Prayer as a Way of Being

Beyond services and synagogue, the challenge of living a prayerful life

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The author begins the following article with the observation that prayer is not one of the mitzvot (commandments), by which he means that saying particular prayers at particular times prayer was a mitzvah instituted by the talmudic-era Rabbis rather than from the Torah. He goes on from there to explore what it means to truly live a life of prayer. Reprinted with permission from A Book of Life (Schocken Books).

It is striking that prayer is not a mitzvah according to most rabbinic authorities. One could say that there is no mitzvah to pray because none is necessary, prayer is a natural impulse. Or because prayer is beyond the system of mitzvot, it is not something to be done only at specific times and with specific words. Rather, prayer is a way of being.

"How many tefillot [prayers] is one required to utter every day? Our mas­ters taught: One is to utter no more than the three tefillot, which the fathers of the world ordained. David came and specified the times: 'Evening, morn, and noon" (Psalm 55:18). Hence, one is not permit­ted to utter more than three tefillahs a day. However, R. Yohanan said: Oh that one could continue to pray the entire day!' (Midrash Tanhuma, Miketz, 9; Talmud, Berakhot 31a).

"'As for me, let my prayer be unto You, O Lord, in an acceptable time.' For everything the Holy One set a time and a season, as is said, 'There is a time for experience' (Ecclesiastes 8:6)--except for prayer. Whenever people pray, they are answered. Why is there no set time for prayer? Were a person to know the time when, if they pray, they will be answered, they would leave off other times and pray only then. Accordingly, the Holy One said: For this reason I do not let you know when you will be answered, so that you will be willing to pray at all times, as is said, 'Put your trust in God at all times' (Psalms 62:9)" (Aggadah Bereshit 77).

Opportunity for Self-Relfection

To live a prayerful life is to live a life of devotion. It is to carry with you an attitude toward the unfolding of your life. To always be praying is to live with an awareness of the true reality of nature.

"For prayer is not the shutting of one's eyes to reality. It is the glimmer, the intimation, the daring which leads to the transcending of reality" (Jakob Petuchowski). Prayer leads us to an understanding of our limitations and our frailty as well as our capacity for goodness and greatness. As we pray, we become aware of all that lies beyond the self of the mountains and valleys of the psalmist, of the play of light and dark in the daily cycle of our world, of the birds and all the other crea­tures singing praise to God, and finally of all of creation. As we achieve the correct perspective of being only a small dot in a vast universe, we can feel alone.

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.