Jewish prayer can be difficult for many people — because of the Hebrew language barrier and long worship gatherings that seem repetitive and irrelevant to people’s daily lives. I understand this tension and I am going to offer three new steps so that you can, no matter what your starting point, find your voice in Jewish prayer and begin to work your way to 10% happier through prayer.
Step #1: COMMUNITY
It has been shown that religious people are happier and more satisfied with life than non-religious individuals and that people who participate in religious communities are happier and physically healthier than people with no religious affiliation. Is this because of God? Are believers in God happier than those who do not believe in God? It’s very hard to analyze this question because it is hard to put God into the laboratory.
In my opinion, I do not believe that wellbeing has do with God but rather the positive power of the community and the human connections that are formed by people in a shared faith experience. It is here, in the religious realm, where people can best express their most human values like optimism, hope, love, kindness, gratitude. It’s among a community of like minded travellers where people can appreciate and develop their emotional and psychological strengths like bravery, courage, authenticity, love of learning, humility, and forgiveness.
The wise sage of 2000 years ago, Rabbi Abaye, said, “one should always associate himself with the community when praying” — and should always say, “May it be your will, Eternal One, to direct OUR steps in peace and wellbeing.”
For Jews, prayer is often done in a minyan – a prayer group of ten people or more. Thus when Rabbi Abaye prays, “to guide our steps in peace,” he is teaching that the value of praying in community brings positive relationships and emotions that lead to increased wellbeing and this is exactly what the research shows: people who participate in religious communities are happier that those with no religious affiliation.
This is the first step in positive prayer – to join a faith community and to invest in the unique relationships that come from being part of a sacred community that teaches it’s people to love humanity, find support in times of need, and provide the love that heals.
STEP #2: GRATITUDE
The second step in raising your level of happiness and positivity through prayer is developing your spiritual voice. Many people rightly claim that they don’t understand Jewish prayers because they don’t know Hebrew.
On the other hand, I’ve heard people remark that they are glad that they don’t know the Hebrew because if they did, they would not believe in the prayers and so they are happy to be removed from the words and find meaning in the melody or the rhythm – but not in the words of prayer themselves. Either way, they claim that the Hebrew language is the problem — but I know many Israelis, where Hebrew is their native tongue, and they too have a hard time finding a voice in Jewish prayer.
So whether or not you speak Hebrew, I would like to offer a way into Jewish prayer that everyone can practice, and that is through the practice of gratitude. The daily Jewish morning prayer is called Modeh Ani, “I offer gratitude before you, living and Eternal One, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me.
To me, expressing gratitude is prayer. Gratitude, in Hebrew, Hakarat HaTov, is having the ability to be thankful and to be aware of the good and to take time to express appreciation.
It’s voiced by the famous Rabbi Nachman of Breslov who said, “gratitude rejoices with her sister joy and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair, and taking life for granted.”
You may not be able to open a Hebrew prayer book today and know how to find gratitude in the words, but you can open your heart every day to gratitude and find ways to express being thankful for your life and to be aware of the good.
Feeling grateful and expressing gratitude help to raise a person’s level of wellbeing. I often tell my students to “pay it forward with gratitude.” Keep a gratitude journal and write about the things you are grateful for in your life. Tell someone every day how grateful you are for their friendship and their presence in your life. Feel grateful for the gift of your own life — and your positivity and happiness will grow.
My favorite prayer of gratitude is the Shehechiyanu, Blessed are you, Eternal One, who has granted us life, sustained us, and brought us to this moment in time.”
We now know the two most important ways to raise happiness through Jewish prayer. First, join a faith community and second, have a daily gratitude practice. These will immediately boost your level of wellbeing and the effect will not only be a happier you, but your friends and your community will also benefit from a more grateful you.
STEP #3: When Faith Falls Apart
Being grateful and being part of a community have been shown to boost levels of happiness and overall wellbeing. But what happens in the times — where for good reason — when you feel no gratitude and you find your faith falling apart — not uncommon at all.
In my own life and in my experience of witnessing others, crises of faith and deep existential questioning tend to follow major life disappointment and loss — which can feel overwhelming — and where one can ask, “why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve this. God, Why are you letting this happen to me?
The death of a parent, a spouse, a child, or a friend can often trigger deep existential questioning about the meaning of life. Other types of loss can also cause a person to question their faith: inability to get pregnant, being single when you so desperately want to be married, getting fired from your dream job, failing to accomplish your mark, getting rejected from university, the end of a close and meaningful love relationship, just to name a few.
While you may be able to access gratitude in these crises moments, it’s not easy. In these moments, I would like to offer another Jewish prayer written by the wise sage Rabbi Hisda in the Talmud, who before a difficult journey prayed: “May it be your will, Eternal One, to conduct me in peace, to direct my steps in peace, to uphold me in peace, and to deliver me from every enemy and ambush on the road. Send a blessing upon the work of my hands, and let me obtain grace, loving-kindness and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who behold me.”
These enemies can be other people, but they can also be the sickness, the disappointment, the loss — these are the spiritual and emotional enemies that cause pain. Now may not be time for prayers of gratitude, but rather for prayers of peace, shalom, and wellbeing. I have prayed Rabbi Hisdai’s words many times for myself and for others — and with others — and I find them to bring sense of hope and optimism — important qualities of prayer life that keep us looking towards the future to a day when the temporary moment of pain has passed and where peace is found.
In my life as a faithful person and as a rabbi, I have seen that participating in prayer community, expressing prayers of gratitude, and placing words of hope and peace in your heart and mind during your painful moments confirms what modern day research has to say about prayer: That religious people are happier and more satisfied with life than non-religious individuals and that people who participate in religious communities are happier and physically healthier than people with no religious affiliation.
So, as you continue your spiritual journey, I pray that your steps are full of gratitude, peace, mercy and loving-kindness as you travel to a higher levels of happiness, wellbeing, and positivity in your life.