One of the earliest things I read about Orthodox prayer was a humorous story about a prayerbook in which a non-religious Jew had marked which prayers were said aloud, and next to the other passages, “mumble.”
I rarely reach a high madrega of spirituality when reciting prayers out of the siddur. I stumble over the Hebrew, often resorting to the English, reading bits and pieces of psalms and never finishing anything but the major portions (e.g. the bracketing psalms of Pesukei D’Zimra, the Shema, the Shmoneh Esreh) in order to keep up with the community. This used to bother me, but over time I’ve made my peace with it.
When I first began to pray from the siddur, I prayed alone, rarely going to shul except for Shabbat. This allowed me sufficient time to learn the prayers, reading parts in Hebrew, then switching to English when I’d had enough, and developing a rhythm to my prayer. This made communal prayer more comfortable for me (though it still took me two years to learn Anim Zemirot), but I still had to pray faster than I was really comfortable with in order to keep up, and did not always understand what I was saying.
To someone who didn’t grow up with this style of prayer, this seems odd and even disturbing. What meaning could my prayer possibly have if I didn’t finish prayers and didn’t always know what I was saying? I struggled with this for some time, but given that shul on Shabbat morning in Newton was two and a half hours long (and sometimes longer), I had plenty of time to contemplate it.
Here’s what I decided. The ideal is for me to know what I’m saying. This means learning more Hebrew (which I have since making aliyah) and thinking about the words, stopping praying whenever I find a phrase I want to chew on for a while. I just let everyone continue, and join back in when I’m done my thinking. (The better I know the prayer service, the easier it is to join back in. Otherwise I have to wait until everyone gets to something I recognize, which is also fine.) I’m sure some people would say that I have to pray everything, but since I’m supposed to come back and pray exactly the same prayers again tomorrow, I feel less pressure to do this.
But even if I don’t always know what I’m saying, when I know the words well enough to say them with a rhythm, that too has value for me. It’s the meditative aspect of prayer that I enjoy, and for that I don’t mind letting the words wash over me without paying too much attention to any of them. Sometimes one word will stick in my head, or a phrase, but if I’m not in the mood to study it too closely, I’ll enjoy its sound instead and let it sweep me along. Sometimes prayer can just be a warm bath instead of a two-mile run. (At some point most converts and ba’alei teshuva learn that the word for prayer, l’hitpalel, is reflexive, suggesting that the act of prayer is also reflexive—a looking inward, a cheshbon nefesh—primarily benefiting the one who is praying.)
A Christian friend of mine once lamented that Christianity does not have fixed daily prayer as Judaism does. The exercise of centering oneself, especially before the start of one’s day, is not dissimilar from meditation. (I have heard that research actually shows a similarity between the slowing heart rate of someone meditating and someone davening.) In addition to the physical and health benefits, I am in awe of the idea of beginning the day with a reminder of how special we are as Jews, of how Hashem saved us from slavery, of our indebtedness to Hashem for what we have, and of the things we still desire and to which we aspire.
Since having children, I have had to give up morning davening temporarily. It’s something I look forward to getting back as they get older—that and synagogue prayer. (The kids come in and drive me batty right now, so if I daven at all, it’s at home.) One thing for which I’m extremely grateful right now, however, is the fact that my neighborhood’s shul is 20 seconds from my house, so I can come and go anytime, and during the High Holidays (the prayers for which I’ve never liked) the women with young children are seated in a temporary plywood extension erected on the side of the shul, with the windows open to the shul so we can hear the prayers and shofar blowing. This year I sat there with other mothers, the smell of wood all around me, and a tree right next to my plastic Keter chair. (The extension is built around several trees that grow on that side of the shul.) I could come when I wished, daven what I wanted in a comfortable, airy atmosphere, and leave without tripping over other people or even being noticed.
I still have a long way to go with prayer in this religion, but since everything else about Judaism seems to me to be the work of a lifetime (practice, learning, Hebrew), this fits right in with all the rest.