As I’ve been focusing on the Shema in my spiritual practice this year, I’ve been good about reciting the Shema twice each day—“when you lie down and when you rise up”—but not so great about doing it with zeal. Sometimes, particularly with the evening Shema, I’m pretty close to just going through the motions. Now, when it comes to fulfilling a mitzvah, you sometimes hear people say, “If you can’t do something from the heart, if you’re just going through the motions, you might as well not do it at all.” But that’s not quite right. It’s better to go through the motions than to do nothing, because going through the motions makes the real fulfillment of the mitzvah possible. But we shouldn’t think that we’ve really fulfilled a mitzvah until we do it with zeal.
In Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis notes that prayer and observance—like reciting the Shema twice each day—can become “dead acts” precisely because of their regularity and repetition.
And what is true in your service to God is also true in your life in other ways. To live with spiritual integrity and authenticity requires that you break through the smothering curtain of routine. You’ll do that by consciously ticking up your enthusiasm a notch.
OK, so how to tick up my enthusiasm a notch? The exhortation, “Be more enthusiastic!” doesn’t work for me. It actually tends to produce the opposite effect, and I imagine most of us are like that. Like the exhortation to be more spontaneous or more expressive, it casts a chill. Morinis, however, provides some helpful steps to stir up enthusiasm, including learning “to be richly present in this moment with gratitude.”
I’m applying this advice to my twice-daily recitation of the Shema. I’m guarding against just getting through the prayers, even though I’m committed to get through them each day. Rather, I dwell on each phrase and direct it upwards toward Hashem with gratitude. I thank him that I can take on the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven by declaring my loyalty to him, even when I’m lying in bed about to drift off to sleep. I’m not worrying about the quantity of prayer surrounding the Shema, but about infusing it all with the quality of gratitude.
Instead of seeing the prayers and the Shema itself as something I do before getting on with the day, they become the best part of my day. When you gratefully say, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe,” it’s hard not to be enthusiastic. I might still look laid back, but I feel the zeal arising within.