The 48 Ways to Prayer
How Rabbi Noah Weinberg's book shook my stagnation and gave me a path to meaningful prayer.
In my mind, there are two types of people. There are those who know how to pray, and those who don't.
I was one of those people who just didn’t have what it takes to pray. And I believed there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
I was raised as an observant Jew so of course I prayed. Once a day since first grade, and twice a day since fifth, in fact. And about a year ago, I started saying the evening prayers as well. Being 20 years old, this added up to a mighty lot of prayers! And when you count Shabbos and Holidays, I was praying a lot.
But all too often my prayers were stilted, forced through numb lips, and even worse, a numb heart.
I felt down about my inability to connect properly. Sure, I had my moments of intense prayer. And although I felt connected to God, it was usually a huge struggle to stay focused when I opened my prayer book. I tried, oh, did I try. But I could not get myself unstuck.
Enter The 48 Ways to Wisdom.
Based on the Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers (6:6), the 48 Ways is Rabbi Noah Weinberg's transformational series. I’ve been learning the 48 Ways book for the last few years. I like to learn it during the days of the Omer. As we have 49 days before the holiday of receiving the Torah (48 Ways plus one day for review), I feel it is the perfect time.
This year, I wanted to take it to the next level. I sat down the first night, holding my well-worn copy, and wondered what more I could do. And then I noticed it.
At the very end of the book was one extra chapter. Entitled “The 48 Ways as Tools”, it described the ways as tools to reach any goal in spirituality. A wild thought suddenly flew through my head. Could this possibly be what I needed to finally shake my prayer stagnation?
There was only one way to find out. With a huge measure of trepidation, a great deal of anticipation, and a little helping of what I was almost too scared to identify as hope, my way to meaningful prayer began.
So here are a few selections from my spiritual travelogue, an adventure on the high seas of supplication, gratitude, relationship, and prayer.
Way #1- Constant Study: Imagine what your life would be like if you lived with proper prayer
Ah. Who needs palm trees when you can dream of the perfect prayer? I’m imagining myself swaying over my prayer book, finally feeling the connection I’ve always wanted to feel, and appreciating each word instead of speedreading my way through prayer, with disjointed words and malformed syllables the poor victims.
I’m taking this dream and putting it on the calendar, with a label of “Day 48”. Now this is motivation!
Way # 2 - Define the Issue: What does prayer mean?
Whoa. Talk about a knock-out. Could I really learn to pray without properly articulating what prayer is?
After giving it some thought, this is the definition of what I believe prayer means to me: Talking to the Creator of the World as a reality in front of me, realizing that He is right here and I am actually talking to someone who is listening closely, and I can thank Him and ask for anything I need. And since the Hebrew verb for prayer, lihitpallel, is in the reflexive, prayer is also a means of self-examination. Is what I am praying for good for me? Is that really what I should be asking for?
Way #3- Saying it out loud
Who knew that praying out loud puts your concentration into a whole new league? The difference is so huge, I should take out a billboard to let everyone know!
Way #5-The Power of Awe: What is awesome about the impact of prayer?
Prayer is awesome because…. You whisper a few words in the corner of your family room, and God actually hears what you’re saying! And… He answers you! What could be more awesome than that?
I’m starting to see a change in the way I approach talking to God. As I learn a new way every day, I keep that way in mind and it’s been making a different. So grateful!
Way #7- Humility and Objectivity: How would you motivate someone else to live with the correct attitude to prayer?
Hmm. How would I motivate someone else?
I think the strongest reason for investing time and effort into your relationship with God is that it's worth it. It's the right thing to do, and you get so much more than you give.
Way #10- Serving the Wise: Ask a wise man to help you understand prayer better.
"No way I'm doing this," is my instant reaction. "I don't have who to ask, and I'm way to embarrassed."
And no matter how much I try to psych myself up to do it, it's a no-go. And I feel pretty down about it. I think of calling my grandmother. The way she prays, her tears, concentration, and palpable connection, has always been something I've wanted to emulate. But somehow, reaching out and discussing my definition of prayer is too difficult.
And then an unsolicited email lands in my inbox. From my grandmother. It was an email to a group of her contacts, in response to a question someone had posed to her. The contents? Her definition of prayer!
"We need to feel that Someone is listening and that Someone cares for us and has the ability to help us."
Way #18 - Harnessing the power of physical pleasure: Talk to your body.
This feels really strange. I mean, who talks to their body? This Way to Wisdom is becoming an integrated being, where the soul leads and the body provides the power, kind of like a horse and a rider. By talking to your body, and encouraging it to cooperate by pointing out the benefits it will have, you harness your body's passion and power.
And… it works! I realized that a lot of what was holding me back was physical stuff, lack of patience, time, busy with other things, distraction. And when I told my body that "Yeah, it's hard but it's going to be so worth it, and you'll feel amazing afterwards," it was so much easier to pray well.
Way #26 - Know your place: Compare yourself to someone who prays well. How did they get there?
I immediately think of my great-grandmother. A Holocaust survivor who built a beautiful family and thriving business and did so much for others. I picture her sitting quietly with her blue book of Psalms, murmuring the words that clearly meant so much to her.
As a survivor who kept her all-encompassing faith in the darkest days in mankind's history, her connection to God was something so real, something she nurtured from her youngest childhood days in Eastern Europe, through Auschwitz, to a new home in America. While my experiences are so far removed from hers, and please God, we should never again know of such suffering, I hope to grow a relationship as real and as meaningful.
Way #41- Living in Reality: Why is prayer a real obligation and how would you explain it to others?
A funny memory suddenly pops up. Something about a teacher of mine telling up about a pair of friends who are very close but don't talk. They just sit quietly side by side. I remember clearly how funny we found that. My class laughed about it for days.
The joke is on us, because if you're not talking honestly to God, you're really doing the same thing.
Way #47 – Growth comes from implementing wisdom each day: How will you live with prayer daily?
As I approach the end of the 48 Ways, the joy of accomplishment is very real. But as much as I'm glad to be finishing, I'm more than a little afraid. It's almost like I'm going to be left all on my own.
But Way 47 provides the answer. Growth comes from implementing wisdom each day.
I decide that every day I will stop before each prayer and remind myself of one of the Ways to Prayer, and focus my thoughts on that one way while I’m praying.
The most important thing I've learned? That there are two categories of people. Those who can pray, and those who haven't yet learned to pray.
Which category do you belong to? And what will you do about it?