I’m sitting in a large synagogue in midafternoon, trying to study some Mishnayos. I am all alone. It is perfectly still — except for a strange, steady murmuring, a faint, almost haunting sigh that seems to envelop me. I try to ignore it, but it persists, a veiled, muffled sound, like a soft whisper. I look around me. No one is here.
Mesmerized by the steady murmuring, I begin to drift off into half-sleep, and slowly the coils of the physical world begin to peel off. But as the physical world around me slips away, the murmuring becomes more distinct, and I am able to recognize certain words.
They are words of prayer. I am sure I hear an atah and then a baruch. And now I make out a phrase, asher kideshanu… Pieces of sentences, tremulous fragments — all are now quite audible. But not only audible. Gradually they become visible as well, floating all around me. Alefs and gimmels and zayins and kofs — every letter of the alphabet is spinning in the air, the letters forming themselves into fragments of passages. Now I am seeing what I only heard before: I actually see the words yehei Shmei Rabba before me… but not the rest of the Kaddish. I see Baruch Atah, but not the balance of the brachah. A lonely Amen drifts by me, but not the passage to which it is a response. Snippets of prayers dart across my eyes, tiny gleanings of brachos, bits and pieces of Shemoneh Esreh, Ashrei, Aleinu, Oseh shalom. But only fragments. Not a full brachah, not a complete passage.
Why am I seeing only broken shards of prayer? Certainly, the words of sincere prayer rise up directly to Heaven. Perhaps I need to look more carefully for the adjoining pieces. Were they concealed somewhere in this building? Or, on the other hand, could it be that only parts of these prayers ascended Heavenward, and that the balance remained behind, within the walls of the shul? Was it because they were refused admission On High? But why?
A sad thought occurs to me. Could it be because they were not uttered with the appropriate thought and sincerity, but only by rote, automatically, by habit, the words mindlessly mumbled while focus was directed elsewhere? Could it be that such words could not gain entry into the celestial halls of prayer, that only those words and phrases that emanate from the heart and not merely from the lips are allowed in? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Who can know?
“Will there be a Minchah here today?”
I am startled out of my reverie. Someone has come into the shul. I mumble a response, and ask him if he hears any sounds in the building. He looks at me quizzically; he has heard nothing. I resume my studying, but the muted hum has not gone away. Now fully awake, I no longer hear actual words, no longer see Hebrew letters — only subdued sounds, soft sighs all around me. And stillness.
Minchah is about to begin. Ashrei yoshvei veisecha… the familiar words introducing Tehillim 145 recited by Jews three times a day, every day of the year. Such regular daily recitations can easily become automatic and routine. This time, prompted by these mental meanderings, I make a conscious effort not to mumble, but to pronounce each word carefully, with deliberate intention. The same with the Shemoneh Esreh that follows. I pray that each of my words will arrive at its destination, in one piece and unfragmented. I don’t want any more humming in my ears.