One measure of mastery in almost every creative human discipline is speed. Speed measures our progress in athletics, in music and performing arts, in martial arts, and in most traditional and contemporary spiritual practices. One of the areas we work to improve, whether we are athletes or rabbis, is how fast we can do something. Consider athletics. Nearly anyone who possesses even the most rudimentary basketball technique can dribble the ball a few paces, look at the basket, and shoot a lay-up. As you learn to play basketball at a higher and more advanced level, the pace at which you practice and regularly play increases accordingly. In practice, when you are running drills to pass, shoot, or dribble, one measure of your progress is how much faster you can successfully run the drill. The same is true in marksmanship. Consider the archer in an Olympic target contest. The contest is not untimed. Nearly anyone with the basic equipment and sufficient eyesight can deliver one arrow to a nearby target given enough time. The training undergone by most marksmen is designed to increase the speed at which the athlete can deliver the ballistic package to the target.
There is a steady and relentless effort to break speed records. There is always social pressure in religious communities among the regulars, to speed up the service. Ironically, these same people, who check their watches during prayer, to try and shave some time off the record, would be among the strongest resisters to any significant change that reduced the regularly practiced liturgy in favor of a shorter liturgy that was prayed more slowly and methodically. These people would not be distance runners or distance target shooters. Instead they are always running sprints and shooting contact distance targets.
All of this being true, speed is not always the best measure of mastery. This is because though speed can measure accomplishment and demonstrate ability, speed also blurs and hides the imperfections of our technique.
Speed works best for short-term goals. A sprinter has to be fast throughout the entire race, but a marathoner, whose goal is further away, must consciously slow down and set a more disciplined pace in order to succeed.
When the target is close, it is significantly easier to draw, aim, and deliver the arrow to the target. Here is the perfect example of how speed blurs a flawed technique and forgives our more fundamental errors in training. To deliver five shots to the target at five yards does indeed require a lot of practice, but it is relative easy compared to delivering those same shots at a great distance. Even the most accomplished marksman needs to go much slower when the target is far away. When the goal is close, or easy, or short term, our mistakes matter less. For the marksman this is a matter of simple physics and geometry. At 5 yards a small error in aiming or intention, a small change of heart rate or breathing, a rush of nerves or adrenaline, none of these translate to a significant difference in where the arrow hits. If you are just a little off, the distance of the target is more forgiving when the goal is close and short term.
At 25 yards, or at 100 yards, such a fractional miscalculation grows as the distance between the two lines of the angle gets wider and wider apart. Now, when targeting a distant goal, a small error of technique becomes a significant miss.
So too in any spiritual exercise. If our goal is short term, then our practice can be more forgiving of fundamental errors. In tefillah, a fundamental error is one that affects the level of meaning and self-discovery which are the vital goals beyond the level of simple recitation. If your goal is a short one, to master the recitation of the Hebrew, it certainly takes a lot of practice, repetition, focus and attention to accomplish this goal. But it can be done relatively quickly, and within 6 months the average person could, if they came to a traditional minyan everyday for shacharit services, become a capable short distance davener. They would become able to lead a morning service – to hit the target – at a speed that the regular daily daveners would consider slow, but which would, with time, continue to develop up to the standard pace for that community. Within a year such a person could become a capable tefillah “marksman” at 5 yds. I do not mean to say that this, all by itself, is not a worthy goal. Developing techniques in nearly any creative endeavor is incredibly valuable, and in a very real way contributes to the development and deepening of every endeavor we have.
But this cannot remain our only, or long-term goal. To become great daveners, we must see our practice as a marathon more than a sprint, as a life-long journey of self-discovery, not as a one-off obligation for today. We must take aim at a longer-range target – meaning and significance beyond our words – and we must work through our flaws and rudimentary techniques to refine and center our focus on deeper aspirations.