For a year I laid tefillin
For a year I prayed every morning. Laid tefillin. The whole deal. I can point to the exact conversation that convinced me to do it. I was on USY on Wheels, at a spiritually high place in my life. We were staying at some hotel four weeks in and it was Shabbat. A group of people were talking in the Lobby at a table with one of the staff, Danny.
Someone had asked, “Why do we pray the same service every morning?”
I’d heard the same question plenty of times before, and never heard a satisfying answer. Most answers were along the line of “The regularity anchors you,” or “These are what Rabbis over a two thousand years gathered. Who are we to argue?” or even worse,
“Because God said so,” which to a degree is what any religious debate amounts to when you get right down to it.
Danny went for a more historical context. “Back in the temple times no one prayed at all. Instead they did sacrifices. The only reason praying started is because the temple was destroyed, and it was a way to maintain Judaism in a post temple period. It was a major departure, and not mentioned in the Torah.
“The idea of the service is to mimic the sacrifice. A lot of people think of sacrifices and associate it with some barbaric ritual that would never fly in this day and age. But what was it? A single animal slaughtered. The food got eaten, and the waste products were given up to God.
“The question, however, is why bother doing it? What did it signify? Some animalistic urge? In a way. The point of the sacrifice was to create a separation between the animal soul and the human one. To create a defining visceral experience that said this is where the animal side of myself ends. I’m cutting that loose and what’s left isn’t just the human side, but actually the Godly one.”
He then probably went on to talk about the range of souls, the Kabbalistic traditions of going through the various levels, and why it was considered and still is considered so important.
“When I pray,” he said (which is a far cry from the phrase - ‘the reason to pray is’) “it’s with this idea of the sacrifice in mind. The Shemonah Essrai is going through the blessings of the sacrifice. It’s there to create that distinction of the souls.”
He put it far more eloquently than I’m paraphrasing here, but it was this conversation that in many ways put me over the edge, and convinced me to pray every morning from my Junior Year of of High School through half way into my Freshman Year of College. If I had been at a school that fostered Judaism differently, there’s no telling what direction I might have gone. I have two orthodox sisters now, and I’m by far the most left leaning of the three of us. In high school I was easily the most religious.
On Birthright during Kabbalat Shabbat on the second day of the trip, I tried imparting this lesson I’d learned over a decade ago, tying it in to L’chah Dodi, the major prayer welcoming in the Sabbath Queen, and bringing the final curtain in to the transition into Shabbat. It was the first time in a while I’d thought about it.
I’m not planning to go back to daily prayers any time soon. Despite the fact that I always left praying inspired, with some hanging thread of an idea fully formed into an actionable project. It was a meditation. These days I have other channels to express that. Writing. Drawing. Painting. Improvising. To name a few.
But the lesson remains the same. Creating that transition to the Godly spirit. Others call it by a different name. Entering a Flow State. Fighting past Resistance. Reaching a level of Nirvana. We’re all saying the same thing. Whatever gets you there. While my channel is different these days, the direction of the path remains the same.
I hope I came close on my trip to having the same impact on some of the participants that Danny had on me. Helped on their path. Because for a year, as I prayed every morning, I understood in a very clear sense, exactly what my purpose was. Why I was set here.
What all of this means.
These days I’m more lost then ever, but once upon a time I knew. There’s a good chance I’ll rediscover that sense of passion. It gives me hope.