About twelve years ago, I used to run the daily prayer group for a Jewish community day school in North America. In that context, I decided that we would spend as much time talking about the prayers as we did actually praying. I felt that the tradeoff was well worth it, and I think the students overwhelmingly agreed. I sometimes wonder what such a tradeoff would do for the rest of us who are not in community day schools.
One thing is for sure: We stand to gain a lot by looking more carefully at what we say in the course of our prayers - we pray so fast that most of us are not even aware of the simplest meaning of the words we offer up to G-d on a daily basis. It is not just that if we analyze such behavior, we will find it quite embarrassing; rushing through our prayers also prevents us from a great deal of proper insight into our lives.
While I still rush along with everyone else during most of the prayers, I recently decided to slow down during the Amidah, the silent prayers. (If for no other reason, the chazan's repetition allows me the luxury of going slower without getting behind the rest of the congregation.)
One insight that my decision to slow down in the Shabbat Amidah afforded me comes from our request that G-d should "distinguish or elevate us through His mitzvot" (kadeshunu bemitzvotecha). The implications of this are quite fascinating. The prayer text was written with the assumption that the reader would already be doing the mitzvot. Still, we see that we have to seek something beyond the performance of the mitzvot. If we have to ask for this, it means that it does not happen automatically. We can see from here that mitzvot do not automatically distinguish us or make us "kadosh" people. That appears to be something for which we require Divine assistance.*
Like most things that we request of G-d, they depend less on Him than upon us. As opposed to the Christian concept of grace, Judaism depends on man to fulfill his potential and thereby earn his reward. When we ask G-d to bring salvation, we are expected to do our part; when we ask G-d to heal us, we have to do our part; and so too, when we ask G-d to elevate us through the mitzvot, we also have to do our part - which goes well beyond dry mechanical actions that we do not connect to either spirituality or to ethics. To perform mitzvot in a mindless way and then ask G-d to elevate us through His mitzvot is all too similar to what the rabbis have deemed "tovel vesheretz beyado" - someone who goes into a mikveh to become pure while holding an impure animal in his hand.
This makes tremendous sense when we look around us. We see Jews doing mitzvot all the time, yet how many would we describe as kadosh, distinguished from the average person who does not do mitzvot? Instead, we see that most people who do mitzvot are not yet kadosh. What we realize from the prayer of "kadeshenu bemitzvotecha" is that our perception that observance of mitzvot is not synonymous with kedusha, is correct. If nothing else, this realization frees us of the patently false notion that anyone who fulfills mitzvot is superior to someone who does not.
The request we make to be elevated though mitzvot also tells us that being kadosh through the mitzvot is something we should desire. That is to say, mitzvot can and are supposed to make us kadosh. When we realize this, it puts a whole different spin on our religious behavior. Mitzvot are no longer isolated ritual acts, but rather the means by which to achieve this very important goal. Lest we think that we have a choice to seek other means, we need to realize that they are mitzvotecha- G-d's instructions on how to become kadosh. Thus, mitzvot are the primary way for Jews to accomplish this goal. But even though G-d's mitzvot can lead us to the goal of becoming elevated people, they will not do so automatically.
The quickening pace of modern society may well make it increasingly difficult to take proper time in performing mitzvot. Perhaps now more than ever, we do need Divine help in slowing down, but we can only make the request if it is something we really want. Conversely, if it becomes something we will really want, G-d will be willing to hear our prayer.
* I believe the above inference to be obvious and is, in fact, the way Rabbi Samson Rephael Hirsch understands this passage. Nonetheless, there are other ways to understand this passage, such as asking G-d to allow us to fulfill more mitzvot than is currently the case, by building the Beit haMikdash (see the Etz Yosef commentary on the Siddur). There is an obvious reason motivating such an interpretation, and that is the well-known fact that the blessings said before fulfilling a mitzvah includes the phrase "Asher kiddeshanu bemitzvotav" which changes the understanding of the elevating process of the mitzvot from something which can happen, as in the Shabbat prayers, to something which already did happen, most presumably with the mere act of G-d giving us the mitzvot. To this apparent contradiction, I would suggest a different approach, which better keeps with the simple meaning of both texts: When we say that G-d has elevated us simply by giving us the mitzvot, we are stating that the mitzvot have the potential to elevate us. He has given us the potential to raise ourselves, which would not be the case had He not given us the mitzvot. This, however, only gives us a potential which must be actualized. On Shabbat, we pray that G-d help us to actualize this very critical potential.