By Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger
Sometimes I pray and I am far away from prayer. My mind and my heart are someplace else. But many times I am there, focusing deeply on the words and their meaning.
There can be more, though. An aura of serenity at times descends upon me and I feel enveloped in oneness. At those moments all of me is praying. All of me being in the moment, uplifted towards momentarily altered consciousness. I have come close. My heart smiles and is content.
And then I realize that I had been earlier praying with my mind, but not with my whole being. My head had been in the tefillah, but not my heart.
When does prayer really become prayer? Perhaps when we go beyond the words. Not ignore them, but rather see them as stepping-stones towards God. The prayer experience must begin with the text. However, the text is only the means and not the end.
We praise, we beseech, we request, we thank. But it does not end there. The text ought to bring us to a different place, a higher place. We have to open ourselves up to that. It is really about connection to the transcendent.
So there may be a danger in the intellectualization of prayer. And least that is the understanding of the author of the “Mei haShiloach,” Rabbi Mordechai Leiner, in his comments on this week’s Torah portion. “An ox or a lamb, one must not slaughter it and it’s young on the same day.”
The meaning of the verse according to the Izbitcher, as he is known, is clear. God is merciful, and we must be merciful as well. The mother animal must not be subject to the anguish of seeing her young slaughtered before her eyes. Spare her the pain.
Yet the Talmud in Tractate Megilla warns against citing this explanation of the commandment at any place in one’s prayers. We must never ask God to be merciful upon us, just as he has commanded us to act mercifully toward the animals he has created. But why not, asks Rabbi Leiner?
We must pray, he answers, to God, and not to the God of our understanding. We are asked to leave behind our limited, circumscribed conception of God. Prayer is meant to bring us to a place beyond human grasp. It is a journey toward God — not toward God as we understand Him, but toward God Himself.
We ought not to make the mistake of confusing God with his commandments and certainly not with our understanding of his commandments. He has given us many and various tools and methods to strike out on our quest, but the goal is beyond all of these implements.
Our minds and our deeds can take us only so far. At a certain point, we must let go, but not completely. First we must do what has to be done and think what has to be thought. But then we have to open ourselves up to the illumination that is beyond us. Activity must give way to passivity. Assertivity must give way to receptivity.
We loosen our grip, empty our minds and let go. Then, perhaps, we can really pray.
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger is executive director and community rabbinic scholar at the Jewish Studies Initiative of North Texas.