Parshat Tzav: Tending to the fire of prayer

Rabbi Linda Joseph
Rabbi Linda Joseph (Courtesy of Joseph)

By Rabbi Linda Joseph

Here comes the rabbi’s confession: I struggle with prayer on Zoom. Because I must manage slide sharing, silencing congregants and other technologies, putting myself in the prayer zone, what our tradition calls “kavannah,” is quite challenging.

If I am to be even more deeply honest, being present in prayer can also be difficult when worshipping in person or on one’s own. Our Torah portion, Tzav, speaks of the Torah of the burnt offering: “a fire must continuously burn on the altar, it may not go out” (Leviticus 6:6). These days, long after sacrifice has been replaced by prayer, I like to imagine the fire continuously burning on the altar as the fire we must continuously tend to in our hearts to enable our prayer to be filled with heartfelt meaning.

You see, praying is like the muscles of our body. We all know what happens when we have not exercised for a while, and then we go back to working out. Ouch! Those muscles hurt! They are not as limber. And getting into the mindset of the joy, rather than the oy, while we exercise is much more challenging as we push ourselves through the physical routine.

Prayer is exercise for the muscle that is our soul. Unless we keep practicing, unless we go through the routine on a regular basis, it is tougher to get to those moments filled with deep meaning. Getting from the “keva,” the fixed words of our tradition, into the “kavannah” zone requires us to engage in a regular prayer workout, ideally in a community, but also on our own.

The act of continuously feeding the fire of Jewish spirituality with prayer, stoking the fire that is on the altar of our souls, not letting that fire peter out — in other words, “practice” — will keep our prayer muscles continuously warm and we will be able to pray with more intention. The highs of connection in prayer, of being in the zone, become more attainable.

So here comes my second rabbi’s confession. Over this last year, as difficult as prayer is on Zoom, it has become easier over time to find the occasional moment of “kavannah” while I pray. Keeping the fire of prayer burning, even in these strangest of times, not letting it go out, has brought warmth and comfort knowing that our traditions endure.

Rabbi Linda Joseph is the rabbi of Bet Aviv in Columbia.

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