Pray or Play?

pray or play

By Alan D. Krinsky

Imagine that we treated communal prayer the way a football team treats a game. Aside from all of the training, consider the day of the game. Everyone suits up in the locker room, and the coach delivers an inspiring pep talk. Then the team members run from the locker room to the open air of the vast stadium to the cheers of the crowd. Just before the start of the game, the coach and players huddle together for a moment to settle into the proper frame of mind. The huddle breaks, and all shout out a rallying cry, as the starting players run together onto the field and assemble in position for the first play.

Just like going to shul on Shabbat morning, right?

Except shul unfolds a little differently. No locker room, of course, and not everyone suits up anyway. There is no pep talk. We do not run with enthusiasm into the sanctuary. And we do not enter it together, but rather we enter as individual stragglers, some of us in pairs. There is no rallying cry, and no assembling into team formation. If we were football players, we would be standing all over the field, many of us engaged in trivial conversation during the game itself. There would be a seemingly constant stream of people walking on and off the field. Some players would leave early, missing the end of the game.

It is little wonder that many of us often find the shul experience so frustrating and lacking meaning. And if that’s for the “big game” on Shabbat morning, what can we say about the weekday prayers, which we approach as if the two-minute clock has started and there are no timeouts remaining?

The question is, why plan something, set aside time and space for it, and then do whatever we can to sabotage it? Why commit ourselves to prayer, schedule it, erect buildings where we engage in it, and then show up unprepared and late, and go on to distract ourselves and others with chatter irrelevant to the ostensible purpose of our gathering together? Why assemble a team and act like anything but, and certainly not do our all to achieve success in what we have planned?

To employ another metaphor, I have often considered the difference between how we attend movies and how we attend shul. No one would pay fifteen dollars and stroll in an hour late to a two-hour-long movie. There’s no pausing or rewinding, and we do not wander in and out at leisure. We do not leave early and miss the ending, save in the rare case of a truly atrocious movie. We generally adhere to the rule of not engaging in conversation during a movie, at least once the coming attractions are done and the main feature has begun. We glare at people who speak loudly or at great length, and perhaps ask them to stop, because we recognize that they are disturbing the cinematic experience for others.

Why commit ourselves to prayer, schedule it, erect buildings where we engage in it, and then show up unprepared and late, and go on to distract ourselves and others with chatter irrelevant to the ostensible purpose of our gathering together?

As far as shul goes, you can consider yourself fortunate if you attend one where there is not as much talking as there is in most shuls. It does not matter whether it is during the Torah reading or the reading of the haftarah or even during the recital of Kaddish; some people talk through all of it.

I will not address the phenomenon of the Kiddush Club, and the terrible example it sets for our children. Who would dare leave in the middle of an audience with the president to drink alcohol, lehavdil?

The contrasts listed here make our shul attendance seem absurd. Why do it at all if we are going to do it distractedly and impatiently? Why spend so much time in a room devoted to prayer if we are going to approach it in such a way as to undermine its very purpose? If we need an outlet for social needs, for catching up with our friends, why can we not do so at another place and time? Why can’t we do what we say we intend to do with the time we have allocated to communal prayer?

It seems we have forgotten that minyan is about engaging in a communal endeavor, to stand before God together, to join together in prayer, to make it meaningful and effective.

One of the problems might be that most of us do not see ourselves as the players engaged on the field, but rather as the spectators in the stands. There is nothing particularly wrong with spectators arriving late to a game, talking with friends, drinking beer and leaving early. In the shul sanctuary, however, we should see ourselves as active players, not passive observers.

What then can we do?

We can start with simple things, like acknowledging the purpose of communal prayer; we can post signs to this effect to remind ourselves and visitors to our shuls.

Maybe we should have classes in tefillah, so that we gain a better sense of the structure and flow of the service. This would help us understand that to enter in the middle of a prayer service is to miss something important, as with a game, lehavdil.

We might enact a basic rule that if people need to engage in conversation, they do so in the lobby or some other place outside of the prayer hall, and not insist on holding their conversations inside. And gabbaim will have to take a leading role here and set an example, minimizing or taking outside the sanctuary even talk necessary for the proper flow and functioning of the service.

No one is forcing us to attend shul. If we do so, we ought to at least submit to its stated purpose of standing before God in prayer.

Finally, it might feel awkward and rather foolish, but maybe, just maybe, we should learn a lesson from our sports heroes and mimic how they approach a game. Imagine that even just once, we would arrive, dressed to pray, before the start of the service, and that we would start with a pep talk and a huddle. We would then break the huddle with a rallying cry and go charging into the sanctuary, assembling our team into position, with the quarterback, I mean the chazzan, at the bimah, and start talking with God. It sounds so silly that we might never try it, but I wonder that if we did, would it prove so effective that we would do it again and again?

Alan D. Krinsky is a writer as well as a senior analyst in the field of healthcare quality improvement. His essays have appeared in the Jewish Press and the Providence Journal, as well as on a number of online sites. He lives with his family in Providence, Rhode Island.

This article was featured in the Winter 2014 issue of Jewish Action.
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