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Learning to Pray

Learning to Pray

This year has been an extremely difficult one for me. My 13-year-old son, the love of my life, returned from a summer visit with his father and announced that he wants to go and live with him at the end of the school year. He said this with no anger, no malice, and no hurtfulness. He reassured me that he loved me, he knew I loved him, no one knew his heart better, and the lessons I had taught him would carry him through this monumental transition.

I was not as composed. Full of panic, fear, loss, grief, anger, sadness, resentment, and desperation, it felt like I was drowning while everyone around me watched, helpless.

Through all this, I sought comfort. My husband, parents, other children, friends, and colleagues have provided love and support in the most sensitive and beautiful of ways. But the pain, the grief, the panic still persisted. I longed to find a place of safety, a place of protection, where my heart would be held, where I could let go, where I could find peace.

And so I turned to Judaism, to an idea of God, seeking comfort where so many have found comfort before: I turned to prayer.

How do Jews pray? Jewish liturgy is rich and meaningful, but the prayer book – the siddur – can be an intimidating work for many. Its vastness, its repetition, and its formal language can all make one feel lost in a sea of words, disconnected from the emotion it intends to invoke and inspire. And while some may find it possible to spontaneously engage in prayer, whispering words of their own choosing, this felt unsatisfying to me. I did not want to pray alone using my own words. I wanted to pray in the way of my people – to connect to the experiences, aspirations, and community that Jewish prayer represents. In this moment of pain and fear, that is what I sought: connection, reassurance that I was not alone, assurance that something infinite and transcendent would hear me as it had heard others before me. I wanted to know that the words I uttered had been uttered by thousands who sought the same peace and comfort.

For Jews like me, who are untrained in Jewish prayer and unfamiliar with the content of the siddur, the challenge is this: Because we rarely use this device out of habit or compulsion, we become easily frustrated with it when circumstances become desperate. Because we have never prayed out of a sense of obligation to pray, we find it extremely difficult to pray at those times when we truly want and need to do so.

It’s much like the peace the musician finds in music: Countless hours of practice are required before he can finally find the notes effortlessly and lose himself in the act of playing. While we may have a great deal of kavanah, or intention, walking into prayer, our lack of familiarity with keva, or the form of prayer, often leaves us feeling like we are doing nothing more than making noise, not music. Without the structure formal liturgy provides, our words feel untethered, fractured, and unfocused. Keva provides a scaffold, an anchor that bridles the often-overwhelming emotion and urgency that brings us to prayer in the first place.

So, I decided to practice. I opened the siddur. I began to study. I realized that my journey was going to be infinitely more complicated by the fact that I was living and working in Ghana, a place without a Jewish community with which I could pray regularly. My isolation made me feel all the more motivated, though, to approach the practice of prayer rigorously, methodically, and carefully. Very quickly, as I began to study the elements of Shacharit, or morning prayer service, I came to realize just how much meaning each prayer conveyed and what a long journey I had in front of me.

Understanding the very first – and seemingly simple – prayer that Jews recite upon waking, Modeh Ani, led me to pages and pages of interpretation, explanation, and analysis. I studied the text of this simple, short prayer, its history and origins, the meaning it holds and has held for others, and the ideas and concepts it intends to convey. I listened to recordings of the prayer in Hebrew – spoken, chanted, and sung – and practiced reciting each word myself.

And then finally, with a true sense of awe, I felt ready to say it: with my eyes closed, breathing in the promise of a new day, feeling filled with hope, humbled with gratitude, and held in the secure embrace of mercy and compassion. I felt comforted. I was able to release some of my sadness and be held in the arms of the many who spoke the same words before me. My son did not miraculously come back to me, but I was able to watch him go with less fear and more trust. I had learned how to pray.

Erin Brouse is a Canadian currently living in Ghana who blogs about her Jewish life at Jewschooled. Without a local synagogue, Erin participates in a wide variety of Jewish activities online, and travels to Los Angeles to visit Temple Kol Ami in West Hollywood whenever she can.

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