Is Prayer a Waste of Time?

Question of the Week:

I have a lot of trouble praying. I sit in synagogue and as soon as I start to read the words, my mind wanders. Even when I read the English I find it hard to focus. I suddenly start thinking about work issues or what's for dinner, anything but the prayers. Am I wasting my time trying to pray?


Prayer can be a confronting experience. And that is exactly what it is supposed to be. Prayer is an inner battle waged between two distinct sides of your personality. Your spiritual self and your physical self, your body and your soul, are each vying for control over your mind. And it is not a quiet confrontation. Since you are expecting another child, I'll give you a metaphor that you will very soon relate to.

The family dynamic changes dramatically when a second child is born. Upon the arrival of a newborn, the older sibling often feels the need to compete for their parents' attention. When the mother feeds her baby, the toddler gets jealous. He will start making noise or playing up, anything to grab his mother's attention.

This is an opportunity for the parents to educate the older sibling. Gently reassure him that he isn't forgotten, he is still loved as before, but now he has a little sister, and that means learning to share his parents' attention. Right now the baby needs to be fed. When that is finished, he will get all the attention he needs.

After laying down the law, any further disturbances from the toddler must simply be ignored; you can't reward bad behaviour and give in to negative attention-seeking. Just as the newborn needs to be fed in order to grow, the toddler needs to be disciplined in order to develop as a person.

The same conflict is played out when we pray. We each have within our selves an innocent baby and an undisciplined toddler. Our spiritual side, the divine soul, is as pure and innocent as a newborn. Our human, physical side - our body with its desires - is instinctive and unrefined like a toddler; not necessarily evil, but uncultivated.

We spend much of our day eating, sleeping and living in the material world, looking after the needs of our toddler, the body. Prayer is the time when we turn our attention exclusively to our baby, the soul. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our soul feels nurtured and at peace when we pray. The soul is nourished by the words, soothed by the songs and comforted by the mystical rhythms of prayer.

But as we feed our inner baby through prayer, the toddler within feels threatened. "You're getting all spiritual, but what about me?!", the body asks. We are then bombarded with distracting thoughts - I'm hungry, I'm tired, someone owes me money, I have to water the garden - whatever the body can come up with to get our attention off our soul and back down to earth. And so we struggle to concentrate on the prayers with the barrage of diversions being thrown at us.

This doesn't mean you aren't praying properly. On the contrary, the more intense the distractions, the more effective the prayer must be. Your soul is being fed, and your body is getting nervous. Don't give the body the attention it seeks. Rather gently tell it that now is not the time. You are feeding your soul, and there will be plenty of time to feed the body later.

Then you are not only nurturing the soul, but also training the body to submit to a higher cause. Feeding the baby and educating the toddler - that's Jewish prayer.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Moss

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