During the High Holidays we increase the number of our prayers. We acknowledge God’s kingship, beseech Him to forgive us and ask Him to grant us a new year filled with blessings. How do we make these prayers sincere and effective?
Prayer is a gift from our Creator, the opportunity to speak directly with the King of kings. We benefit most from our private audience with Him – when we realize we are in fact having one. Before praying, mentally set aside other matters and talk to yourself about the vital activity you are about to do:
“I am about to speak to my Father and Creator. He is the all powerful and infinitely wise King of the world. He created and sustains the entire universe.I can’t do anything without His help and everything comes only from Him.Anything I want, He can give me.My Father loves me and wants to hear from me.He listens and cherishes every word I say.Every word brings blessing to me, my family, my people and the world – sometimes in ways I don’t understand.I let go of all extraneous thoughts, stress and tension.”
(Take a deep breath; while exhaling slowly through the mouth, feel any stress and tension draining out. Do this for at least two breaths.)
We need help with everything in our lives, and prayer is no exception. Ask God to help you pray with fervor, singing His glory and yearning for His assistance and closeness.
Three keys will help unlock the hidden power of prayer. The first is to understand the meaning of the words in the prayer book. If you do not understand some or all of the words, find a translation that works best for you. Two formats that allow you to read the Hebrew while looking at the translation are the Linear by Metsudah and the Interlinear by ArtScroll.
Praying without comprehension is like putting on clothes in pitch darkness – you will get dressed but not necessarily in a satisfactory manner. Focus on mastering one small section at a time. Zero in on the meaning of each phrase, cherishing and savoring them.
The prayer book was composed by the Sages through Divine inspiration. When we say the very words that have sustained our people for thousands of years, we connect with an incredible source of spiritual power.
When you get distracted during prayer and start to think about something else, gently remind yourself that prayer will help you more with that issue than ruminating about it. Then, bring your attention back to the meaning of the words. Do not be discouraged if you need to do this dozens of times; every word you say with intention is another success.
Use the issues that distract you to enhance your prayers. During pertinent sections, think about concerns weighing on you, personal and collective, to infuse a sense of urgency and bring new meaning to the words.
The second key is to pray with feeling. To begin with, slow down the speed at which you pray; we can talk faster than we feel. Give yourself time for the meaning and feeling behind the words to sink into your heart and stir your soul.
Another tool to help feel our prayers is silently asking questions during prayer. For example, “How would I say these words if I really meant them?” For the sections where we make specific requests, “How would I say these words if I would receive these blessings only if I prayed for them?” For the sections that praise God, “How would I say these words if I were bursting with gratitude to the Almighty for all that He does for me and my family?” Lastly, “How would I say these words if I knew for certain God is listening?”
The final key is to imagine that God is right before you and you are having an intimate conversation with Him. The great sage Nachmanides, in Iggeret HaRamban, wrote, “In all your words, actions and thoughts, at all times, imagine in your heart that you are standing before the Holy One, Blessed is He, and that His Presence is upon you; for His glory fills the universe ” (See A Letter for the Ages by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer).
By following Ramban’s advice during prayer, the words will come alive and directly connect you to your Creator. With practice comes the thrilling experience of feeling God’s presence listening to your prayers.
Use these keys not only with the prayer book but also when reciting Psalms. They will help you claim the treasure King David left for each one of us. Soon, you will be able to say to God with conviction, “And now, for what do I hope O Lord? My longing is for You” (Psalms 39:8).
Every prayer is a new beginning, a new opportunity to come close to your Creator. Fortify yourself and start fresh with each prayer. Even if you think a prayer did not go well, the mere effort you put into it is precious to your Father and will bring you one step closer to Him.
As you persist, God will open your heart and you will begin to feel a deep sense of being nourished by your Creator and united with Him.
Yaakov Weiland has an MSW from Fordham School of Social Service and lives in New York City. Visit his blog at yaakovweiland.blogspot.com.