"What's All This Prayer Stuff About?"
Do you know how to ride a bike? Here’s how I learned: right across from the Jewish Community Center of W. Hempstead on Long Island, there used to be a Dan’s Supermarket. The huge parking lot behind it seemed to stretch forever. It was there that my training wheels were taken off. Devoted parent that she was (and is!), my mother held the back of my seat as she ran with me… and then she let go. It took a number of sessions and falls, but eventually I learned how to ride.
It still took more practice until I became a stronger bike rider; as a teen, I learned how to ride a road bike and then, how to race in college. While cycling may be one of my stronger sports, it took lots of practice and training.
So it is with prayer. While some of us grew up with Jewish prayer and feel comfortable with its rhythms, rituals, and relevance, many of us do not. In reality, it takes study and knowledge to unpack the multi-layered texts of our siddur (prayer book) and even just to become more confident in minyan.
Even for those of us who have been to minyan and can recite the words of our siddur, we often participate without grappling with the deeper meaning and structures.
In order to help both those who may feel intimidated by our weekday services and those who are more experienced, I will be presenting a newly-designed class in January and February about Jewish prayer. “What’s All This Prayer Stuff About?” will be a three-session mini-course in how Jewish liturgy works and the basics that take place in our Wolk Family Chapel in minyan, as well as anywhere else one wishes to pray.
Over the three sessions, I will present an overview of the three weekday services (morning, afternoon, and evening). We will cover the history and meaning of the services and some of the individual tefillot (prayers). I will attempt to demystify the choreography used during the service, explain why some prayers are recited silently and some out loud, and delve into why we say the prayers and what they are intended to do for us.
This course is designed both for beginners who want to feel comfortable in the service and for regular attendees who want to increase their understanding of the prayers. The concepts taught in this class are intended to enhance an appreciation of the service. And, as a bonus, since the weekday prayer services form the core of the Shabbat prayer experience, this class will provide insight into the Shabbat services as well.
By the end of the course, it is my hope that we will have a better understanding about not only what we are doing, but also why these practices evolved. Why did the author of a prayer write it and to what spiritual or emotional need or moment was s/he responding? And, most importantly, how can their ideas and words inspire us today?.
Many of us feel that, as modern people, we do not need to pray or pause in our lives. Perhaps it seems like a waste of time. But more recent studies have demonstrated the opposite: prayer and meditation can have many positive benefits—from improved memory and a more positive disposition, to helping one cope with anxiety and depression.
Prayer works on many levels: connection, collaboration, comfort, and community. Prayer connects us to the Divine whose spiritual energy is always flowing through us and the universe. We sometimes just need to pause, breathe, or stop—becoming aware of that still, small voice that is ever-present.
Prayer helps us check in with ourselves—how are we doing? Where are we meeting the mark and where are we falling a bit short? This calibration and recalibration is at the core of each daily service.
Prayer can bring comfort to a mourner in a home during shiva (the seven days of mourning after the burial of a loved one) and that continues when the mourner recites the Kaddish. In addition, we can hold someone in our hearts and in prayers when they are in need of healing.
Finally, prayer is ideally recited in a minyan (a quorum of adult Jews) in community. While we can pray alone, it is preferred, and perhaps more efficacious, to pray with others. When we come to minyan, we are not alone; we are connected to a community who share with us in a moment—be it happy or sad.
When we hold the siddur in our hands, we are holding the basic compendium of Jewish beliefs, values, and traditions. Come and join so we can find out “What’s All This Prayer Stuff About?”—unlocking the treasures of our liturgy so that we may enjoy the full experience of minyan, without the training wheels!;
Rabbi David Lerner
Note: Course dates are Sundays, Jan. 7 and 21, 9:45–11 am, and after the World Wide Wrap on Feb. 4, 10–11:15 am. Rabbi Lerner will be leading Spiritual Shaharit services on Sundays, including Jan. 7, 21, 28, and Feb. 11. In addition, on Feb. 4, Rabbis Lerner and Fel will be presenting a Lunch and Learn session for shiva minyan leaders, daveners, and gabbaim. See page 4 for more information.!