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The Joy of Being a Beginner Again

on Friday, October 26 2012. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

In working with a particular pastor who is a great supporter of Israel, I have noticed something amazing.   While rabbis and fellow Jews are often hesitant about offering blessings or prayers in public, leaders of other religions aren’t shy or reluctant at all.  More than once in the context of a decisionthat needs to be made he has said to me, “Let’s pray.”  When describing how he came to a certain position, idea, or plan, he has said, “I was looking for inspiration and so I prayed.”  While obviously the style, content, and destination of his prayers are not in consonance with Judaism or Torah, there is something incredibly inspiring to me about his prayer.  In contrast to so many of us whose prayers seem rote, dry, and dispassionate, my friend’s prayers are spontaneous, authentic, inspired, and very real.

How can we better tap into the potential of prayer?  How can we transform our davening experience from habit and routine into a passionate experience that inspires our decisions and enthuses our lives?  There are many answers and suggestions and they cannot possibly be covered comprehensively in this small space.  However, allow me to offer two brief suggestions:

The first is simple.  If we want to have a chance at finding meaning in prayer, we need to know what we are saying.  We must begin to approach the Siddur as a sefer, rather than as a script.  A script is read, recited, memorized, and performed.  A sefer is studied, learned, analyzed, and probed.

Those of us who attended Day School were blessed with the opportunity to learn Chumash, Navi, Gemara, Ivrit, etc.  But did we ever have a class with notes, quizzes, and testsdedicated to the Siddur?  Is there a more important textbook in the history of our people than the Siddur?  Sadly, most Day School graduates will likely never open a Navi or Gemara again.  However, almost all will open the Siddur, some daily, some weekly and some only a few days a year.  And yet, while it is the most used text in the Jewish people, when it comes to study and comprehension, the Siddur is probably also the most neglected.

To their credit, our schools are working diligently to provide creative ways our children can better connect to davening and to understand the Siddur.  But what about adults?  Is it too late?  Absolutely NOT!  Firstly, there are countless books being published as commentaries on the Siddur.  I highly recommend “Rabbi Shimon Schwab on Prayer,” Rabbi Elie Munk’s “The World of Prayer,” the brand new Koren Rabbi Soloveitchik Siddur, the Koren Rabbi Sacks Siddur, and Lisa Aiken’s “The Art of Jewish Prayer,” just to name a few.

Additionally, I invite you to join us this Shabbos for a new initiative to improve our davening.  Our first “Beginner Again” Minyan, which will be a full davening with singing and spirit, and will feature introductions and explanations instead of a sermon, will take place at 9:20 AM in the BRS Social Hall.   Assuming it is a success, we hope to host this Minyan every six weeks or so with a rotation of BRS Rabbis providing insights and understandings that can carryover and improve davening on a daily basis.

My second suggestion is to come to Shul more often.  You may be thinking,: if davening is difficult, rote and routine, how will doing it in Shul make it any better?  Firstly, our environment makes a big difference. One cannot compare exercising at home alone with being pushed, motivated, and inspired by the energy and spirit at the gym.  Similarly, I can speak from personal experience when I say that davening with a Minyan provides an energy, pace, and opportunity that are not felt when davening alone.

Additionally, davening is like learning a musical instrument.   It requires repetition, practice, and consistency.  The more you play and the more you surround yourself with others who share a passion for music, the better you will be, the more inspired you will play, and the more you will enjoy and find meaning.  Come to Shul daily in the morning, the evening, or both, and you will be part of a Chevra of people who are committed to being uplifted through prayer.  There is no better way to start your day or bring it to a close than to connect with a community of people striving to grow together.   The sense of discipline and positive feeling will spill over to the entire day and improve your life – I guarantee it.

If you struggle to understand Hebrew, take a particular Tefillah and read it in English.  If you only come to Shul on Shabbos, come during the week.  If you only come in the morning, attend Mincha/Ma’ariv in the evening as well.   If we work to understand what we are saying and consistently come to Minyan in Shul, I am confident we will see prayer as an indispensable part of our lives.

Most importantly, let’s learn from my pastor friend and find meaning and purpose in prayer by adding spontaneity and passion.  If you have a difficult decision to make, take a moment and pray.  If you are looking for inspiration or help to get through a difficult day, take a moment and pray.

Make this the year you become a “Beginner Again” and approach the Siddur in a way you never have before.  Make this the year you become a “Minyanaire” and find the joy of attending Shul on a daily basis.  I look forward to seeing you there.

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