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PRAYER AND TENNIS: A Rosh Hashanah thought

After reading a recent article about Rabbi Levin’s new book on prayer, I was intrigued. First, I would direct readers to “Rav Schwalb on Prayer,” Hayim Donin’s book “To Pray as a Jew,” or Aish.com or Chabad.org, where much of this “new book” has already been covered and in fact, will take readers into much more sophisticated understanding and appreciation of prayer.

To claim “{this} has not been written in a book before,” I would argue that not only has it been written, but has been accessible to the Jewish people for decades. That aside, the real challenge, I believe, is how do we get Jews engaged with prayer and once we have done that, how do we keep them growing with their practice and appreciation of prayer. 

I am a pretty simple Jew. I accept that prayer is a complicated, complex, and a highly arduous activity, of which most people, me included, do NOT want to take seriously. Can you blame us? In most circumstances it is boring, transient and irrelevant. These are pretty outrageous claims, I know. But let’s be honest, most of us don’t engage in prayer on a sophisticated level other than intellectual pursuits or occasional conversations with the Divine. That itself is a difficult concept to grasp … who, what, where is G-d. My premise is the following: If one is really serious about prayer, not just an occasional encounter with it, then it is no different than learning to play tennis. Let me explain.

If we want to take up the game of tennis, we need three things: the right equipment, the right court and the right teacher. If you simply want to hit the ball back and forth, then these three items are not critical. If on the other hand you want to be somewhat competitive, really feel accomplished, succeed in maybe winning a few games, and at the end critique your successes, you absolutely need to have these crucial elements.

Isn’t prayer the same thing? If we want to be good at it (granted “good at it” is yet to be defined), it also is going to require the right equipment, court and teacher. How can one “get into prayer” if we don’t have really good equipment such as a good siddur … one with depth, commentary or facility. Just as you need the right court (you can’t play tennis in a swimming pool), you can’t pray unless you have the “right spot.” It should be a spot that you visit frequently and feel like it is a “home court.” And, how can you possibly digest all of this if you don’t have a mentor/teacher who not only believes, practices and lives prayer, but one who can be with you during your journey.

I can’t imagine how we could possibly get “good” at prayer and experience “highs” — success, contentment or even integration — without these three helpers. If you say “I don’t feel prayer … it’s boring ... it’s irrelevant to my life,” you may need to improve your game. You have to do some work. 

Let’s get down to it. Find a mentor/teacher who lives prayer … someone who does it every day, who feels it, talks it, studies it and will embrace your efforts and invite you to join in his/her journey. By the way, it’s a never-ending journey.

Next, do you have a “place?” Every day, every opportunity to go to that place is wonderful. What makes the “place” even more exciting is going to a place where you’ll find others who are on the same, similar or advanced journey. I don’t always like to play tennis with beginners. Having a place to pray with other like-minded people is critical. 

Finally, do we have the right equipment? It’s not just the right siddur. It’s the clothes we wear. It’s the books we read that have intellectual and spiritual depth that will help us delve into the vast ocean of meaning. The list is endless … and don’t forget it’s having a Torah around.

Finally, I want to caution you. We will not always have success … we will lose some … and win some. It’s hard work to be able to pray … to be able to have meaning beyond reading someone else’s commentary. Every time we try we are NOT going to say, “I won, that was the best game I have ever played.” In fact, the opposite might be true. It can be a journey of despair, discouragement and sweat … but, as I said in the beginning, if we are serious about prayer, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. If you start, let me know. I’d love to play you in a game and meet up with you on the right court.

Allan M. Gonsher, LCSW, RPT/S is a clinician, an internationally recognized speaker and guest lecturer who conducts workshops on play therapy techniques for school counselors, psychologists, social workers and mental health professionals. He is a member of Congregation BIAV.