I opened up my anatomy atlas and it was overwhelming:
I thought to myself, “I have to memorize all these parts by the end of the semester and I am already intimidated by one page! How am I gonna do this?! How does anyone do it?!” I felt stuck.
I was fortunate to have an amazing professor for anatomy lab, who taught me that anatomy is all about relationships. Let’s see an example:
This opening in the skull is known as the foramen ovale
This opening in the skull is known as the foramen spinosum
And this opening in the skull is known as the foramen lacerum.
Now, it’s easy to memorize these three very quickly, but when I am faced with hundreds and hundreds of these, not to mention, the veins, arteries, and nerves that pass through them and their function, it can be quite challenging to memorize. So, let’s see if there is an easier way to memorize using relationships:
Now you can see all three of the foramina. If I understand that the foramen ovale (1) is located anterior (in front of) and medial (toward the center) to the foramen spinosum (2) and the foramen lacerum (3) is medial (more toward the center) than both of these foramina, I have a better picture of where things are by comparing it to where everything else is located. So, when I am presented with a skull and someone points at something I cannot identify, I can look at structures near it to identify exactly what I am looking at through the process of relationships.
Tefila to me is something quite similar. When I wake up in the morning and I say “Elokai! Neshama shenatata bi, tehora,” “My Lord! The higher soul that you gave in me is pure” (Siddur Morning Blessings). Where did this prayer come from? Why is it important for me to say it? “Baruch atah Hashem…shelo asani isha,” “Blessed are You Hashem…Who did not make me a woman” (Siddur Morning Blessings). Wait a second, what did I just say? I am giving God a blessing for not making me a woman? Is there something wrong with women? Am I not here because of my mother? It seems out of place. When I understand these prayers through relationships, it conveys to me an entirely different message compared to when I look at them isolated. All I need to see is the relationship the tefila has with the Torah so I am not stuck trying to identify the message.
When I look at Elokai! Neshama shenata bi, tehora I can look at it in relation to the line I recite in the morning, Modeh ani, where it says shehechezarta bi nishmati, “You returned in me my soul,”there must be a connection. I can then locate the verse in the Torah discussing Hashem placing a neshama (a higher soul) into Adam Harishon, vayipach b’apav nishmat Chayim, “And He breathed into his nose a living soul.” Perhaps the prayer is telling me that Hashem is recreating me every morning the way He created Adam in the story of creation. Maybe every day is a chance to create a new story afforded to me by Hashem, it is never too late, God believes in me-rabah emunatecha,“great is Your [His] reliability” (Siddur Morning Blessings).
And what about shelo asani ishah? I learned from my Rebbe n’y that the first time the word Isha, woman, is used in the Torah is when Adam names his wife saying lezot yikare Isha, ki me-ish lukcha zot, “This one shall be called Woman for from man was she taken.” It was an error for Adam to identify her as a derivative of himself; he looked at his wife isolated. Perhaps we say shelo asani Ishato thank Hashem for not looking at us as isolated, as a mere product of our environment, but rather from a place where neshama shenata bi tehora, where I am perceived by my highest potential and highest good.
So, while tefila might seem overwhelming, do not be afraid! We don’t have to pray just because we are a product of our environment! Prayer is an opportunity to engage in a playground of questioning, discovering, using the highest in me.