When I was seven years old, I attended a Jewish day camp in Atlanta, Georgia. Our days were filled with typical activities like swimming and arts and crafts. But one morning, we had an activity that seemed “unusual,” one that I never forgot. The camp counselors gathered our bunk into a circle outside and began teaching us about about Native American tribes, specifically, the prayer service they would use to summon rain from the gods.
We watched while sitting on our tree stumps as the counselor stood up then proceeded to jump up and down and backwards, his arms pushing out and inward. It looked like a cross between Billy Blanks’s Tae Bo, and Richard Simmons’s “I’m a Pony,” but on steroids! Rhymes and songs tend to stay with children for a long time, so of course, I remember it word for word:
Ongi namongi pongi! Ongi namongi pongi! A digga digga digga! Ooooh Ahhh! Rain!
I remember giggling as we watched and then it was our turn to “pray.” We stood up and imitated his dance, moving backwards and chanting the Native American prayer. Then the counselor hushed us and told us to sit as quickly and quietly as possible. A moment passed before we suddenly felt the first rain drop, then another and another.
The prayer had worked!
As a seven-year old, I was sold on this Ongi namongi chant! I just knew it was my ticket to getting anything I wanted, and I couldn’t wait to use it.
When I arrived home, I raced to my bedroom to try out Ongi namongi pongi, but was disappointed – to say the least – when my prayers were not answered with the same immediate result. Little did I realize at the time, the camp lesson was merely an activity to keep the campers busy on a rainy day. Additionally, they probably used the intemperate weather forecast to determining when to teach us the “miracle chant.”
As I grew up, and my spiritual maturity developed, I started to realize what prayer is all about. As much as we want it to be, prayer is not merely a gumball machine we can place a quarter inside of and out pops our request. Prayer is about developing a relationship with Hashem, and it’s hard work.
Anyone who tells you that prayer with G-d, Whom we cannot see, touch, or feel, is simple and easy isn’t being honest with you, or with themselves.
At another point in my childhood, I remember sitting in synagogue (on the rare occasion that we went), quite bored. It was certainly less exciting than the Ongi namongi dance! Even as adults, how many of us can honestly say we never look to see how many pages are left of the service – especially during high holidays, when the prayers can last for hours on end?
It is important for us to remember that prayer is not just about sitting in synagogue but a way to communicate with our Creator.
Prayer, according to Rashi in Genesis 30:8, actually means a bond or connection; it’s about communication. But communication is usually not a monologue, rather a two-way street. No one today is a prophet, audibly hearing the word of G-d. Yet, He does, in fact, communicate with us.
Imagine you come over to my house for Shabbat dinner. I bring out the fish, and announce, “I am now serving your fish.” Then when it is time for the next course to start, I declare, “Now, I will remove your appetizer plate.”
As I continue, I proclaim that soup is being served and so on and so forth. To a guest, this would probably feel uncomfortable and strange. (Plus you would never want to come back to our home!) The announcements are not necessary, and would take away from the experience at large. Whether the host announces what’s coming or not, you will still get your five-course meal.
Similarly, G-d is constantly doing things for us, yet does not call out the play-by-play. Every time we breath in, G-d does not yell down at us, “Now, I am allowing your external and internal intercostals to expand and contract to allow air into your lungs.” When we walk, He does not verbalize which muscles we are moving, and which brain synapses are connecting in order to make that happen. Yet, He is communicating his love to us through gifts that we experience every minute of the day – the gift of breath, and movement.
We know that Hashem provides for us constantly, every single moment, yet sometimes, it is still difficult to connect the way we are meant to.
Not only is it challenging to connect with a Being who has no physicality or time constraints, but a lack of time in our busy lives creates another obstacle to our connection. It’s difficult to interrupt our daily grind to to pray to G-d. We become busy with the very gifts that G-d has bestowed upon us, and forget where such things came from. Praying is hard work; it is called, avodah shebalev, work of the heart.
According to physics, work has to occur with exertion and force. When hiking, we sweat and exert physical energy. Does this mean we are “working?” Usually, we take time off of work to take a hike. Then the next day, find ourselves sitting at the computer writing a letter for our boss. This doesn’t require much exertion, but are we working? Of course. Writing an email to a friend, whereby the same level of exertion is applied, is however not considered “work.”
What, then, is work?
Work is colloquially defined as doing something for someone else. Writing an email because our boss requires it? Work. Writing an email because we want to? Not work. Work means giving up what we want to do in order to be of service to someone else.
Tefilah, work of the heart, is about submitting your will to Hashem’s. Giving up what you want for what Hashem wants. Giving up time from our busy schedules to connect with Him.
Even if we consciously decide we want to start connecting with G-d through prayer, in order to really feel prayer in our heart, we often must “undo” years of lip service. For so long, most of us have been zipping through the prayers, checking it off our to-do list, and moving on. Gone is the love, the feeling, the fervor in our daily meditation with Hashem.
In high school, I was on the basketball team. I had been playing since the sixth grade and felt pretty confident as a player. When I arrived at the new school, I noticed there were several team members who had never played basketball before. The more “experienced” players and myself thought we were at an advantage because of our years of playing. Boy, did we have a rude awakening! The coach informed us that we had terrible shooting form and that we would need to retrain.
“You think you are so experienced, eh? Well, it’s easier to teach someone who has never learned to shoot a ball before! First, I’ll have to undo years of muscle memory with you before I can begin to teach you the proper form!”
This is a perfect analogy to prayer. We spend years learning to pray as children. It’s adorable to hear my own children singing Modeh Ani and Shema Yisrael, but sometimes when we hit our twenties (if not earlier), the prayers have become so routine that they mean nothing at all.
In order to combat prayer-fatigue, we need to look at tefilah through fresh eyes, as someone who has never learned before, and really try to use the experience to connect the way we are meant to.
Prayer is hard work. Yet, prayer does work.
The reason prayer “works” is not because every time we ask G-d for something He answers us in the affirmative, but because when we pray, we realize who G-d is, and all He has done for us. We expand ourselves and change through the process. Sometimes, that newfound person we create of ourselves is more deserving of the request. At other times, however, we must submit our will and accept G-d’s will for us – true work of the heart. Regardless of the answer we earn, prayer enables us to deepen our love and respect for our Creator, and that is the greatest response we can hope for.