From the Bookshelf, Prayer

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, “Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer”

Reb Zalman died a few years ago, but his impact on the Jewish world has not ceased. I first started reading his book on davening (Yiddish word referring to praying) around the time he died, in part because it was already on my reading list, but also with the intention of learning from one of the wise teachers of our time, even if through a book and not (sadly) in person.

He has a great deal of insight to share about prayer. Much of the book consists of stories from his life, and if nothing else had come from my read I would have found a wonderful model of someone absolutely in love with praying. Not that it was always easy, or that it always worked (whatever that means). Rather, Zalman understood the vibrancy of embracing prayer as an art, of having self-compassion but also self-discipline, of marveling in the way every experience differs and how together they build to something bigger.

Here is one teaching of his on how to approach prayer with wholeness.

“One of the biggest mistakes we make when it comes to prayer is leaving large chunks of ourselves out of the equation. We tend, as in many other things, to lead with our minds. But mind is not all we have! Our minds deal in concepts. To our bodies, on the other hand, concepts mean nothing. Our bodies speak in movement. The act of rising when the ark is open, for example, means something to our bodies. Standing, bowing, swaying, even dancing – all this is body language. The heart, on the other hand, needs relationship. Our minds might insist that we go directly to the Infinite when we think of God, but the heart doesn’t want the Infinite; it wants a You it can confide in and take comfort in.” (p. 64)

I can testify to the unexpected visceral awareness of body and heart that at times contradicts the mind’s rational concepts. One summer at URJ Camp Kalsman, I took a sunset walk over to the gorgeous lake nestled in the wooded hills, wandered onto the pier, and found myself without prior intention singing a beautiful melody to Aleinu (Max Janowsky) I had learned as a kid. The melody focuses on the line where one would normally bend the knee and bow, and standing on the edge of the pier I suddenly slid into the choreography.

As I chanted and bowed, I stared at my face in the water, with the blue and pink sky behind it framed by dense green trees in the shape of a mountain. My heart filled with a sense of peace and calmness and delight – a remarkable moment that echoes every time I have bowed in prayer since.