06/22/2011 08:24 am ET | Updated Aug 22, 2011

Prayer: An Expression of the Heart

If asked, even synagogue-going Jews will acknowledge a reality: most do not pray. This reality is disturbing, not just because it questions the purpose of the many hours each has spent in services (each Shabbat service is two to three hours long), but because the absence of sincere prayer occasions is a great loss for the human soul. In order to illustrate the substance of this loss, I offer a story.

The Rizhiner Rebbe told a story about the famous Rebbe Zusia. Of all the Rebbes of his generation, Rebbe Zusia is the only one who never passed on the Torah he had learned.

There is a good reason why. His teacher was the Great Maggid, Dov-Ber of Mezeritch. And if, while teaching, the Maggid would have occasion to mention God's name (about every ten seconds), Reb Zusia would be unable to control himself. "God!" he would cry. "God is great!" "God is wonderful!" "God has blessed us!" And he would start singing and dancing.

Unable to be quieted, Reb Zusia would be sent out to the woods to dance and sing, and to praise God.

Thus he never learned much Torah.*

When I think about my own relationship with Torah and the path I try to walk, Reb Zusia is not my model. Had I been in his yeshiva, I would have scowled at all that dancing and singing getting in the way of my learning. In fact, his more studious, more serious brother Rebbe Elimelekh of Lizhensk is far more the ideal I revere.

But more and more these days I find myself remembering Reb Zusia, and of his dancing heart. Not only did he know how to love God, he himself was beloved by his people. He would have vehemently denied it, but Reb Zusia was a tzaddik -- a saint.

The fact of his sainthood bears some examination. Reb Zusia was not a tzaddik in any way that we would recognize: he performed no great wonders, nor did he illuminate matters divine for the masses, nor did he lead his people to a new reality.

Rather, Reb Zusia was a tzaddik because he could express sincere joy without constraint. He was authentically in love with God; he was sincerely grateful for what he had. Sincere expression was the crux of his saintliness.

The ability to be sincere in spiritual expression is precious because one cannot consider human beings only by how we perform in life. Especially in a house of God, to regard people only by what we have managed to achieve is to amputate the majority of our being. In any good relationship, how people feel and what we experience is equally if not more important than what we accomplish. If this is true when we love others, it is certainly true about God's love for us.

Thus the essence of the spiritual life cannot be limited to what we're able to do; ample space must also be given to the expression of who we are.

And so in the moments when I am unable to achieve: when my learning fails, when my wits aren't sharp enough, when my flaws show through (voluminously illustrated to me now that I'm a pulpit rabbi); I think of Reb Zusia. Reb Zusia knew that a sincere heart serves as the counterbalance for our flaws, and he would not keep his silent. No matter Reb Zusia's struggles (and there were many), people loved him for his heart. His Torah was that our sincerity redeems us as much as our achievements.

Which brings me to our contemporary spiritual communities. It seems to me that the heart has been edited out of most of our houses of worship in favor of a professionalism that is polished, exceptional, and talented, but not particularly emotional or sincere.

This is partly the fault of people like me, cantors and rabbis who are trained to create prayer as a profession and are thus always striving for excellence in its execution.

But that striving turns prayer into a performance (for it becomes a space to perform and achieve) which then lands us squarely into the trap described above. The point of prayer is not to create something that sounds pretty or looks inspiring: polish and elegance are pleasant, but ultimately what we call tafel -- secondary.

The essence of prayer is this: that we express to God what we feel, think, and need. Infinite ink can be spilled in expansion of this thought: the sensitivity to the world required to pray well; the mechanisms that free us from distraction during prayer; the crucial place of the unconscious in prayer; the holy dynamics of praying in community and across generations; and, quite frankly, what God is and what communication with God means; but expression is the ikar -- the central principle.

We have cut this beating heart out of prayer. Rather than asking, "did I connect to God today?" "did I understand myself better today?" "did I pray for something meaningful today?" we ask each other, "did the cantor sing well?" "was the music good?" "how long were services?" Prayer has become yet another place to achieve a goal, rather than a place of meaningful expression.

Worse, it is a spectator sport: we're so concerned with evaluating prayer leaders that prayer itself is an afterthought.

Better that prayer should be rough and raw and true than smooth and void. So I offer this thought as a guide: whatever your worship, ask yourself, "did my heart express itself today?" If so, you have truly prayed.

* A version of this wonderful story, as well as others about the Rebbes and their hasidim can be found in Elie Wiesel's 'Souls on Fire'. Wiesel wrote a series of books telling their tales, which he heard from his father and grandfather.