I recently read Rabbi Mike Comins‘ Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do about It (published by Jewish Lights). I recommend the book highly.
Rabbi Comins comes at things from a perspective that resonates with me. He has been deeply involved in the experience of Jewish spirituality in wild places. While living in Israel, he founded Ruach HaMidbar Desert Trips and Retreats, an organization that leads Jewish spiritual journeys into the wilderness of our homeland. He is also the founder of TorahTrek Spiritual Wilderness Adventures, which offers similar exploration of Jewish spiritual experience in the context of the undeveloped, natural world. I live in a small Jewish community in a very beautiful and woodsy part of the country, and being a lover of hiking, kayaking, camping, and generally being way out in the sticks, Comins’ work in this area is intriguing to me. However, his Making Prayer Real book caught my attention for other reasons.
Prayer is hard, as the book’s subtitle notes. Very few of us find our souls enthralled with traditional Jewish prayer every time that we engage it. Very often, the words we pray from the siddur seem archaic. It can be difficult to derive from them much spiritual feeling apart from the recognition that our people have used them for millennia. Comins’ book gives us permission to acknowledge this challenge. In his preface, he relates his own recognition of it:
And who was this God, who did miracles that I knew were impossible, like splitting the Red Sea? Why would the prayer book try to impress me by making such a big deal out of something so unbelievable, and then brag about saving us by recounting the drowning of an army’s worth of Egyptians? The prayers were written a long time ago for a very different audience.
Still, there is a need to connect with more than our people’s narrative in our involvement in prayer. We need to reach for God, and to somehow convey the things we carry deep inside to someone who can bear their burden. Rabbi Comins continues later in the book:
….I call out because I need to call out. Because life, with all its wonder and beauty, can also be devastating. Because there are failures and insecurities, doubts and disappointments. I need to encounter and express my vulnerabilities, my failures, my shortcomings, my worries. I do not want to lead a fake life. I want to live a life of personal integrity, wholly accessing all of my being.
Aspiring to guide the reader to create a personal relationship with God through a practice of prayer, the body of Rabbi Comins’ book is dedicated to exploring different facets of Jewish prayer and meditative practice in the words of dozens of respected rabbis and lay teachers from across the denominational spectrum. The book flows nicely from The Spiritual Dynamics of Prayer to Beginning to Pray and Growing and Healing Through Prayer. It examines Embracing Traditional Jewish Prayer and then makes suggestions on Building a Prayer Practice. The book also includes references and links to helpful resources. The overall tone is light, even when it explores very serious topics; this approach is effective because it makes Jewish prayer feel like a broad array of experiences laid out before us, a toolbox with many different options inside. It demonstrates to those who have not been able to engage in a meaningful practice of Jewish prayer that doing so is within reach. It is a worthwhile read for anyone who is serious about connecting to prayer as a Jew.
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