I spend a lot of that time thinking about prayer. It’s purpose, efficacy, spiritual significance, personal significance, etc. Currently I only pray in any organized sense on Shabbat - on Friday night and Saturday morning. But there was a long stretch of my life when prayer was mandatory in school twice a day, which definitely played a role in shaping the relationship I’ve had with prayer.
I was apprehensive about Friday night services on our Shabbaton. But what could be bad? The interns participating in CLIP for the summer would be spending the weekend at the idyllic Pearlstone Retreat Center, four hours away from stresses of the city, from our internships, from the apartments we’re subletting. We were out in the country with birds, goats, trees and other things unfamiliar to New York City. There were a few planned ice breakers when we got to the site, but they were unnecessary. I was already feeling a deep connection with the CLIP group and was gaining insight into the diversity within Judaism. Yet I was still nervous. I had no idea what the Ritual Committee had been planning in all their secret meetings. What would a pluralistic Jewish prayer service feel like?
In my days going to a Modern Orthodox elementary and high school I struggled to find meaning in the mandatorytefillah. I sometimes would go to great lengths to NOT pray. I even had a little chumash that looked like a siddur,which I would read from during davening, while going through the motions. Prayer was built into our schedule, just like any other part of the school day. As such, it held the same status in my mind as any mandatory school function, which certainly did not imbue it with anything close to spirituality.
The prayer space for the Shabbaton included a “trichitza,” a three-way divider with a men’s section, a women’s section, and a mixed-seating section. The name doesn’t really make any sense. It’s a play on the word mechitza, which means to split in half. “Trichitza” would then sort of mean to split in half into thirds. But what’s really made the experience troubling for me is that it highlights differences. While a mechitza divides by gender, a trichitza divides by ideology, by values, by denomination. When choosing the Men Only section of the trichtiza, I don’t want people assuming that I am actively not-choosing (or not-accepting) another section of the prayer space.
If you’re going to pray, you should be feeling something. That something could be a sense of community and shared purpose, or it could be something spiritually and personally uplifting. But to pray without feeling anything always felt like I was getting a raw deal. The strange thing about prayer is that you don’t really get better at it the more you practice. If anything, you might actually get worse at it (in whatever way one can be better or worse at something like prayer), as the once-powerful liturgy becomes dry and repetitive. The first experience I had with prayer that re-oriented its place in my life was during my gap year at a yeshiva in Israel. I knew someone who was very ill in America and in my feeling of helplessness I found comfort in the fact that there was a set time and place for me to express certain feelings. That I didn’t need to come up with the right words on my own.
Before we entered the prayer space for Kabbalat Shabbat, we sung some niggunim outside in the hall. Chairs were crammed close together. I came in a bit late and found a seat near the back. Those with good voices (not me) and musical talent (not me) led us through the different songs. For that short period of singing, we were all sitting side-by-side, taking in the melodies, some familiar and some new. I felt my mind being cleared of the clutter of the work-week and entering some sort of sacred (or, at least, less stressed-out) state.
After spending three weeks last summer at a fellowship my former high school discussing prayer — through the readings of Soloveitchik, Heschel, Hartman — I began to find meaning in the inward and personal aspect. Yet I have still struggled to connect with communal prayer. I often feel as if my voice is irrelevant. By that I mean: If you took me out of the prayer space, the total power, efficacy, ruach, etc. of the prayer would neither be diminished nor enhanced. I provide a net zero worth to the service. [Unless, of course, I’m the 10th man, in which case I’m suddenly considered a crucially important commodity].
After we completed our CLIP Friday night service, I tried to make sense of what had happened. I knew it had been meaningful. Perhaps more meaningful than any time I had prayed with a group before then. And I tried to think what made this experience different. I’ve probably clocked in over 1,000 prayer hours in my life, but never had I felt so satisfied with the service. I thought about CLIP and the conversations I’ve been having with my fellow interns. In engaging with a diverse group of passionate young Jews, I have been forced to reconsider a lot of my assumptions about what it means to be Jewish and to be dedicated to Judaism. Everyone is bringing a distinct vision, a distinct belief system, a distinct set of skills to the Jewish people. Seeing the diversity of approaches to Jewish life, I find my own practice to be a unique part of the spectrum of Jewish experience. I feel a sense of purpose to represent my space on that spectrum.
As such, when we sang Yedid Nefesh, or when we stood up to welcome the Sabbath in Lecha Dodi, I felt that I was not irrelevant. If I was not singing, there would be a voice missing. If I did not welcome in Shabbat in the way that it is meaningful to me, that perspective would be lost. It was empowering.
Noah Flinkman, in his dvar torah, noted that Mizmor L’david emphasizes the role of the “voice.” The voice of God, as the prayer goes, can knock down the trees, can make them prance around, and can wipe the forest bare. While not environmentally friendly, this prayer presents the power that an individual voice can have. Without just one of the 50 voices of my fellow CLIP peers, there would be something lost, some experience not present, some perspective not accounted for. It didn’t matter which section of the “trichitza” it was coming from.