Prayer & Sincerity

A Few Thoughts on Prayer and Sincerity: Elokai Neshama

“My G-d, the soul you placed within me is pure.”

– from the morning prayers

Too often, I am unable to say the beginning of this prayer “as is.” Was the original soul that G-d placed within me pure when I was born? Yes, as far as I know, I can receive this as a truth.

Is my soul renewed every morning, having spent some time in the upper realms to get a recharge, before being placed back within me before I wake up? No doubt, that my soul is renewed each and every morning, as implied elsewhere, “new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23).

Yet, I know myself too well; my conscience is not necessarily renewed to its pristine quality every morning. And, if yesterday’s taint upon the soul is still present in my mind, my soul does not “feel” pure when I awake to the “rise and shine” of the day.

For some time, I have been disconcerted by the apparent incongruity of how I feel, as compared to the literal text; so, I explored various ways to understand this concept of the soul’s purity being restored. One finding is that, only a certain part of the soul is referred to in the prayer; that part is “pure.”

I also seem to recall learning of tzaddikim, who were unable to say certain prayers in sincerity. As far as I can recall, they modified those particular prayers a little bit, for themselves, in the moment, in order to be heartfelt and true to their words. Yet, this is not to be understood as a pretext to actually changing the prayers of chazal (the sages).

Yet, there does appear to be a pretext to solving my own troublesome dilemma, by altering a prayer somewhat, at least, in the moment, to be faithful and true to one’s own words. As such, I usually say, “My G-d, may the soul you placed within me be pure.” I have turned a statement into a request.

Additionally, the prayers may be personalized, to some extent, while reciting them: that is the nature of personal kavannos, best explained as thoughts about the prayers while reciting them. (There are also specially designed kavannos to recall while reciting certain prayers).

prayer: Intentional Focus

Prayer is meant to be self-reflexive. For, how can the prayers truly benefit the soul, unless the meaning of the prayers is known to the person who is praying? Yet, there is a belief that praying in Hebrew, regardless of knowledge of the Hebrew language, also benefits the soul. While it may be the case that the soul benefits, this could be at the expense of the individual’s actual understanding of the words. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the founder of Breslov Chasidism advocated the need to pray in one’s own language. I find this approach refreshing, inasmuch that he understood the importance of kavanah (intention) at the level of praying in a meaningful way.

Moreover, not only pray in one’s own language, at least for some of the prayers, but to be able to comprehend the meaning of the words one prays is important. Words have meaning in and of themselves; a dictionary is a handy guide to those meanings when unsure of what a word conveys, or how it is used in a sentence. However, the words of kitvei kodesh (holy scripture) have meaning above and beyond the words themselves, and must be understood within the greater context of the themes of the biblical narratives they portray, as well as their theological significance.

The siddur (prayer book) has been described as an overall composite of what is most significant in Judaism. The prayers are an active means for inculcating the values, traditions, and beliefs of Judaism into our lives. As such, the siddur should garner our greatest attention, and praying should not end up being a rote experience, performed without true intention or understanding. If our prayer experience is dry, then we need to somehow make amends.

One way to do so is to increase a sense of kavanah (attention; intentional reading) through specific techniques designed for this purpose. For example, if praying too fast, one way to slow down is to pause, every time the name YHVH is written, otherwise denoted by the words H’Shem or  L-RD. This serves to develop a pace whereby reflection becomes possible, by paying more attention to the words that are being prayed. This is davening with kavanah, when the words have a direct and immediate impact on the soul of the individual praying.

It is of paramount importance to seek understanding of the meaning and significance of the words that are being prayed. Each individual should decide for him or herself, what language to pray, and how to find a healthy balance between Hebrew and one’s own language. The original Hebrew prayers are established by chazal (the sages) and should not be changed; at least not to the extent that they are unrecognizable in an English translation, or seem to abandon the original intent. For, the ultimate goal is to connect with H’Shem at the level of one’s own understanding and comfortability.