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How to pray in a meaningful way




Shul most certainly is a centrepoint of Jewish communal life. Yet many get lost in the labyrinth of prayer, not understanding its flow, language, or purpose.

It’s worthwhile to reflect on meaning and purpose, which play a central role in personal and communal Jewish life. Unravelling some of the primary elements of prayer will make for a more meaningful service.

The Hebrew word for prayer is tefillah (to connect). It’s not just about chanting words, singing songs, and flipping pages, but rather a personal, transformative experience in which we dig deep and open up to reclaim our vulnerability and humanity, connecting to our creator.

You know the old joke of a Jewish granny playing with her grandchild at the beach when suddenly, a wave pulls the kid into the water. Panicked, she prays, “Hashem, please bring him back! Please let him live!” Suddenly, another wave bursts out of the ocean, setting the kid right at his bubbe’s (grandmother’s) feet. She scoops him up into a hug, then stares up to heaven, and says, “Thank you G-d, but he had a hat.”

For some, prayer is the answer when they are out of options, a magical intervention when life gets tough. However, it’s much deeper than that. With modern-day responsibilities pulling us in so many different directions, we seldom get a chance to reflect on our lives, purpose, and what’s truly important. In prayer, we can express ourselves and attempt to bring our minds, hearts, and ourselves closer to G-d in our own uniquely personal way. All the surrounding ritual is to enhance, not impede, this expression.

In many ways, praying is a battle of epic proportions between our overconfident ego and humble inner spirits, our bodies and souls. When we acknowledge our limitations, vulnerabilities, and humanity, we can recognise the divine power beyond us, and connect.

Praying is an opportune time to touch base with our soul. To do so, we need to understand what we are saying when we pray, otherwise the experience can be lacking, for as much as we are talking to G-d, we’re talking to ourselves too.

Much of our prayers are requests to G-d for personal needs, health, sustenance, and so on. Does the almighty really need our prayers to fulfil our needs? Prayer enables us to tap into our blessings, as G-d wants us to reach out and connect with our entire being.

By having personal needs, we are motivated to pray and connect regularly. Praying for our physical needs makes our connection personal, and demonstrates our commitment and belief in G-d. It engages our bodies, for which physical needs are important. We are connecting our physical selves, not just our spiritual existence, with G-d. Prayer can also create new blessings even if we aren’t deserving of them. We pray for G-d’s involvement in our regular human experience. Prayer for our personal needs is part of our desire to have a genuine relationship with G-d.

The siddur and machzor prayer books help to guide us through the process. Like a generic greeting card, they give us the right words to express ourselves. The words of prayer become our own words through our personal touch. We articulate an individualised message within the template of the prayers.

Here are some suggestions that will hopefully make your shul experience more meaningful:

  • Take time to reflect and introspect. Try to clarify (or remind yourself) what’s most important to you, and who you really want to be.
  • While reciting prayers, focus on quality rather than quantity, on depth rather than breadth. Try to ensure that at least one prayer is said with understanding, feeling, and a personal connection.
  • Don’t worry about falling behind the minyan. The page that you are on is the correct page.
  • Select a passage that you find relevant and meaningful, and linger awhile. Say the words slowly and repeatedly to yourself. Allow them to touch you. Savour the words as you open your heart to their content and message.
  • Not proficient in Hebrew? Don’t worry, G-d understands whatever language you speak, and can discern what’s in your heart even if you’re having a hard time expressing it.
  • As you are in shul, remember that you are joined by millions of Jews all over the world. Your presence in shul makes a powerful statement about your commitment to Judaism, and to the Jewish people.

Wishing all a shana tovah. May all your prayers be answered.

  • Rabbi Ari Kievman is the rabbi of Sandton Central Shul – Chabad Goodness & Kindness Centre.

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