05/13/2013 05:53 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

Missteps on the Path of Spiritual Growth: What I Wish People Had Told Me

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At the beginning of my spiritual journey I wish someone had told me that it is not about the words, that God is beyond the words, that in fact, we have no idea what we are praying to. That's beyond the scope of a human being. If someone had told me that -- wow -- it would have changed a lot. It would have helped me let go of my need to "get it right" and feel less embarrassment when I didn't.

Now in my 50s, I started my journey in my 20s, in Jerusalem. I didn't know anything about religion, God or spirituality.

I wanted to have answers. I wanted to "do it right."

On my first day of learning I was carrying several large tractates of Talmud in one hand and a glass of water in the other. To make it easier, I put the glass of water on top of the books of Talmud. A veteran student approached me, lifted the glass off the books, and with a look of derision remarked: "The Talmud is not a tray."

Ugh. Embarrassment from head to toe. How could I not know that?

My mission was clear. I needed to know, to learn how to fit in, and to earn respect of my peers in this religious thing.

So I learned for a full 10 years. Along the way, I acquired a lot of knowledge, I learned how to fit in, and I earned the respect of my peers.

But I was so busy fitting in that I didn't notice that I had gently departed from myself.

There were external changes -- a long beard, white shirt and sandals with socks (it's a modesty thing).

But more significantly, there were internal changes. A questioning and inquisitive philosophy major now had no room for doubts, for theological dilemmas, or especially for uncertainty. Everything was clear and mandated. The tradition and rabbis had already thought everything through and now I just needed to imbibe their wisdom and carry on.

I learned how to pray with the prayer book. I prayed three times a day. I could say the words correctly, in Hebrew, at the right pace. I actually thought that by saying the words I was praying.

But I had lost my own voice. I was so busy "getting it right" that I had lost the voice of my own soul.

I wish someone had told me, "You know Aryeh, for truly deep authentic prayer, you have to use your own words. So find your own words and say them honestly and authentically. Don't try to do it 'right,' don't try to fit in. Go inside, open up your heart."

If someone had said that to me -- wow -- it would have changed a lot.

I would still have prayed three times a day with a minyan; it's important to be involved in community.

But I also would have engaged my own voice. Or better yet, my own heart. I was so busy trying to fit into the community way of doing things that I couldn't let go of being self-conscious and my fear of embarrassment.

And letting go is the beginning of real prayer. Listening deeply to the voice of our soul that is always talking to us is the beginning of prayer.

The same Talmud that I was holding as a tray says that "God wants our hearts." "Right or wrong" in prayer is less significant than sincere or not sincere, authentic or not authentic.

I wish that veteran student had said, "Hey Aryeh, let me help you with that. We're really all at the beginning of our paths."

Aryeh Ben David is the Director of Ayeka: Soulful Jewish Education.