It was something he said, though, near the end of the class today that really caught my attention. "It is in our practice that we discover our most authentic selves. It is the goal of every spiritual practice to do so."
I've been thinking all day about how much that applies to the practice of prayer in Judaism. By entering deeply into the words of prayer, we discover ourselves connected to a reality far greater than ourselves, yet, paradoxically, a part of ourselves. My own most meaningful prayer experiences have been those in which I found myself uttering the words effortlessly, as if they flowed from a place within me like water spilling from an open faucet. In such moments, prayer feels like an expression of a deeper self, one that underlies the masks we present to the world to project our desires and to hide our fears.
This is what prayer does and can do. It helps us to answer the most simple and the most difficult question we can ask ourselves: "Who am I?" By reciting the words of the worship service, we discover a place within ourselves that precedes words, a place where we connect deeply with the truest truths about ourselves.
I know that this is not the way that most Jews think about prayer. Judaism is such a wordy tradition and the liturgy can be quite intimidating with page after page of dense Hebrew text. The worship service can seem like an ordeal of just trying to get through all of those words. Viewed this way, Jewish prayer hardly seems like the kind of experience that would allow a person to enter deeply into self-awareness.
But all of the words of the siddur are just variations on a theme. Nearly the entire prayerbook can be summed up in a few phrases: "There is a Creator who wants to be known and who wants to transform your life. Let the Creator in, and you will find yourself within the Creator. Once you do that, the path of joy and fulfillment will be open to you." All of the prayers in the siddur are just poems saying this in various ways. We have to say it in so many different ways only to keep us searching for ourselves. The siddur is the can-opener of the soul—a tool for opening ourselves up to receive this truth.
Prayer is not, as so many people imagine, something that we owe to God. Nor is it a way of asking God for the stuff we want. Prayer is a practice that we give as a gift to ourselves. It is a way of delving deeply into ourselves and discovering the great truth that connects us all.