(for the Jewish month of Elul, which happens to coincide pretty perfectly with the month of September this year, I’m going to try to blog once a day about one of the themes for the month to prepare for the upcoming Yamim Nora’im or High Holy Days. I will most likely blog in the evenings, so it will technically already be the next day in the Hebrew calendar, but I’m really going to try to keep up with this! you can pop on over to originator Rabbi Phyllis Sommer’s blog for more details about this project.)
growing up in a very Protestant household, I was often told about the power of prayer and the importance of doing it in order to maintain a relationship with God—as a matter of fact, my grandmother still “talks to God” every morning and every evening, and she is always asking for prayer requests! but when I started going to Catholic school, I was warned against the crutch of using rote prayers—”a Lord’s Prayer or two is good to get in the rhythm, but the true power of prayer is in letting yourself speak freely”—which seems to me a holdover from the Protestant schism.
and then I became Jewish, and my relationship with prayer had to change.
I had to unlearn the idea that repeating the words of a prayer—which we do all the time—was a cop-out and a way to not engage directly with God. I had to unlearn the idea that there is no place for communal prayer, that it’s supposed to be about our 1:1 relationship with God. I had to unlearn the concept that only prayers in my native language, which felt more comfortable/natural, were a true engagement with prayer. and, more importantly, I had to start thinking of prayer as a routine that is tied to certain times of day/occasions. (and I had to do the work of explaining all of this to my family so that they, too, could unlearn the stereotypes about prayer that might have been holding them back.)
the result has been really beautiful. when I don’t have the emotional energy to engage with God 1:1, I can still pray using the words that millions of Jews before me—and with me!—have used. when the Hebrew won’t flow out of my lips, I can hum a niggun or use the English translation in my siddur. when I’m in the reflection part of the Amidah, I can go back to my roots and take some time to talk to God casually, 1:1, in Spanish. I have the freedom to think about every decision I make and every action I take as a chance to live more Jewishly—and, therefore, a chance to worship and pray with my whole being, not just my words.
may this season inspire us all to pray with our whole beings.