For prayer to matter and to be relevant, prayer's impact must extend far beyond the moment of prayer itself. If we train our hearts to follow our deeds, we will understand that one of the reasons we pray three times daily and recite blessings throughout the day is that it compels us to be constantly ready to stand in the Divine presence.
Once, at a reunion of my wife's family, I overheard a woman telling about when her newly Orthodox nephew came to visit overnight. "He was constantly praying," she said, her voice reflecting simple amazement more than anything else. "He got up in the morning and prayed. When he washed his hands, he prayed. When he went to the bathroom, he prayed. He prayed before he ate, and after he ate. He prayed in the afternoon, in the evening, and one more time before he went to sleep. He prayed, and prayed, and prayed."
I was laughing to myself, because as strange as it sounds, that's exactly what we do. There is a prayer or a blessing for virtually any occurrence. But what a powerful spiritual engine this is!
The knowledge that at any given time we are only hours away, or perhaps minutes away, from our next prayer demands that we be in a constant state of worthiness for addressing God. We need to be worthy, at every minute, in the eyes of the One who "opens His hand and feeds every living being," the One who "loves righteousness and justice," and who "raises those who are bowed down, protects the strangers, and upholds the orphan." In short, we pray in order to feel compelled to act in a God-like way every moment of the day.
Implementing this vision for what prayer should be is difficult, but dignifying. The program through which to achieve it is straightforward. We teach our kids how to pray and recite blessings as soon as they know how to talk. We teach them at the youngest ages that we pray in order to say "thank you" to God, and to ask God to bless us with the things we need. We need to begin teaching them that another reason we pray is to learn how to be like God.
The groundwork for this approach to prayer has been in place for a long time: the custom of placing money in a charity box during prayer is hundreds of years old. In every Jewish kindergarten class in the world, the charity box is carried around to all the children during the morning prayer. And the children dutifully and lovingly place pennies or nickels into the box. This message simply needs to be expanded and clarified.
In the end, we need to build a community that lives by the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: "Prayer is no substitute for action. It is rather like a beam thrown from a flashlight before us in the darkness. Prayer makes visible the right." Prayer has to matter in order for it to be a mitzvah.
To cite a further example: Orthodox law has very specific laws regarding marital sex. For approximately twelve days of each month beginning with the onset of a wife's menstruation, a married couple may not engage in any expression of physical affection whatsoever.
Regarding the laws of the monthly separation as well, there is detailed information that must be taught and learned, and observance consists of many technical elements. The critical mindset change that we need to undergo is in thinking about this practice not only in terms of what it requires us to do within our own bedrooms, but also what it demands of us in the larger public discussion of sexuality and sexual ethics.
Our community generally regards the period of separation as a means through which we are regularly reminded that there is so much more to the human being than merely a body. A person is comprised of thoughts and aspirations, feelings and dreams. These are the facets of the person that we should see when we behold him or her. To focus on a person's body is to deny his or her intellectual and spiritual essence. It is denigrating to the person and offensive to God.
And so we regularly step back from the body that we know most intimately, ensure that our perspective remains correct, and extrapolate from the inner dignity of our spouse to that of all other human beings. When we allow our hearts to follow our deeds and are moved by the implications of our technical observance, we will become an important voice in opposition to pornography and all forms of sexual exploitation.
The defense of human dignity will become a central part of the Orthodox community's agenda. We will understand that without this commitment, we will not be completely fulfilling the laws regarding marital sex.
The same can be done even with those parts of ritual law that are seen as being highly technical and dry. Eating meat that has been "koshered" (i.e., meat from which the blood has been removed according to ritual procedure) can inspire the heart to reach a very lofty place.
Moses Nachmanides, the 13th century Spanish sage and mystic, wrote that the reason people were originally prohibited (until the time of Noah) from eating any living thing is that "one creature possessed of a soul is not to eat another creature possessed of a soul, for all souls belong to God. The life of the man, just as the life of the animal, are all His."
And even when God permitted people to eat meat, God retained the spirit of this idea by prohibiting us from eating blood, "for the blood is identical with the soul, and it is not proper that one soul devour another." How vast are the implications of this mitzvah for our attitudes and actions toward issues of habitat destruction and animal welfare!
The implications are vast if we follow the advice of The Book of Instruction, and allow our hearts to be drawn after our deeds. And this, in turn, will occur only when we think and teach with this kind of orientation. Rabbis and educators have work to do. But this work represents a big step on our return path to religious relevance.