I went to bed late last night, as I didn’t think I would sleep, having forgotten to take my meds when I got home from the restaurant, plus I needed passive unwinding time in front of the TV. I watched Doctor Who (Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways), and felt myself frustrated by Russell T Davies’ writing style again. To be fair to him, some of it is just contemporary TV in general rather than him in particular, but I can put up with other writers more easily.

When I did get to bed, I remembered something I need to do today, but I was too tired to get up and write a note, which was a very bad idea, as if it’s not written down, I don’t remember it and now I can’t work out what it is. I think I figured it out in the end, but frustrated and worried me for much of the day.

I woke up very late and after breakfast was so tired I went back to bed (or laid on the bed, as it was hot). I’m not sure if I dozed; I think just lying in a cool (ish), quiet, dark room helped restore me after all the social interactions, social anxiety and sensory overload of yesterday. I felt a bit fatigued afterwards, but not burnt out. Unfortunately, it was 3.30pm by that stage and I was still in pyjamas.

I spent a while trying to track down the complete Hebrew original of a Midrash (rabbinic expansion of the biblical story) that I had only read in part for my devar Torah; when I finally found it, I couldn’t make much of the bits that I didn’t have the translation for, which was frustrating. Aside from that, I spent about half an hour starting to write my devar Torah. I’m glad to have got the bones of it down, although I need to work on it some more tomorrow. I am conscious that I could have done more if I hadn’t been burnt out, which is frustrating, but there isn’t a lot I can do about it.

I didn’t really have time to exercise today, and I thought it was too hot even for a walk.

After dinner it was cooler outdoors than in. I sat in the garden and worked on my novel. Making amendments after having finished a couple of drafts turns out to be like remodelling the bottom layers of a house of cards after I’ve finished it; one false move and everything collapses. That’s how it feels, anyway. I’m terrified of accidentally repeating myself or introducing a continuity error or just introducing a very obviously interpolated and out-of-place passage. When writing a new passage, I “merely” have to think up something interesting, original and true and write it down, but rewriting requires revisiting written (and half-forgotten) passages and restructuring them, keeping them doing what they were doing, but also fitting with my new writing.


One of my religious targets for this Jewish year was improving my kavannah, my concentration, or, better, mindfulness, in prayer, although I wasn’t really sure how to do this.

There is a kind of paradox in Jewish prayer, that if God is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent, He knows what we need and supplies it, so what is the point of praying? There are many approaches to this. I once gave a shiur (religious talk) about just three of them. To summarise very briefly:

  1. Prayer is a process of building a relationship with God by asking Him for everything we need and telling Him all our thoughts. The content is less important than the interaction, which builds relationship. (Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)
  2. Prayer is a means of establishing a “covenantal community” which happens to include God as a member. Asking for things isn’t the point as much as establishing the community. (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith)
  3. Prayer is a self-reflexive process of examining ourselves and whether we truly need the things we want and whether we will use them well. If we undergo the process correctly, we can become worthy of things that we did not deserve previously. (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Horeb)

(1 and 2 are quite similar, except 1 is personal and 2 is communal, including other Jews. I’m not sure if Rav Soloveitchik views the covenantal community as being the local community or the entire Jewish people.)

The last week or two I have been trying to focus on one of these mindsets of prayer while saying the Amidah, the most important prayer and the centrepiece of every prayer service. It’s been an interesting experiment and it has definitely helped with kavannah. I’ve mostly been focusing on numbers 1 and 2, as 3 is more self-reflexive than I’ve felt up to lately and doesn’t really apply on Shabbat (when I have most time and energy for prayer) as Shabbat prayers are not petitionary, at least not to the same extent as weekday prayers.

9 thoughts on “Prayer Mindsets

  1. “Making amendments after having finished a couple of drafts turns out to be like remodelling the bottom layers of a house of cards after I’ve finished it; one false move and everything collapses.”

    This is an extremely accurate description of how revising feels to me.

    I like what you wrote about approaches to prayer. I’m familiar with 1, and as you say 2 is close enough to that, but 3 is new to me. I’d be interested to read more about that.

    Also, how do you apply 2 to davening alone? It seems more applicable to praying in shul, or in a minyan – but maybe I’m taking it too literally.

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    1. My thinking re: 2 is that the covenantal community isn’t necessarily where you physically are. For one thing, I’m not sure if Rav Soloveitchik meant it as a local community or the Jewish people generally. Even if it’s just the local community, I think I can still try to feel a part of the community. The Talmud says if you can’t go to shul, you should try to pray at the same time as the shul minyan, so you can be part of the community that way. I was actually doing that last year, but I seem to have got out of the habit. Even if I don’t do that, I try to focus on the fact that I’m part of a larger community.

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      1. One of the things I tend to feel very keenly when I’m at Shul, but especially on the Yomim Norim is that sense of connection in two directions. Laterally, as in I’m literally praying at the same time and roughly the same language as my brother and parents and cousins who all live in different parts of the country. And also to my years past where I have stood at this same time saying this same thing as my parents did when they were were children and my grandparents when they were children.
        When I feel that and it usually happens only for a few seconds and not every Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur, it’s an overwhelming wave of connection. Like for a moment, I feel like I’m experiencing a fraction of revealed G-dliness in that moment of connection. An glimpse of a hint of understanding of what it must be like to exist in all spaces and all times. Although clearly limited by what I understand, because while I can visualize my family in their synagogues, and myself as a child in my childhood synagogue with my family, I can’t comprehend in the slightest what Rosh Hashana looked or sounded like for my great-grandparents or my great-great grandparents, or any grandchild I might have. Even still that moment of connection is overwhelming for my limited mind.

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  2. I get #1 and #2, but something about #3 isn’t really speaking to me. I can understand #3 in the context of prayer helping me be grateful for what I already have. For example, I might pray for children, which I don’t have and really want, and the process makes me appreciate the family that I do have. But I don’t feel like praying for children is about becoming worthier to merit becoming a mother. Maybe I’m interpreting this wrong

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    1. I don’t think it means that in every case, praying will, or could, make you worthy of getting something. Sometimes we don’t have something for other reasons than not being worthy of it. I guess in other cases, it might help to come to terms with not having it, like you say.

      Ultimately, if it isn’t speaking to you, you don’t have to use this approach.

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