While traveling through a small town, Reb Uri of Strelisk stopped to davven Shacharit (Literally, “pray the Morning Prayer service.”) with the local congregation. As was his practice, Reb Uri lengthened the prayers and entered into ecstatic revelry. After the service had ended, the rabbi of the town spoke to Reb Uri in private.
“Does it not occur to you, Rebbe, that your ecstasy and lengthening of the prayers is an inconvenience upon the congregation? After all, the Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva prayed with such intensity that he would begin his prayers in one corner of a room and end them in another. Because of this he chose to pray alone. On those occasions when he did pray with the congregation, he used to keep his prayers brief so as not to inconvenience anyone.”
Reb Uri replied: “Perhaps there is another way to understand the Talmud’s teaching on this matter. When our sages tell us that Rabbi Akiva prayed with the congregation, they mean to tell us that the congregation accompanied their rabbi on his ecstatic journey. Because they were all praying with such intensity, there was no need to lengthen the prayers. When our sages tell us that Rabbi Akiva prayed alone, they mean to say that he alone among the congregation was praying with the proper intensity, and in these cases he had to work much harder and longer to bring them along.
“This would be like you and I walking to the market. If we walked at the same swift pace, our walk would be short. But if you insisted on walking at half my pace, I would have to wait for you to catch up so that we are not each walking alone. This would mean making the walk much longer.”
Talmud: The authoritative body of rabbinic law and legend spanning seven centuries from 200 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.
Rabbi Akiva (45-135): According to tradition, Rabbi Akiva was an illiterate shepherd whose wife, Rachel, encouraged him to leave home and study. He returned many years later with thousands of disciples. Hence Akiva’s teaching: “Who is wealthy? A man with a virtuous wife” (Shabbat 25b). Akiva supported the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Roman occupation of Israel. He was arrested and tortured to death at the age of ninety.
When it comes to prayer and spiritual practice, you must walk at your own pace. The purpose of practice is not to get from “here” to “there” but to realize that “there” is always “here.” Spiritual practice must be done lishmah, for its own sake, without a goal or purpose. You walk for the pleasure of walking; you sit for the pleasure of sitting; you pray for the pleasure of praying. When we turn practice into work, we mistake its true nature as play.
Conventional language regarding spirituality tends to focus on workrelated words. We speak of spiritual practice, discipline, effort, work. In Hebrew we use the term avodah, work, to refer to prayer and meditation practices. These words distract us from the truth about spirituality. Work is all about earning something, doing something, getting somewhere. But spirituality is all about accepting, receiving, embracing, and surrendering. It is as if we want spirituality to be difficult so as to excuse our not bothering with it.
Better to speak of spiritual play than spiritual work. Play can be no less intense and engaging, but it doesn’t hold out the hope of a prize. You play for the sheer fun of playing. When your spiritual life is done for joy, your life will be filled with joy.