Prayer is something common across nearly all religions, yet how it is practiced is unique to each religion, and even more unique to each person. A crash course on traditional Jewish prayer: Jews are obligated to pray three times a day — in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The prayer routines vary in length and all three include similar prayers, although the morning one is more lengthy than the others. Within the prayers there is traditionally praise of God, gratitude to God, and asking God for what you need.
My first years with Jewish prayer started absent-mindedly. My dad told me to say words which were supposed to praise God. Though my dad did an excellent job explaining to me what prayer meant and how it could be used in my life, it just did not connect for me. So for the early years, prayer meant saying words and doing motions, mostly in imitation of him and other Jews praying. In other words, it wasn’t my own, and so inevitably lost meaning and purpose. Around 10 years old I stopped praying completely. As I started doubting my faith in God almost to the point of non-belief, I started getting angrier and angrier at the prayers. They meant absolutely nothing to me, and chanting in a language that I only half understood did not help.
This attitude towards prayer began to shift a couple years later when I went to a Jewish camp in the Rocky Mountains. The second morning there I was woken up along with the rest of my bunk at 6 A.M. to go climb a mountain. Groggily we made our way up, and were told that we were going to pray (daven) at the top of the mountain. Somebody exclaimed that we didn’t have our prayer books – how would we know the words? The counselor replied that we didn’t need books for the type of prayer we were going to do. Soon we reached the top and were greeted with an awe-inspiring view of the valley below. We were told to find a place on the mountain where we were completely by ourselves. There we were to say the Shema — the most basic Jewish prayer which affirms our faith — and then simply talk to God or ourselves or both, whichever came more naturally.
It was strange not being around people while praying, and even stranger not having a book in front of me to pray from. All I felt was my oneness with the universe in that moment, gazing out at the majestic mountains surrounding me while feeling the air on my skin. I felt chills even though the sun was shining. I stayed like that for what felt like hours, simply feeling the universe around me. At that moment prayer for me was being in total awe of the beauty surrounding me. I had no faith in God, yet was feeling immensely spiritual in a way I hadn’t ever before.
This experience taught me something I had never internalized before: prayer could be my own. It echoed in my brain for years to come that prayer did not need to come from the book, it could form from our own hearts. With this in mind I slowly developed a more personal connection to prayer, which leads me to where I am today. Once again, I try to (emphasis on try to) pray 3 times a day. Each time I pray I do everything in my power, regardless of my mood, to personally connect to the prayer I am saying and relate everything I am saying to my life. For me, prayer is a way to make myself a better and more intentional person. By making prayer my own and not merely speaking the words on the page, I make it something immensely beneficial to my growth as a person.
8 thoughts on “Making prayer my own – Yaakov Segal”
This was a wonderful and interesting read, Yaakov! Your early experiences with prayer really resonated with me – I also didn’t connect with prayer until independent experiences as a teenager led me towards a new understanding of its meaning (I actually wrote about this for my blog post that will be up next week – kind of a cool parallel, even though my experience is with Christianity!). Your description of your time in the mountains sounds awe-inspiring and is so well articulated. Awesome post!
I really enjoyed reading this journey of yours through prayer. I also struggled with that initially as most Hindu prayers are in Sanskrit and I had to put more focus on trying to understand the translations than actually praying. Finding relatability in these prayers and making sure to add my own thoughts to prayers has helped me form a more direct connection to faith like you seem to have developed as well. Thanks for the great lesson!
I really connected with your post; growing up Muslim and not Arab, I didn’t understand my prayers, and that lead to a lot of empty feelings when I would pray. I found a lot of foundation once I started learning translations of what I’ve been saying for years. I think I’m still working on making my prayers my own, but I’m happy to have read here that that’s possible and working for you.
I can easily relate to your experiences with prayer. Growing up in the Lutheran Church there is a lot of memorization of prayers, creeds, and faith affirmations. A lot of them lose there meaning with frequent repetition. I agree that prayer feels more effective when I set intentions and take the time to be alone with God.
Yaakov, thank you for sharing your journey to prayer! It gave me chills reading it, and you described your ability to finally understand how prayer can be your own beautifully. I am so happy you had this experience and I hope others have similar experiences to find their own version of prayer, as conversing with God is so crucial for your relationship with him.
Yaakov, I enjoyed reading your blog post. I think most of our faith journeys start by following someone but to continue on the path you need to ask yourself the difficult questions. Its wonderful how just by being surrounded by nature brings great realisations to people.
Thank you for sharing your journey with prayer! I can actually relate to you in multiple ways. Growing up, my mom would try to make me recite the routine Sikh prayers, and I did, but I never tried to understand what I was reciting until maybe middle/high school. All the Sikh prayers are in Punjabi (the written script is called Gurmukhi) and I never actually became fluent in Punjabi. I can read, write, and somewhat understand it, but can’t speak it too much. In addition, all of the Sikh prayers and shabad hymns (sung hymns) are written in poetry. Because of this, trying to understand the Sikh prayers and the deeper philosophical meaning was hard for me. I ended up disconnecting with my faith in high school, probably because of my insecurity with my Punjabi language. I don’t think it was until the start of college that I decided to reconnect with Sikhi and really make praying meaningful to me. I have had a few moments similar to yours, while I participate in shabad kirtan (singing Sikh hymns) where I can feel the peacefulness that the hymns can bring. I’m really happy for you for having found a way to make prayers your own!
Yaakov, it was really informative to hear about your journey with prayer and I can certainly relate to a lot of it. Coming from a Lutheran background, making prayer my own meant making it more formal. While the background I come from emphasizes prayer as a conversation with God, I found over time that what really benefits me the most is a combination of two things you discussed: long, contemplative time spent with God, and a scheduled, formal prayer at specific times of the day. Currently, I pray every morning and night, each time thanking God, praising God, and trying to center myself in God’s commandments. I was surprised at how closely the content of Jewish prayer paralleled the three things I thought important to include in prayer and was additionally surprised to read about your enjoyment of contemplative prayer, same as me.