There are two types of “return” in prayer: The ratzoh v’shov (withdrawal and return) of daily prayer, which is like the tide coming in and going out, and the special Shabbat or holiday prayers that have a more drawn-out cyclical nature of return. On a daily basis, knowing I’ll step in and out of prayer is comforting and stabilizing. I have become so accustomed to the words of the liturgy that I rarely give them much detailed thought. But when I return to holiday prayers, I note that time has passed and I marvel at returning to those prayers: the same self but wholly different from the last go around. At this time last year, I was praying for a healthy birth; at this time last year, I hadn’t yet moved to Berkeley.
Daily prayer for me usually happens at home, where I experience it like a trusted recipe. Returning to the same words every day feels like an act of love, like any of the regular things we do every day for loved ones: making lunches, eating dinner together, singing bedtime songs. Not creative, generally speaking, but nourishing and meaningful in its regularity. The liturgy has a texture and an arc that I’m at once deeply familiar with and also aware that I’m still a stranger to even now at 34 years old. I’m not sure I’ll ever focus sufficiently to access all that the prayers truly contain.
Returning to certain verses can serve to center my attention — such as the r’faeinu prayer for healing those who are ill, especially if I’m concerned for a friend or member of my family. Sometimes a line announces its presence in unanticipated ways, a mysterious confluence of what I have on my heart and the verse that I happen to notice in that moment, as I begin to speak it aloud.
There are times when my need to pray totally resists being held by the words in the siddur. Hitbodedut, a style of prayer recommended by Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, has alerted me to the opportunity to speak (in private) out loud and extemporaneously with God about everything and anything that is on my heart and mind. At other times, when I try to pray with my children, I work to deepen my appreciation for embodied prayer, allowing the very sounds and motions we make to become the vehicle for our prayers, more than the full text of the liturgy. And yet, I return to the standard liturgy again and again. I sense an opportunity within the text when I finally give myself permission to be fully awake to it.
Communal prayer takes on an entirely different quality for me. Especially on Shabbat and holidays, the private-communal dynamic — being alone in my prayers in one moment and then with a community the next — is palpable and powerful. The synagogue community roots me in an experience of return that we all share, and from that place I have the freedom to look around, to pause, to listen to the liturgy as it comes out of my mouth, or from my neighbors, or from the community as a whole.
Although I would have assumed the opposite, I feel freer to experiment, to take in the liturgy in a variety of ways when I’m davening in a communal context. This year on Rosh Hashanah, I noticed an older woman using the publisher’s bookmark as a line marker. When I tried this, I became momentarily immersed in a single line of prayer without feeling anxious that I’d lose track of it in the sea of others; each passage received its proper attention.
Days and days return me again to prayer; so many orbits around the sun. Like seeing pictures of beloved family members taken over a span of years, I can recall, when I return to certain prayers, so many layers of emotion and experience sparked by my own history with those verses. It is as if these words contain spiritual snapshots in time. I return to this sacred liturgy again and again forever seeking more, yearning for the ultimate Divine Source of vitality within it all.
Adina Polen is the founder of Beyond Noah’s Ark (beyondnoahsark.org), an organization that empowers people to become active makers of their Jewish experience through text study and collaborative project-based artistic creation. Sun and Moon, Together, a book she co-created with her father, Rabbi Nehemia Polen, was shared digitally in honor of the 2017 solar eclipse, and is now available in print (beyondnoahsark.org/shop). Adina lives in Berkeley, Calif., with her husband, Ariel Mayse, and their three children.