A friend recently forwarded this quote, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, about prayer. Gandhi came from a prayer tradition quite different from the Jewish one, and yet his words speak powerfully about our own experience with tefillah (prayer). I have appended comments, Rashi-style:
Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.
“A longing of the soul”
We need to express that longing, to acknowledge the need to heal our spirits, to seek wholeness in a fragmented world.
The soul does not speak English or Hebrew or Aramaic. It speaks yearning. It speaks prayer wordlessly.
“Admission of one’s weakness”
We go through life trying to demonstrate to everybody else and to ourselves how strong we are, how resilient we are, how talented we are.
We do not willingly admit weakness.
It is only through prayerful moments that we allow ourselves to admit even privately that we are vulnerable, that we are broken, that we need more from God or from others or from the universe.
“Better to have a heart without words than words without a heart”
Tefillah / prayer is not intended to be an empty recitation of words in a language we do not understand.
Rather, the ancient yearnings of our ancestors, found on the pages of the siddur, transport our own longing; those words provide a conduit for the heart, a tap into the soul.
As we learn in Pirkei Avot (2:18), Al ta’as tefilatekha qeva, Do not make your prayer a prescribed routine, but a plea for mercy and grace before God. Your words of tefillah should not be fixed, but filled with kavvanah: intention, spontaneity, honesty to yourself.
So as we sing / chant / mumble / meditate on the words of our own tradition, as we let the longing of our souls flow, remember that the kavvanah, the heart behind the words, matters more than the words themselves.
Rabbi Seth Adelson