I remember, as a kid, one of the first things that I would do when I came to shul for the High Holidays was to check on which page the service would end. That way, I could always know how much of the was left at any given moment. I didn’t have to do this the rest of the year, not because I found those services more engaging, but because I knew, deep in my bones, that Aleinu could be found on page 160, and never had to check.
This is not how one is supposed to pray. I know this. I knew this then, too. But I could never focus on the service without knowing how much was left. It’s the same when I read a book, one of the first things I do is check to see how many pages are in the book, so I always know how far along I am. It’s one of the things that I love about my Kindle, it tells me where I am in the book and also how much longer it will take me to finish the current chapter.
In synagogue, it was only once I had that information in hand that I had a chance to pray with the appropriate intention, the proper kavvanah. And our intentions are important, they are often the central component of fulfilling the mitzvot. It says in the Mishnah that one can only fulfill the obligation to listen to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah if one is paying attention and intending to fulfill the mitzvah – one who hears the shofar incidentally, and realizes what it was afterwards has not fulfilled the obligation. Such a person must hear the shofar again.
The same is true when it comes to prayer. There is debate in the Talmud about which prayers require the proper kavvanah and which do not. Rabbi Yermiyah made the claim that if a person prayed without the proper intention, and had the ability to try again with the proper intention, they should do so. What followed in the Talmud was a series of confessions from several rabbis:
Rabbi Hiyya said, “I have never concentrated on prayer all of my days. Once I tried to concentrate, but all I could think about was politics.” Shmuel said, “During prayer I count the clouds.” Rabbi Bun bar Hiyya said, “I count the stones in the wall when I should be praying.” Rabbi Matnaya said, “I am grateful to my head, because it knows to bow automatically when we reach the Modim prayer.” (PT Berachot 17b)
What is inspiring to me about these rabbis is not that they failed to pray with the proper kavvanah – any of us can do that. What inspires me is that they nonetheless continued to pray. Every Rosh Hashanah, Every Shabbat, every day, they would return to the synagogue, and try again to pray with kavvanah. And each time, they would think about politics, or count the clouds, or count the stones in the wall. But still they would return.
How can I hope to bring the proper kavvanah to my prayers, if these revered rabbis, these experts in the field, struggled? I turn to them for inspiration, and instead I am disillusioned. It seems that my goal is impossible. And yet, the 20th century American monk, Thomas Merton provides a different interpretation of these same facts. He wrote:
“One cannot begin to face the real difficulties of the life of prayer and meditation unless one is first perfectly content to be a beginner and really experience oneself as one who knows little or nothing, and has a desperate need to learn the bare rudiments. Those who think they ‘know’ from the beginning will never, in fact, come to know anything.”
Merton would tell me that these rabbis were beginners themselves. They were beginners who were willing to continuously make the effort to learn. They consistently strove to improve, and consistently fell short of their goals. But it was through those failed efforts that they grew. Trying was how they learned what was easy in prayer, and what was difficult, what was meaningful, and what was not. As Rabbi Shai Held wrote: We grow in prayer through curiosity rather than confidence.
I invite all of you to be curious. Engage with the words on the page in front of you. Think about what they mean; what they may have meant to the authors, and what they mean to you. Try. Try to follow along. Try to sing, and recite, and read the words in front of you with kavvanah, with intention. Try to speak the words that are in your heart. Try to connect with the person next to you, to the text in front of you, to the Divine all around you. And when you fail, take a beat, forgive yourself, and try again. You won’t get it right. No one does. But it is through that striving, by reaching beyond the comfortable and the easy, that we grow.
May this Rosh Hashanah usher in a year of growth for us as individuals and as a community, and may we all return here again next year ready to try and begin again.