Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi (z”l) often spoke about the time when, as a youth, he asked some elder Hasidim to share their thoughts about the inner workings of prayer. After two or three people declined to answer his questions, Rabbi Avraham Pariz offered an “inner commentary on the traditional morning prayer.” Reb Zalman describes this transformative conversation as the foundation of his own life of deep prayer. But, while R. Avraham shared a great deal, “when he came to the threshold of the silent Amidah,” R. Avraham said: “From here on is a private matter between God and me.” (As told in Reb Zalman’s book Gate to the Heart: A Manual of Contemplative Jewish Practice, p. xi)
To understand R. Avraham’s dilemma and Reb Zalman’s story, we must realize that in this context, praying from thesiddur is a practice of intimacy, of closeness with God.
Many liberal Jews recite the line from the Sh’ma, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,” without difficulty. But, in my experience, fewer Jews actually say: “I love God.” I rarely hear rabbis or educators teaching about how to cultivate a love of God. For whatever cultural, psychological, or religious reasons, liberal congregations seem to have set aside this mitzvah.
We cannot be commanded to “fall in love” as we commonly use that phrase. But we can be commanded to open ourselves to the possibility of love in practical ways. We can begin to cultivate love for God by committing ourselves to investing in the relationship and creating time for intimacy. God’s love for us may be eternal and unconditional, but our feelings of love for God may be similar to our feelings of love for people. As most married couples know, if we do not actively invest in creating and sustaining intimacy, the relationship suffers and alienation grows. To grow our love for God, we must create opportunities for intimacy with God. In the Hasidic tradition that Reb Zalman came from, this is one of the goals of tefillah.
Returning to R. Avraham’s comment about tefillah: His dilemma describes not only his personal tefillah, Reb Zalman recalls, but also one of the fundamental challenges of communal prayer.
Intimacy requires honesty. Indeed, part of the work of intimacy is accepting the level of honesty required by the relationship. Intimacy with God allows for the most radical honesty, in which the very concept of privacy or hiddenness is meaningless. “Nothing is covered from You; nothing is hidden before Your eyes.”(from the Yom Kippur Vidui prayer) Even entertaining the possibility of such transparency is a powerful practice. In my own prayer practice, I try to continuously open myself further and further to the honest presence that God’s absolute presence demands of me. God brings truth to our meetings, and I can only meet it with my attempts at honesty.
While there are many advantages to communal prayer, in this context the challenge is formidable. How does one enter the most intimate of relationships in a room full of people? The presence of a crowd surely inhibits the honesty of expression and the possibility of being fully present. This may be the context of the teaching about R. Akiva who, when praying with the community, would finish quickly and leave, but when praying alone, it was said, “A person would leave him in one corner of the room and find him in another because of his bowings and prostrations.” (Bavli, Berachot 31a) Clearly, there were aspects of R. Akiva’s prayer that he did not express in public.
But even that challenge pales in comparison to the challenge of leading the community in prayer. How do we lead a community in prayer without totally negating our own experiences of prayer? Can we live the intimacy in public rather than telling a story about the intimacy? Can we do this without being an exhibitionist? And, how do we use our intimacy to facilitate the congregation’s experience of intimacy with God without allowing our presence to intrude or dominate the congregation’s experience?
I struggle with these questions whenever I lead prayers, and I look for signs of this struggle whenever I am trying to follow another person in prayer. In myself and in others, I look for signs that a person is seeking to be transparent before God and still serve the community. It is a scary path and I, for one, often make mistakes in one direction or the other. But I come to tefillah to reach out to God, not to be safe.email print