for one day short of 11 months after the death of a parent.(8) In that context, he had discovered the experience of prayer. It was his belief that because he was now coming to work a little bit later each day and taking some time off in the middle of the day to pray, his stress level had gone down. As a result, his ulcers had gone away and he was much calmer and nicer in his interactions with people. Although he was making a little less money than he had previously made, he was saving that money and more in reduced medical costs.
Some would say that I have now provided a purely expedient reason to pray. But I would say that all I have done is indicate that living a more spiritual lifestyle and finding some time where one is able to see beyond the petty burdens of one's day-to-day existence, is by its very nature a healthier way to function.
There are those who may need to hear about this physical manifestation of improved health in order to be motivated to give prayer a try, while others will understand that the very spirituality of the experience is why it promotes health. The well-being that prayer brings is not just physical health, but mental and spiritual harmony as well.
1. A classic example of a very brief but successful prayer can be found in Numbers 12:13 (see Rashi ad loc., s.v. refah nah) and Berakhot 34a. See also Nachmanides, commentary to Exodus 33:7.
2. For an example of a prayer that received a negative response, see Deuteronomy 3:23-27.
3. We generally leave our prayers at the point described by the words from the Prayer for the New Month, recited on the Sabbath before the renewal of the lunar cycle, that "the wishes of our hearts be fulfilled for happiness." In other words, that god take our prayers and fulfill them in His way and in His time. Philip Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book (New York, 1949), p. 381.
4. All prayers are to begin with praise and end with thanks, Berakhot 34a. This is true of the Amidah, our central prayer, and it is also true of the general structure of the morning prayers, which begin with verses of praise (Pesukei d'Zimra) and end with Aleinu.
5. Berakhot 6b.
6. Psalm 145:18.
7. In the Ashrei prayer. Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book, pp. 57, 127 and 157.
8. Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (New York, 1969), pp. 149-175; Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish (New York, 1998).