Malka stood in the cool shade of the Western Wall’s stones. So many Jewish tears have been shed in this sacred spot, Gentile onlookers have taken to calling it the “Wailing Wall”—but to Malka, it is the Kotel HaMa’aravi, the ancient retaining wall that once formed the base for the Holy Temple.
The melodious sound of the morning prayers rung out from the men’s section across the divider. Malka held her prayerbook near her face, but this was only to block out the commotion and to enclose a miniature, private sanctuary. She was pouring out her heart to God in her own words.
What she said was not particularly poetic, profound, or well organized, but it certainly was heartfelt. At times she bubbled over with gratitude and love; other times she sounded more like an unsatisfied customer trying to explain why she deserves a full refund. Just about everything came up: her children, finances, her parents in America, victims of a recent terror attack, her social anxiety, her brother in the Israel Defense Forces, her sister’s recent surgery, the elections…
Prayer is talking to God. Conversational, extemporaneous prayer is the oldest kind of prayer; it goes all the way back to Adam. Over time, poets, prophets, and scholars have composed powerful and inspiring odes, psalms, hymns, and petitions that are treasured by the Jewish community, but the art of simple conversation has never been lost.
Jewish life is intentionally designed to remind a person constantly about the presence of God. Observant Jewish men wear a skullcap called a yarmulke; its name is connected to the Hebrew words for “fear of the king,” and it serves as a continuous reminder that God is above. Tassels known as tzitzit dangle from a four-cornered undershirt; the Bible explains that its purpose is “to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them” (Numbers 15:39).
Before tasting any food, when seeing a rainbow, after hearing thunder, and even after using the bathroom, Jews utter a brief expression of thanks. Many Jews try to be cognizant of even the smallest, most mundane details of life and carry them out in a way that acknowledges the presence of God.
These habits have the potential to make one’s whole life feel like a conversation with our Father in heaven. At the very least, it calls to attention that he is always listening and interested in what we do and say. It reminds us to be full of gratitude for even the basic things in life.
Pray without Ceasing
Scripture instructs that prayer should be constant in our lives:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
This succinctly expresses a Jewish attitude toward prayer. When one is constantly aware of God’s presence, all of life becomes a constant conversation with him.
The “constant conversation” mode of Jewish prayer is depicted (albeit somewhat caricaturized) in Fiddler on the Roof, as Tevye freely includes God in his everyday life. While not every observant Jew communicates with God in this manner throughout the day, there are certainly some who do, and it is natural within Jewish life. Mothers with small children may not find many opportunities to complete the formal daily prayers at their set times, but by speaking with him throughout the day, they maintain an intimate connection. The ancient sage Rabbi Yochanan said, “Would that a man pray all day long!”
Perhaps one does not feel eloquent enough to pray. But prayer does not require poetry. Your private prayers should be in your native language, in the type of speech that is most natural for you, because it should express what is in your heart. Your goal is not to impress God with your vocabulary, but to open communication. Think of yourself as a small child with his mother or father.
In any case, if one does not have the words to pray, then that is what they should pray about. Tell your Father in heaven that you can’t think of what to say and why. If you feel inadequate, or unworthy, or overwhelmed then tell him that and ask him for help.
Conversational prayer dispels the excuse, "I don't have time to pray." One can talk with God in this way while walking, driving, while washing dishes, or gardening. Jews do not have the custom of bowing heads or folding hands when praying. Just talking, like talking to any friend, is good enough.