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Prayer: Disrupting the Digital Disruption

When I was younger, I experienced prayer as a form of conformity. Today, I experience prayer as a form of resistance.

I grew up in a typical Chabad family and as a religious Jew, praying three times daily was just something I did. Even in the school I attended, prayer was marked just like any other subject. Report cards would grade our attendance, behaviour and involvement during prayer. For so many years, prayer for me was just a routine task.

Today as a Rabbi (which is not your average 9 to 5 desk job!) with a lifestyle that is very demanding, more and more often I find myself struggling with prioritising my attention within my work, and trying to create a healthy work, life and family balance.

Technology and social media are not helping. Instinctively, in every free second I have, I find my hand searching for my phone and almost unconsciously begin the lifeless scroll through the usual suspects: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc.

By the time I raise my head from the screen, my mind is filled with politics, gossip and news that does little to enrich my day to day life.

So today, prayer for me is a way to stop, and disrupt the monotony. To remind myself of my purpose. To reinforce the structures in my life and to do all this with a more heightened focus.

Another look at prayer

The English term prayer comes from the Medieval Latin word precariat, meaning ‘petition’, which is from precari, meaning ‘to ask for, or entreat’.

As human beings, when facing a problem or when we are in need, we turn to our natural resources to help. When we’re sick, we go to the Doctor. When we need a loan, we go to the bank.

But sometimes we cap our natural reserves, and we need to look a little higher. We pray, beseech, even beg for what we lack and are unable to obtain on our own.

Prayer, at its most basic form, is the human call for divine help.

The problem with the above is, if we’re not particularly lacking for anything, or have no wants or needs, then we have no requirement for prayer.

More importantly, if prayer was all about requesting and imploring, then ‘Prayer’ in Hebrew would not be called tefillah, but bakashah – which means request, or beseech.

Our daily prayers are not simply requests addressed to G‑d and nothing more. Of course, such requests are also included in our prayers, but by and large our prayers are much more than that.

Prayer in Hebrew is tefillah. The literal interpretation of the Hebrew word tefillah is to attach oneself—to join or to unite.

During prayer we join our Neshomoh—the divine spark within us—to its divine source. Just as a small flame when it is put close to a larger flame is absorbed into the larger flame, our soul longs to be reunited with and reabsorbed by its source.

In these oases in time set aside for prayer, our soul unites with its source and is nourished, refreshed and recharged.

When we engage in prayer properly, we are meant to feel a fresh flow of energy from our source.

This is the function of tefillah, and these moments of connection are necessary for everyone. While there may be those who do not lack anything and thus have nothing to request of G‑d, there is no one who does not need the precious opportunity prayer provides— to attach oneself to the source of all life and a higher purpose.

For me, prayer is not about changing my situation. It’s about changing myself to properly address and take on the given situation.

G‑d does not need my prayers; He can do without it, but I cannot do without my prayers.

Prayer is the ability to say no to the demands of technology and the world around us—to turn off devices, noise and societal pressures, and be in control of your time.

Daily prayer offers a micro taste of Sabbath within the mayhem of the daily grind.

In Hebrew, a prayer book is not called a Sefer tefilah (which would be Hebrew for a prayer book) but siddur, which comes from the Hebrew word ‘seder’, which means ‘order’. The Siddur has the set order of the regular prayers. But perhaps more profoundly, it is called siddur because it offers the ability to bring order to the chaos of our lives.

When I pray alone, it allows for my mind to breathe, to confide with the Creator of the Universe my fears but also my dreams. It is a time of self-reflection and self-evaluation. Am I being a positive influence on my surroundings? Am I fulfilling my potential? Am I grateful for the many blessings in my life? Do I live with humility, acknowledging that all those blessing are a gift from above.

When I pray with community, it creates a shared harmonious experience with other human beings. My song and my prayers are lifted and carried with the tunes and prayers of others. I feel reassured with this strong sense of community and belonging.

Today, I no longer pray for my prayers to be answered. I pray to connect. I pray to gain insight, to know my needs and what I should be praying for in the first place. I pray to direct my mind and heart to the source of my blessings and comprehend their true objectives.

So, while the world mindlessly conforms, with their heads in their devices, I make time to read the ancient Hebrew words of the Siddur, to disrupt and help me rise above the monotony and enslavements of daily life.

Three short prayers to start with:

1. Modeh Ani. 

Immediately upon awakening every day, while still lying in bed, we express thanks to G-d for the gift of life by saying the Modeh Ani prayer.

Modeh ani lefanecha melech chai vekayam, she-he-chezarta bee nishmatee b’chemla, raba emunatecha.

I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.

Modeh Ani encourages our first conscious moments are ones of gratitude and purpose.

Thank you for the gift of life. Thank you for today and the opportunities it brings. Most importantly, thank you for having faith in me that I will accomplish something worthwhile today. That it was worth my soul returning back into this physical world, because there is something I need to do today that no one else can achieve.

My every interaction today has a purpose; to bring perfection into our sometimes imperfect world and to transform darkness into light. 

2. The night-time Shema.

Many people suffer from the resentments and grudges they harbour.

Letting go of resentments is not just about feeling better, it’s about getting rid of the one thing that stops us from living our true lives.

It’s not only unloading, but also reloading—reclaiming our lives back.

Letting go of the past hurt is integral to mental, emotional and spiritual health. The problem is that we allow resentments to fester without dealing with them immediately.

Each day should start new and fresh, with no leftover baggage from the day before. The Hebrew word for sleep, Sheinah, resembles the Hebrew word for change, Shinui. We want our tomorrow to be different and not be burdened by today. And we all know that how we slept at night determines a lot of how we perform the next day.

Before we retire at night, we pray the night time Shema. It begins with a paragraph on forgiveness, which helps ease the stress and anger that may result from hurt by another.

Before the day ends, we engage in a process of self-empowerment by letting go of some of our resentments, and moving on to a better place. When saying the Shema we place our hand over our eyes. We are trying to see a place we can only see with eyes closed; a tomorrow with endless potential that is not inhibited by resentments from the past.

3. The shortest and succinct prayer I know: A deep breath in and a long exhale out.

The word נשמה (Neshamah) or ‘soul’ is a cognate of the word נשימה (Neshimah) ‘to breathe’.

Many people suffer emotional stress and unhappiness caused by their attempts to control the uncontrollable. When I try to control the uncontrollable, I forfeit my true identity and the result is emotional stress and tension.

The very fact that we were born as our own person with a soul, testifies that we are here to live a specific life.

There are experiences we are meant to have and people we are meant to be of service to. We are not here to reach a model of perfection. Just are here to live our own best lives and to be true to ourselves.

A key factor that stops us is the obsession with controlling the uncontrollable.

Functional living is living in reality, living in the moment as it is, and being ok with this moment, the way G-d wants it to be. By trying to control the uncontrollable, by not living our lives, we are trying to play G-d.

Throughout the day, when we encounter difficult moments that are beyond our control, stopping and taking a deep breath reaffirms that my story has an author, and that is G-d, and in this moment things are exactly how they need to be. Things can change from moment to moment, but for now, I’m exactly where I need to be. A deep breath is my faith, which allows me to face reality.

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