R' Yoni Lavie
The congregation had already started to sing “Lecha Dodi” on Friday night when the door of the synagogue burst open and he stood there. He was a boy of about 15, wearing a colored striped shirt and flaunting a head of hair that had not seen a barber in a very long time. He passed by the shelves lined with siddurim without taking any one of them into his hands, and continued at a steady pace to the middle row of seats. He sat down heavily next to his father, who hastily handed him a hefty pile of colorful "parsha sheets", while making sure to keep a few for himself. “I managed to pick up all the sheets that you like.”
The Root of the Problem
The growing tide of parsha sheets that washes through our synagogues and serves for many of the people as an interesting occupation and a good way to while away the time spent in the synagogue is not the problem. It is merely a symptom of the problem. The root of the problem is that the alternative – that is, to sit and pray – simply does not interest the people. Many youths and adults find it very hard to get close to the prayers, to have the proper intentions, and to see this as a focus of our service to G-d and a source for enhanced spirituality.
This was also true two thousand years ago, and it is not in vain that the sages called prayer “labor of the heart” – a matter which requires labor in order to accomplish the goal. However, the matter has gained greatly in importance today, in a generation which is so strongly attached to the world of media and of social networks that prayer seems to it to be no more than a bland and boring shadow. One of the greatest difficulties that parents and educators encounter with respect to the children is this subject of prayers. In order to cope with the problems in a proper way, it is important to realize that the youths are not trying to fool us. Prayer is indeed a very challenging and difficult matter, and if we can manage to define the main focus of the difficulty, perhaps this will give us an opening to the way to cope. Perhaps we can even discover some valuable gifts that proper prayer can give us but which usually remain hidden beneath the known difficulties.
The Pitfalls along the Way (A Partial List)
(1) So, what’s new? – We live in a generation that is addicted to innovation and is full of record-holding channel-hoppers. To repeat the same words three times a day, hundreds of times a year, is something that we find hard to do.
(2) Who wrote these words? – Prayer is a personal and intimate contact between a person and his G-d. But instead of being able to speak freely and authentically, from the heart, we are instructed from the outside to recite words and appeals which were composed thousands of years ago. This makes for obvious difficulties.
(3) Plural or singular? – Large sections of the prayers are in the plural, and this makes it difficult for one who wants to express and represent his or her personal needs. “Who am I, a representative of Yisrael in the United Nations? I have enough trouble managing for myself...”
(4) “Excuse me, just what does this mean?” – It is true that the words of the prayers are in Hebrew, but many of the sentences do not make sense to us, even those of us whose native tongue is Hebrew. Here is a verse from the daily prayer for Wednesday: “Shall the seat of iniquity, which frames mischief by law, have fellowship with you?” [Tehillim 94:20]. Can somebody explain this to me?
(5) “Who cares about all this, anyway? ” – Much of the prayers involve general and future subjects (ingathering of the exiles, Mashiach, and so on), which are far removed from the burning needs of most of the people (such as problems of health, money, studies, and so on). It is hard for people to make requests about matters that don’t seem directly relevant to them here and now.
(6) “Talk to the wall...” – It is not easy to keep on speaking when you don’t see any sign of a response from the object of your speech. When we are in a phone conversation and there is a pause when the other side is quiet for too long, we stop and reach out: “Hey, are you still there?” This is just to make sure that the connection wasn’t cut off. In prayer we do all the talking, without any feedback from the other side, which would help us make sure that somebody is listening after all.
(7) Problems of faith – Many weighty questions pertaining to faith can be heard from young people and adults with respect to prayer. How does it work, anyway? Do our prayers somehow modify the will of G-d? Can it really be that He made a decree about us and then, because we applied “pressure” or “got on His nerves” He changed His mind and cancelled the decree? And what about all the respectful titles of G-d that fill the prayers, isn’t that a bit too much flattery? And what about all those heart-felt prayers that came out of us spontaneously in the past that we feel the Holy One, Blessed be He, rejected at the time, without any positive result at all?
(8) A high threshold of stimulation – We live in a generation which is used to very strong emotions. Our movies are filled with action and drama, we watch amazing and exciting musical video clips. If we just sit in front of a book with straight lines and printed words, we feel bored and insulted.
(9) Distractions – In this world of multi-texting, when we are always glued to a cellular phone that vibrates, it is very hard to concentrate on one thing and to silence all the noise and distractions that attack us all the time.
(10) The internet culture – In the microwave world, where 30 seconds is enough to achieve so much, we find it hard to make an investment in things that require an effort. But quality prayer demands of us an investment in energy and in diligence.
(11) “Wow, I haven’t seen you in a long time!” – Quite often, the time for prayer gives us an opportunity to renew old relationships after a very long time when we have not met our friends. This is true for the morning prayers of students who have not seen each other since yesterday, and even more so for Friday night prayers of adults who have not seen each other for a whole week. The temptation to share our feelings is great indeed.
Problems and Treasures
The long list above has not been presented in order to make our prayers even harder to do than they were before. Rather, its purpose is to get a better understanding of the challenges which we encounter. We should note, however, that almost every one of the above items can open up a pathway that leads to a great gift, a habit, or an important spiritual trait that prayer can teach us to appreciate. Can you see what I mean? Can you identify many treasures that lie behind all of the above problems with prayer?