So, how do we get that Sephardic Grandmother connection? Here are some accessible ways to make your prayer-conversations with G-d real:
Learn the translation of one tefillah. Simply understanding the words you are saying is connection!
Once a week, study one tefillah in depth. Over time, you can work your way through the entire siddur. You can annotate your siddur with notes or reminders of what to think about at certain moments.
Levites serving in the Temple studied for five years before they began performing. Picture yourself in the Temple, standing before G-d. How would you prepare for this? One example is the Amidah prayer: we take three steps back, then forward, entering the King’s audience room.
One grounding thought for prayer is: "Even if I don’t understand everything I’m saying, I am aware that I am speaking to G-d, Who understands, and that these words contain everything I need and want."
Slow down: saying three words per breath forces us to be more conscious and invested in our words.
According to the Midrash Pinchas, any prayer that does not include requests on behalf of another person, is not a prayer. When we feel another’s pain, sense his needs, and understand our oneness with him – then G-d feels our pain, responds to our needs, and unites with us. So, one kind of connection involves removing our focus from ‘self,’ and directing it to ‘other.’
You may see something that sparks understanding and kavanah. For years I recited the “Mar’eh Cohen” prayer that describes how the High Priest looked as he emerged from doing the Yom Kippur service in the Temple. It is a poetic and beautiful prayer, but it wasn’t until my brother got married that I really had an image to go with it. From the moment my brother entered the room to veil the bride, through the chuppah, his face was literally shining, eyes closed and deep joy across his face. When, a few weeks later, I read how the High Priest’s face shone like the “grace on the face of a bridegroom,” I suddenly had a vivid image of what that might look like.
Prayer is also a way of learning what to ask for. It requires us to make a self-assessment. If I’m asking for livelihood, what I use it for? What does it mean to have joy from my children? Am I being patient enough?
And what if prayer is hard? If we struggle to infuse excitement into our words, or our mind wanders, or we feel distant from G-d or angry at Him? The Chassidic masters say, “So ask G-d for help! Pray for powers of concentration, for zest, for the wisdom to know what to ask for. This is why so many of our prayers conclude, “le-Tovah,” for good.