Knowing how to read Hebrew is fundamental to living an observant life. No one will argue with that.
And so, my parents taught me to read Hebrew at the age of three or four—and over the next few years, my rebbeim worked hard to ensure that my kriah would be flawless.
Unfortunately, however, my tefillah education stopped there.
No one taught us about the poetry of tefillah, or about the beautiful themes found in the Amidah or in Birchos HaShachar, or about the need to understand the words of the prayers on even the most basic level. The result was that, as a child, most of the tefillos were enigmatic to me—strange words strung into sentences and paragraphs that I did not understand.
Fortunately, as I matured, my understanding of the tefillos matured as well. For this, I am indebted to Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, a”h, a dear friend whom I knew from our days at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. Since Meir’s petirah a few weeks ago, much has been written about his extraordinary contribution to Jewish life. How many thousands of Jews were brought closer to Yiddishkeit because of his vision, determination and tenacity to bring his ideas to fruition? Countless Jews are able to daven and study Torah because he set out to make classical Jewish texts accessible to English-speaking Jews. In 1984, ArtScroll introduced its siddur, which changed the way I daven, and, I’m sure, the way thousands of others daven. The siddur’s clear translation and insightful commentary made davening a whole new experience. Hundreds of synagogues—even some non-Orthodox synagogues—purchased the siddur, enamored by its user-friendly format and beautiful presentation. To date, nearly one million copies of the siddur have been sold.
But even as siddurim such as the ArtScroll Siddur—and more recently, the Koren Siddur with its exceptional graphic design—have succeeded in changing the way we daven, the challenge of tefillah remains very real. This is especially true nowadays because we live in an age of unrelenting distractions.
In our cover story on exploring the power of prayer, Rabbi Rafi Eis, director of educational programs at the Herzl Institute and Ra”m at Midreshet Lindenbaum, delineates the various obstacles to meaningful prayer:
We struggle to focus with our overly scheduled, hectic, stressed and sleep-deprived lives; we also struggle to focus with the constant pinging and buzzing of our smartphones that beg (meekly ask?) for our attention; it is hard to connect to esoteric matters; and we lack true understanding of ourselves while also being too scared to let down our guard to truly see our souls. We are afraid to be vulnerable, lest we not like what we see.
Along the same lines, in a Q & A with OU President Moishe Bane, Rabbi Binyomin Eisenberger, rav of Khal Heichal Hatefillah in Boro Park, says that the constant need for diversion represents one of the “spiritual challenges” of our times. “People don’t have the menuchas hanefesh [tranquility] to focus . . . [one has to have] peace of mind in order to daven. You can’t be distracted by the millions of different distractions that we have today, more so than in any previous generation because we carry the distractions with us into shul.”
Technology has invaded our lives—but most distressingly, it has infiltrated our spiritual lives. It is not surprising that “mindfulness”—the ability to focus intently and to be fully present—is so trendy nowadays. It is perhaps a reaction to the frenzied, diversion-obsessed nature of the times in which we live. Could learning mindfulness help us become better daven-ers? Perhaps. But in our cover story, we do not purport to offer solutions to the challenge of prayer. We don’t want to provide quick, simplistic answers to complex, nuanced problems; with this issue we are hoping to start an important communal conversation about how we can improve tefillah, for ourselves and for our children.
In addition to our cover story on tefillah, we take an in-depth look at the life and role of the contemporary rebbetzin. Writer Avigayil Perry interviewed a number of rebbetzins, some just starting out, others with decades of experience, to get a sense of what motivates these idealistic, tireless women to dedicate their lives to klal work. And despite the fact that many of them have full-time, demanding careers and busy households, they admit that they “wouldn’t trade [their job] as rebbetzin for anything.”
Also in this issue we are honored to present a short story by Rabbi Haim Sabato, famed rosh yeshivah and novelist whose spiritually stirring writing is always a treat. Perfect for the Yomim Noraim, the story, translated from the Hebrew by expert translator Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, is appearing in English for the first time in our pages. Aside from these thought-provoking articles, this issue offers our usual array of articles on halachah, kashrut, health, recipes and the latest Jewish books. Don’t forget to e-mail your thoughts and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, and best wishes for a kesivah v’chasimah tovah.
Gerald M. Schreck is chairman of the Jewish Action Committee and vice chairman of the OU Board of Governors.