Reinterpreting the Motions: My Reflections on Jewish Prayer

What’s it like to converse with an invisible Creator for over nine hours on a single day? As an Orthodox Jew, I’ve engaged in such a conversation year after year on every Yom Kippur. It’s a day where we enter the synagogue and beg our creator to seal us in the book of life. Food is forbidden. For hours on end, we stay in the same place with the prayer book as our sole companion. For some, the Yom Kippur prayers are an opportunity to pour out one’s soul to God.  But for others, the Yom Kippur prayers can feel like a prison.

When I was a child, I would sit in the synagogue fidgeting in my seat. My praying time would be divided between twiddling my fingers and checking my machzor to see how many pages were remaining of the services. My math teacher would be proud of the speed with which I would find myself constantly calculating the number of pages remaining. 120… 119… 118…  I would glance at the chazan upon hearing him draw out a particular section. I would consider myself to be the superhero Charles Xavier and concentrate at the chazan, “Faster, faster.” 117… 116… Many hours later, I would direct my thoughts upward, “Thank you for getting me through Yom Kippur.”

A few weeks before Yom Kippur several years ago, as I shuffled out of a college classroom, my eyes were cast downward. I couldn’t remember a word of what the teacher had said. My notebook for that day was blank. I had failed to pay attention…again. After so many failures, I was starting to lose hope that I could ever pay full attention to a lecture. But as I walked down that hallway, my desperate brain came up with a possible solution. That night, during the evening prayers, I traced my fingers across each word in my siddur, or prayer book. During the middle of the prayer, I caught myself looking around at nothing in particular. I frowned and scanned the other congregants concentrating on their prayers.  I immediately glanced back down to my siddur and found the correct place.

Over the next few weeks, I gradually found my concentration improving. Then Yom Kippur arrived. I entered the synagogue for the prayers a few minutes early. As the chazan read each word, I placed my finger under the corresponding word in my machzor. I tried to cleanse my minds of the chores and obligations of the week. I contemplated my dreams and my wishes for the upcoming year. I expressed my gratitude for having been granted an amazing life for the past twenty-one years, and I prayed for many more wonderful years. I felt simultaneously connected in solitude with my creator, yet bonded with everyone else in the world.  Many hours later I directed my thoughts upwards, “Thank you for enabling me to observe Yom Kippur.”