JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review June 10, 1999 / 26 Sivan, 5759


The Changing
Face of Prayer


By Rabbi Barry Freundel


MY FATHER, though an observant man, was not very knowledgeable about Jewish sources. Nonetheless, he found many important ways to express his belief in G-d 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 make services in a synagogue somewhere near a building site that was the location of his first appointment in the morning. He could easily have prayed at home, but for him it was necessary to attend synagogue services as often as humanly possible.

Econophone Even in his seventies, my father would walk the seven 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, those are the stock and trade of our religious experiences. For his generation, prayer was much more essential.

One dramatic indicator of the change: over the years, my father went to synagogue a half an hour before the regular time for services. He did this to recite Psalms with other members of the congregation. My synagogue has recently begun an early morning activity some forty-five minutes before services, but in our case, it is study of Talmud, not the recitation of additional prayers.

There are many reasons for the decline of prayer as a 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 and around Washington will recognize.

One of the truisms of prayer is that it is a non-expedient activity. By that 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. 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.

We live in a world that very much measures all activities by productivity. It may be professional productivity, it may be personal satisfaction productivity, it may be financial gain productivity, but our standard of measurement and valuation is what we have accomplished with the time we have spent.

That is a particularly Western and materialistic view of the world and of the way that we value things. Proper prayer cannot occur against that backdrop and that measuring rod. Proper prayer is a suspension of other activity and a diminishing of material things for the sake of the spiritual and the connection with G-d.

The Talmud says, that of our three daily prayers, the one which is particularly effective in gaining response is Minchah, recited in the afternoon. Minchah is, in fact, an invention of the Jews. Many societies pray early in the morning when they first wake up to thank G-d for having gotten through the dangers of the dark and of sleep. For us, this is the prayer that we call Shacharis. So, too, many cultures pray at night , for us this is Ma'ariv. But Judaism invented the idea of midday prayer, or Minchah. When one prays in the middle of the day, one is required to put down one's work and say that his or her relationship with G-d 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 G-d.

For those who wish to develop the capacity to pray and to create a relationship with G-d through the act of speaking to Him, it is this mindset which must be developed. Prayer means the cessation of worldly activities, the realization that these are in so many ways less important than more spiritual things, and the ability to focus elsewhere than the most immediate and most expedient.

The rewards are the act itself. In the sense that I feel like 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. In my view, those who cannot experience this are lacking something important in their lives.

I'm not here talking about down-time or vacation-time. I'm talking about something that goes beyond that. For us, down-time and vacation tend to mean filling our time with other types of expedient activities that are different in behavioral content than 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 radio or CD player being on, the individual who on vacation over-programs every minute with golf or tours has not really achieved a 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 miss this state of being. It is my hope that more people will try the non-expedient prayer experience and learn to put aside all of our small concerns that torment us and fill our days minute by minute, so that a more spiritual connection with our existence can be made.

For those who need a more expedient reason, I will simply close by telling the following story. Years ago, I worked in the garment center in Manhattan. My job was the difficult 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 who I spoke to in such a position who wore a yarmulke. One of the people I often encountered in my work was a fellow who sold zippers. I would be sent to him when the order for 5000 zippers for the 5000 dresses made by the company for which I worked showed up two or three zippers short, as inevitably happened. I would be sent to this fellow's shop to pick up the shortfall.

The owner was Jewish, and noticed my yarmulke. He told me that although he had never before been observant, when his father died, he began to go to synagogue to recite Kaddish. In that context, he discovered the experience of prayer. It was his belief that because he was now coming in a little bit later 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 other 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 an expedient reason to pray. But I would say that all I have done is indicate that living a more spiritual existence and finding time where one sees beyond the petty burdens of one's day-to-day existence is by its nature a healthier way to function. Some may need to hear about the physical manifestation of their healthiness in order to give it a try, while others will understand or come to understand that the very spirituality of the experience is why it promotes health.

The health of which I speak is not just physical health, but mental and spiritual health as well.


Rabbi Barry Freundel is spiritual leader of Kesher Israel - The Georgetown Synagogue in Washington, D.C. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©1999, Rabbi Barry Freundel