When I find I’m in a competition with someone who is dead-set on winning, I will often play to lose just to get things over with and not see the other person hurt; When I come up against a challenge that seems insurmountable, I look for ways around under or over the problem rather than barreling straight through. As an IT professional, I ascribe to the ideal of Larry Wall (inventor of the Perl programming language): that the three great virtues of a programmer are impatience, hubris and laziness.
So you can imagine my dismay when I realized that davening is hard. What’s more, the entire world seems to be fighting against my best efforts to makeit part of my day.
When I decided to try my hand at daily prayer rather than limiting it to a once-a-week experience, I expected to face internal challenges – not feeling confident or competent with the material, overcoming feelings of awkwardness, making prayer an experience which is not just personally engaging but also links me into the inherent meanings which exist whether I recognize and appreciate them or not. (David Wilensky of “The Reform Shuckle” does a fantastic job explaining that idea here.)
And yet, most mornings, it is NOT these things which hold me back. Most mornings it is the phone call, the important email, the essay I left last night but is now calling to be finished, the choice between taking personal time and spending another few minutes at the breakfast table with the family before everyone runs in separate directions.
It is heartbreaking to walk past my tallit and tefillin, knowing that I must move on to my next task; that my chance to develop this new habit – not to mention take a moment for myself and God – has passed by yet another morning. I know that there Judaism affords me opportunities for structured prayer two more times each day, and that unstructured moments abound, and that tomorrow is another day, but I regret that yet another today has passed. I am afraid that when I look back, I won’t like the trail I’ve left.
Which is why I deeply appreciated a piece of wisdom I received when in Israel (a reasonable hope, if not a downright expectation), from the Ori, owner of the hip and trendy t-shirt and apparel store “Shkalim” (an unexpected place for such wisdom, although not unreasonable once you get to know him).
“I decided to take a Talmud class, which met Mondays at 6pm,” he told me, “It’s not normally a busy night so I figured I could close early. My father warned me, ‘You know that every week there will be a reason you can’t go. Business will be booming, something will require your attention. Wait and see’.”
“Of course he was right,” Ori continued, “and I mentioned it to the Rabbi teaching class. What he told me was that, if it was hard, it meant I was on the right track. Only for true tzaddikim are new mitzvot easy. For the rest of us, the way that we know we are on to something important is by how difficult it is.”
“It’s like riding your bike uphill – it’s difficult, but you know that you will be stronger when you reach the top.” Then he laughed, “You may be exhausted and collapse on the ground, but you will also be stronger.”
Recently, at 7am on the morning of a day that started at 3 and wouldn’t end until 10pm that night, I walked past the tallit and tefillin sitting on the table. Instead of hiking upstairs toward the bed calling my name, I continued my journey uphill.