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Understanding Prayer: Heart, Mind and Soul


As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, join Rabbi Sacks in a series of ten short videos to learn what prayer really is and how it can change your life.

Below is an embedded playlist featuring all ten videos. You can select a different video from the series by clicking on the menu item in the top left-hand corner of the video. Each video includes subtitles in: French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian and Spanish (click on the Settings button in the bottom right-hand corner to select the required language).

To read the transcripts for these videos, please scroll to the bottom of the page, or click here.

(1) Spiritual Exercise – In this video, Rabbi Sacks explains how prayer is to the human spirit what exercise is to the human body.

(2) Thanking & Thinking – In this video, Rabbi Sacks suggests that despite the difficult moments, it is important to remember daily that life is a gift.

(3) Praise – In this video, Rabbi Sacks focuses on the concept of praise, a central part of Jewish prayer.

(4) The Deepest Call – In this video, Rabbi Sacks focuses on the Shofar and how its sound is a prayer that goes deeper than words.

(5) Family – In this video, Rabbi Sacks explains why we believe God is our family.

(6) Mistakes – In this video, Rabbi Sacks describes how Judaism sees us all as fallible; we all make mistakes and it is how we learn from them that counts.

(7) Growth – In this video, Rabbi Sacks discusses the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset, and why Judaism, especially around the High Holy Days, is a sustained tutorial in a growth mindset.

(8) Holy Words – In this video, Rabbi Sacks discusses how listening and the idea of holy words, places, time and people are central to Judaism.

(9) Framing Beliefs – In this video, Rabbi Sacks clarifies that Jewish faith isn’t irrational or naive or pre-scientific, but a framing belief.

(10) The Soul’s Language – In this video, Rabbi Sacks focuses on Kol Nidrei and the power of music to lift the Jewish soul.



Spiritual Exercise (1/10)

Prayer is to the human spirit what exercise is to the human body. I try to do my 10,000 steps a day. I don’t always succeed, but I feel bad when I don’t, because I know, with my sedentary lifestyle, that if I don’t exercise, all sorts of things will go wrong. I’ll put on weight, my muscles will grow weak, my blood pressure will rise, and my life expectancy will decline. I’ll lose years from my life, and life from my years. And yes, 10,000 steps on a treadmill can sometimes be pretty boring. But you do it because you know what will happen if you don’t.

And the same is true of prayer. It’s just that we don’t have the same kind of precise measurements for the spirit that we do for the body. It’s not that easy to quantify the feelings of happiness, fulfilment, meaning, gratitude, pleasure, delight, joy. But they make a difference. In fact they make all the difference to the sense of blessedness, of a life well-lived. And we now know, thanks to the research of people like Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, Sonja Lyubomirsky and Tal ben Shahar that happiness, the flourishing of the human spirit, has an effect on health and life expectancy. It strengthens the immune system. It’s correlated with success in education, career and relationships. It turns us outward and makes us less likely to suffer from loneliness and despair.

It’s just that we seem to have forgotten that prayer is to the spirit what physical exercise is to the body. Meditation, yes. Mindfulness, certainly. They are the fashionable things, and surely there’s nothing wrong with them. Jewish prayer, when it’s done the right way, is a form of meditation and mindfulness.

But it’s also so much more, just as happiness is so much more. It’s more than a moment of serenity in a life otherwise punctuated by stress, anxiety and disappointment. Jewish prayer is about gratitude and resilience and forgiveness and love. It’s about song and dance and exuberance and joy. Go to a Jewish wedding and you’ll know what that means, and sometimes prayer should feel like a Jewish wedding. It’s about celebrating life.

The spirit needs prayer the way the body needs exercise, and sometimes prayer can be boring, the way exercise can be boring, but you do it because you know that it’s going to make you feel energised, focussed, revitalised. It’s going to make you a better, larger, deeper human being. For the better part of four thousand years Jews have been among the world’s experts on the human spirit, and much of that has to do with the way we pray. So join me in this series of short videos and let’s learn what prayer really is and how it can change your life.

Thanking & Thinking (2/10)

Let me tell you a story about the first prayer we say every morning, “Modeh ani lefanecha”. I thank you for giving me back my soul. It happened on our honeymoon. Elaine and I were travelling through Italy and we’d come to a little coastal town called Paestum, a place with Roman ruins and the sea glittering in the morning sun. The trouble was . . . I couldn’t swim. I just never learned.

But as we sat on the beach and looked out across the water I realised that the shore must be sloping very gently indeed, because people were far out into the sea and yet the water was only coming up to their knees. It looked safe just to walk out. And so I did. I walked to where I had seen people standing just a few minutes before, and the water was gently lapping against my knees. Then I started walking back to the shore. That’s when it happened. Within a minute I found myself out of my depth.

How it happened, I’m not sure. There must have been a dip in the sand. I had missed it on my way out but on my way back I had walked straight into it. I tried to swim but I failed. I kept going under. I looked around for rescue, but the other bathers were a long way away – too far to reach me; too far even to hear. Besides which, we were in Italy, and as I went under for the fifth time, I remember thinking two thoughts. “What a way to begin a honeymoon.” And, “What is the Italian for ‘Help’?”

It’s difficult to describe the panic I felt. Clearly someone rescued me, or I wouldn’t be here now. But it seemed at the time like the end. Evidently someone, seeing me thrashing about, swam over and brought me to the shore. He deposited me, almost unconscious, at Elaine’s feet. I never found out who he was. Somewhere out there is someone to whom I owe my life.

It changed my life. For years afterwards, I would wake in the morning knowing that but for a miracle, I wouldn’t be here. Somehow that made everything easier to bear. Every life has difficult moments, but I never forgot that day, on an Italian beach, when the life I so nearly lost was given back to me. It’s hard to stay depressed when you remember daily that life is a gift.

Which is why, every morning, I say with real feeling those words: Modeh ani lefanecha: “I thank you, living and everlasting King, for giving me back my soul in mercy. Great is Your faithfulness.” Thank you, God, for giving me back my life.

Think about it. The very first word Jews say every day is Modeh. Even before we think, we thank. That’s the first rule of prayer. It’s about not taking life for granted. It’s a meditation on the miracle of being. We are here. We might not have been. Somehow that makes every day a celebration.

Praise (3/10)

It’s said that Eskimos have fifty words for snow. I’m not sure about that, but this I know: that Hebrew has many, many words for praise. Lehodot, lehallel, leshabeach, lefa’er, leromem, lehader, levarech, le’aleh, ulekales, and others. Because just as Eskimos live in the midst of snow, so to be a Jew is to live amidst the praise of God. It’s our element, the air our spirit breathes, the music the Jewish soul sings. We gave the English language the word halleluyah, “Praise be to God,” and the book of Psalms remains the most beautiful poetry of praise ever written.

Jewish prayer always starts with praise. It takes different forms in different services but it’s always there before anything else. Why? Because on the bad days we can be distracted by worry, depressed by anxiety, clouded by fear. We turn in on ourselves, as if we were shut in a small, airless room, unable to see the sunlight or breathe the free air. I’m the last person in the world to minimise the seriousness of depression. Along with Simon and Garfunkel, I know what it is to sing, “Hello darkness, my old friend.”

Which is why prayer as praise is so important. It says: don’t look in; look out. Don’t look down; look up. The world is full of light, said the Jewish mystics, if we only know how to open our eyes. The psalms are a symphony of praise. Listen to this from psalm 148: “Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise Him in the heights. Praise Him, all His angels, praise Him, all His hosts. Praise Him, sun and moon, praise Him, all shining stars. Praise Him, highest heavens and the waters above the heavens.” And this from psalm 150: “praise Him with the harp and lyre; Praise Him with timbrel and dance, praise Him with strings and flute … Let all that breathes praise the Lord. Halleluyah!”

These psalms say: see the glory of creation. Look at all the beauty that surrounds you. Listen to the song of a bird. Look carefully at the beauty of a tree, its leaves shimmering in the breeze. Pause and inhale the sheer miracle of being. Remind yourself, slowly, gently: I am here. The universe is here. I am alive. I am free. I am capable of love and I am loved. And I will praise the force that made all this and allowed me to be here and see it.

Then feel the restlessness subside, the striving cease, the pulse slow, and know for a moment the sheer blessedness of being. All you need for happiness you already have. It’s there, waiting to be uncovered, in the secret places of the soul. Praise is where the journey into happiness begins.

Among my favourite lines of poetry are the words of W. H. Auden about the power of the imagination to liberate us from negative emotion:

In the desert of the heart

Let the healing fountain start.

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

The Deepest Call (4/10)

Is there such a thing as a prayer that goes deeper than words? On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, there is: the sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn. It’s a sound that takes us back to some of the most epic moments in Jewish history. It reminds us of the binding of Isaac, when God told Abraham, “I don’t want you to sacrifice your son,” and sent him instead a ram caught in a thicket by its horns.

It reminds us of the scene at Mount Sinai, the only time in history when God revealed Himself to an entire people, when according to the Torah the sound of a ram’s horn was heard long and ever louder.

It was heard in the jubilee year when slaves were set free, in the words engraved on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

It sounded fifty years ago when in the Six Day War the Kotel, the Western Wall, was once again united with the people whose prayers it had received across the centuries.

And sometimes it sounds at Auschwitz and Majdanek and Treblinka when Jews return to shed tears and light candles in memory of the third of our people murdered by a demented civilisation that judged Jews not to have the right to be.

Sometimes it’s a tekiyah, a clarion, announcing some great event like the arrival of the king. Or like the dawn of the messianic age, as we say in our prayers: “Sound the great shofar for our freedom.”

And sometimes it becomes the sound of a broken heart, with its shevarim, its sighs, and teruah, its sobs as we remember all the things we did that brought us shame or guilt, and all the good we might have done but simply failed to do.

Whether the shofar is us calling to God or God calling to us, it comes from a place too deep for words. The shofar is quite simply the noise made by breath: reminding us of that line at the beginning of the human story:

“And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into him the breath of life, and man became a living soul.”

The shofar is telling us that though we may be mere dust, mortal and vulnerable, there is within us the breath of God. That ultimately is what the shofar is: the sound of soul calling to soul across the abyss between us and infinity.

Family (5/10)

There’s an old Jewish story that I love. Back in the late 1960’s an advertising agency came up with a slogan for one of America’s leading banks. It was displayed in newspapers and billboards, and it went, “You have a friend at Chase Manhattan”, and underneath an Israeli had written, “But in Bank Leumi you have mishpacha.” You have family.

And that’s as good an explanation as any for one of the key phrases of Jewish prayer, especially around the High Holy days. Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, our King. And that tells us something very deep about Jewish spirituality. It’s not that we’re better than anyone else. To the contrary, we believe that every human being, regardless of colour, culture, creed or class is in the image and likeness of God.

We believe that the righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come. It’s that what we believe is that to all humanity, God is a friend, but to us, He’s family. He’s malkeinu, He’s our king. But as we say in our prayers He’s also Melech al kol haaretz. King over all the earth, sovereign of the universe. The ultimate moral authority over all humankind. But to us, even before He is malkeinu, He is avinu, our parent. In heaven we have not just a friend, but family. In Judaism, God is close. As close to us as our parents were when we were young children.

Look at the great cathedrals and mosques built in the middle ages. They’re enormous, majestic. In some cases they took centuries to build. Now go to Tzfat in the north of Israel. Visit the shuls of the Ari, R Yitzhak Luria, and R. Yosef Karo, and you’ll see that they’re tiny. Small. Simple. Even humble. In a cathedral you feel the vastness of God and the smallness of humankind. In a shul you feel the closeness of God and the greatness of humankind.

And that’s how we should talk to God in prayer.

Sadly my parents are no longer alive. But at special reflective times I think of them looking down at me from heaven, perhaps, I hope, proud of some of the things I did, but surely also disappointed by others. Why didn’t I make more time for people? Why wasn’t I more sensitive? More loving? More forgiving?

And I think: Mum, Dad, you’re right. There were so many things this year I did wrong. Help me to put them right. Give me the strength to change and grow. Give me the courage to face my faults and work on them.

And that’s how I try to talk to God. Because He’s not just a friend. He’s family. Our parent, not just our King. Avinu malkeinu.

Mistakes (6/10)

I have a book on my shelves whose title reads: Mistakes were made, but not by me. Which sums up in one brief sentence what goes wrong so often in our lives.

We make mistakes. We all do. In Judaism, we believe no one is or ever was infallible. Not Abraham, not Sarah, not Moses, not Miriam. None of the heroes and heroines of the Hebrew Bible are portrayed as saints. We’re all human, all too human. And God knew that before He ever made us. Which means that He created forgiveness before Homo sapiens ever set foot on earth. But with one condition.

It sounds so simple. But it turns out to be one of the things we find hardest of all. Before we can be forgiven we have to admit, acknowledge, that we made mistakes. We can’t take refuge in blaming other people, the politicians, the media, our neighbours, even our enemies. We can’t say, “mistakes were made, but not by me.”

Because until we accept responsibility for the wrong we did, we can’t grow, we can’t learn, we can’t even really understand why we haven’t yet reached our full potential.

Look at the best sportspeople, the real champions, the ones written in the Hall of Fame. Do you think that when they get to be champions, they say: “mistakes were made, but not by me”? No. They do exactly the opposite. They hire coaches. And what they want from their coaches is to watch them practice and perform and then tell them what they did wrong, however small.

That’s what makes them champions. They want to know their mistakes. They want to understand how and why they made them. They want to learn how to perform better in future. And they do this daily, endlessly. The real champions are the ones who say: mistakes were made by me.

Which is what makes Judaism an ongoing seminar in how to be an outstanding human being. God is to us what a coach is to a champion tennis player. He is the one who, when we listen in deep silence of the soul, tells us what we’re doing wrong and how we can put it right.

Avinu malkeinu shema kolenu. Our Father, our King, hear our voice. Avinu malkenu chatanu lefanecha, Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You. We made mistakes. Help us put them right.

Growth (7/10)

Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist, changed our entire understanding of human development in her paradigm shifting book, Mindset. What interested her was why some children went on to great achievement, and others not.

What really fascinated her was that it didn’t depend on their abilities. What made the difference was that some children fear failure, so they don’t take risks, whereas others don’t have this fear. In fact they don’t even think of failure as failure. They think of it as learning; trying out something new; discovering what works and what doesn’t.

The children who fear failure have, she said, a fixed mindset. They think that ability is something you just have or don’t. So they try not to risk getting things wrong in case it makes them look dumb.

Whereas the other children have what she calls a growth mindset. They think of ability as something you develop over time, so they keep learning, working, training and taking on new challenges. They have resilience. They’re not put off by failure. They intuitively know that genius is 99 per cent perspiration and only one per cent inspiration.

They’re like the painter Van Gogh who kept going despite the fact that he only sold one painting in his lifetime, which wasn’t for lack of trying since his brother and greatest supporter Theo was an art dealer.

Or like J K Rowling, whose first Harry Potter book was turned down by the first twelve publishers she sent it to.

If you want to achieve anything in life, develop a growth mindset. And Judaism, especially around the High Holy Days, is a sustained tutorial in a growth mindset. How? Because the very essence of Yom Kippur is forgiveness. God forgives our mistakes if we admit they were mistakes and if we strive to learn from them, so that we are not tomorrow what we were yesterday. So there’s nothing to fear about failure. God knows we all fail from time to time. He wrote that into the script and provided the antidote. He called it Kapparah, atonement, forgiveness. It’s the Kippur in Yom Kippur.

In fact the whole idea of teshuvah – admission, confession, healing the past, coming back to where we’re supposed to be – is about personal growth. The heroes of Judaism aren’t the ones who were born great. They’re the ones who became great by taking risks, surviving trials, overcoming handicaps, staying firm in their sense of purpose and strong in their resilience. That’s Moses. That’s David. That’s Hannah. That’s Ruth.

And that’s us, if we take Yom Kippur to heart. God empowers us to dare greatly, and He does so by being, in the language of our prayers, Mochel avonot amo: He who pardons the iniquities of his people. He is the God who forgives, the God who wants us to grow.

Holy Words (8/10)

One of the most moving lines of the High Holy Day prayers is Shema koleinu. Hear our voice, Lord our God.

Shema is one of the key words of Judaism, perhaps the key word. It’s almost impossible to translate, because it has so many shades of meaning. It means to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalise, and to respond.

Judaism is supremely a religion of words. God created the natural universe by words: “And God said, Let there be … and there was.” And we create, or damage, or even destroy the social universe by words. Words are how we communicate our deepest feelings to those we love; and they are also, God forbid, how we wound those we do not love.

Judaism is a religion of holy words: Torah, which is God’s word to us, and tefillah, prayer, which is our word to God.

And behind the service of Yom Kippur lies an extraordinary historical drama. Here it is: In biblical times there were holy places. The land of Israel was holy. Holier still was Jerusalem. Within Jerusalem the holiest site was the Temple. And within the Temple there was a place supremely sacred, called the holy of holies.

And there was holy time. There were the festivals. Holier still was Shabbat. And holier even than that was the one day in the year known as Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement.

Thirdly there were holy people. Israel itself was called goi kadosh, a holy nation. Within it the holiest of tribes were the Leviim, the Levites. Among the Leviim, holier still, were the Kohanim, the Priests. And among priests was one holier than all others, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest.

And once a year the holiest man entered holiest place on the holiest day and sought atonement for all Israel.

But then the Temple was destroyed. Jerusalem was reduced to ruins. There were no more sacrifices, and no more High Priests.

What remained? Just the day itself. And us, the Jewish people. And that was when our ancestors discovered that wherever we pray becomes a mikdash me’at, a minor temple. Every prayer said from the heart is like a sacrifice. And when there is no High Priest to bring our prayers to God, God listens to each of us as if we were the High Priest.

We no longer had the service of the Temple, but we still had the service of the heart, and the knowledge that God listens to every word we say if it comes from the heart. Though we lost all else, we still had the words.

Shema koleinu. God, Hear our voice. Have pity and compassion on us.

For we have nothing to give You but our prayers.

Framing Beliefs (9/10)

Does faith really make a difference? And is it possible to have faith, even in the twenty-first century, common time, after all we’ve learned from science?

The answer to both questions is: Yes. Jewish faith isn’t irrational or naïve or pre-scientific. Faith is what I call a framing belief, and I want to explain what that is.

I once had a conversation on television with a famous atheist, and I got him to read out a letter he had written to his daughter when she was ten years old. In it he said: Never accept anything without evidence.

Ten minutes later, I asked him, “Are you an optimist?” He replied, “Yes, of course.” Then I asked, “Show me the evidence.” There is no evidence. Or to put it more precisely, optimists find evidence to justify their optimism, and pessimists find an equal amount of evidence to justify their pessimism. No evidence could ever decide which is true, optimism or pessimism, because these attitudes shape the way we experience the world and how we interpret the evidence. Optimism and pessimism are framing beliefs.

Another example: is it right or wrong to go through life trusting people? Some do, some don’t. They’re suspicious, wary, afraid to be betrayed. If you trust people, some of them will take advantage of you, and it will hurt. But if you go through life cynical and suspicious, you’ll protect yourself against betrayal, but you’ll never know love or friendship, the deep communion of souls. There are some things you can’t achieve without trust. So which is the rational option: trust or suspicion? There is no rational option. These are framing beliefs.

And so it is with faith. When all the science is in; when we know exactly when and how the universe came into being, the question will still be open. Does life have a meaning, a higher purpose, or is it just, in Shakespeare’s words, “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.

Was the universe born for no reason and will it for no reason one day die? Are all our prayers in vain? Is there nothing beyond the physical universe? Are all our hopes illusions and our aspirations no more than self-deluding dreams?

Faith and faithlessness are framing beliefs. But which we choose makes all the difference. You can live without optimism and trust, the way you can live without music or a sense of humour. But it’s a limited life. And in the same way, you can live without faith. But you’ll miss out on all that comes from the belief that life has a meaning, that God created the universe in love and forgiveness and asks us to love and forgive others.

That love and forgiveness is beautifully expressed in this simple prayer: Chamol al maasecha. Have mercy on those You have made.

The Soul’s Language (10/10)

Kol Nidrei, the haunting melody that begins the holy of holies of Jewish time.

What is it about Kol Nidrei that speaks so powerfully to the Jewish soul? It isn’t the words themselves, dry, prosaic, not poetry, not even a prayer. They’re a legal formula for the annulment of vows. So how did they come to have the significance, the power, that they do. I’ve written an essay on the history and meaning of Kol Nidrei in the Koren machzor, and I’m not going to try to summarise it now. But there’s another answer that has nothing to do with history or custom or law or the meaning of the words. Could it simply be that Kol Nidrei speaks to us – at least to us Ashkenazim – so powerfully because of the music? That haunting, evocative, sad yet defiant, tune that instantly takes us into the mood of this intensely holy night.

Perhaps that’s what prayer, faith, spirituality really are: more like music than speech, more like poetry than prose. There’s something profoundly spiritual about song. When the Israelites crossed the miraculously divided Red Sea, they didn’t speak, they sang. When Moses was about to die, one of the last things he did was to teach the people a song. When Hannah finally had a child, she sang. When David wanted to express his innermost thoughts, he sang. When Jews celebrated at the Temple, they sang. Words are the language of the mind, but music is the language of the soul.

When we aspire to transcendence and the soul longs to break free of the gravitational pull of the earth, it modulates into song. Music, said Jean Paul Richter, is “the poetry of the air.” Tolstoy called it “the shorthand of emotion.” Goethe said, “Religious worship cannot do without music.” The story of the Jewish spirit is written in its songs.

One of the most moving testimonies to this is the Psalm King David sang to God: “You turned my grief into dance; You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to You and not be silent.” When the spirit soars, the soul sings.

And when we gather to pray, and our voices join those of others, the music opens our hearts, and releases our emotions and unlocks our minds, and for a moment we forget our narrow devices and desires and are brushed by the wings of the Shechinah. And afterward, we return to earth cleansed and re-energised. That is what prayer is: our song to God who lifts us when we fall, forgives us when we fail, and never ceases to believe in us, giving us the strength to continue and the power to grow.

In the coming year, may we sing God’s song, and may His blessings flow through us to the world.

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