Tuesday 27 May 2014

004) If You Don't Enjoy Davnening…This May Be For You

I think many people’s view of religion is that it is eighty percent prayer\study and twenty percent good deeds.

In some circles the eighty percent prayer\study is probably quite accurate. I haven't yet got the stats on the latter.

When I was in yeshivah, the morning prayers used to take about an hour and a half. One of my early teachers was a legendary man who on Shabbat would pray from 8am to 4pm.

When my children were at school, their weekday davening would take about an hour.
Walk past some shuls (on a workday) and it is not uncommon to find some of the men leaving shul at 10 or 11am, with their tallis and tefillin bags under their arms.

That’s great, but what about those who perhaps don’t feel like praying for so long?

This is for them.

I feel for those poor souls who come to shul and are so frustrated by the fact that they're almost held hostage by an inordinately long service. Look into their eyes and you will see how they cry out for some salvation, not from G-d but from the person /persons responsible for keeping them there for so long.

Usually when such people turn for help, they are told to learn about the prayers and to try find some meaning in them. They are told that with time and perseverance they will cherish their hours of prayer.

Let’s play open cards. Most good people will tell you that when it comes to davening, the longer one spends on it (within reason), the better. That is the safer option. No one will ever point fingers at you, and you may even win over some admirers. If you enjoy a slow davening, you are well within your rights. Continue to do so.

But what if you've tried and tried and still feel your eyelids getting heavier as you start to loose concentration?  Know that you are not alone.

Firstly there's that famous analogy of the wagon driver transporting diamonds through a town, having to hurry before he finds himself relieved of his assets. This is of course analogous to the davener who may have to speed up a little before he finds himself bereft of his powers of concentration.

Then there’s the Kotzker. I have read that in Kotzk they used to daven for no more than fifteen minutes on a weekday. ‘Yikes’ I thought when I read this. This has always been my secret desire but I never dared express it to anybody.

Then I read further (and take this only as literally as necessary): The Kotzker had a ‘cantor’ called Reb Hirsh. One day he had a little fire in his house (actually it burned down). It was said (actually the Kotzker said) it was because he spent too much time reciting and repeating the words; “And who by fire” as per the High Holiday prayer service. Apparently the whole congregation tried to hurry Reb Hirsh along because they knew their rebbe couldn't tolerate a drawn out service, but sadly he didn't listen. Even the rebbe’s personal assistant was heard to say; “Hirsh! Hurry! You know the rebbe does not appreciate a performance, nor a protracted service!” (Emet ve Emunah p109, par 2.)

On one level this is a crazy story. On another level it creates a space for the view that prayers do not always have to be protracted.

If you're not surfing on the waves of your prayers, you may instead be going on the equivalent of a spiritual walkabout. I have advised some people, who seemed daunted by the proposition of spending an hour every morning praying, yet wanting to put on tefillin – that they simply should not pray. They can put on tefillin, say the shema, take of the tefillin, and move on. That way they would not suffer fatigue nor run the risk of biting off more than they can chew. Sustainable Spirituality is what I call it. Once tefillin becomes a non-negotiable issue, one can slowly begin to introduce more prayers.

There is nothing worse than seeing people come to shul for a simcha or a Yom Tov, and stand outside because they can't handle a shul service. Sometimes I think we are turning people away from shul because shul is too long.

Oh yes, one more point. The Kotzker Rebbe was frum. And he understood the prayers. And he prayed with sincerity… And he still managed to do all that, without a fuss.

1 comment:

  1. I spent 7 years at a Jewish school. Each morning I attended prayers, I would have preferred kicking a soccer ball on the field with my friends. Neither myself nor any of my friends were frum but we went through the motions, we had to.

    I used to try and make sense of what we were reading or singing by reading the english translation. In my years at school I don't ever recall being taught what each prayer was about. As a teenager was I expected to make sense of the content in the same way that a middle aged man would? Shul, for me, felt like sitting through a foreign film without subtitles. It would still feel the same and I am 58 years pld.