Avraham ben Yaakov
Jewish Pathways of Spiritual Growth
“After a while...” * The Trousers * Prayer * The Fixed Prayers * The Set Prayers: How to Pray * Praying in Hebrew * Praying with a Minyan * Having Faith and Making Time * Out of the Mouth, Into the Ear * Devotion * Distracting Thoughts * Fervor * ”You can be a Turkey and still wear trousers”
After a while the Wise Man gave another sign and they threw them trousers. Again he said, “Do you think if you wear trousers you can't be a turkey?” They put on the trousers.
“After a while...”
The Wise Man wanted to dress the Prince much more than the Prince wanted to get dressed. Even so, the Wise Man did not let his enthusiasm get the better of him. It was not until “after a while” that he gave the signal for the trousers. He knew that after an advance as great as putting on the shirts, there must always be a pause, even a regression, before advancing further.
In Ezekiel's prophecy of the Divine Chariot, the Chayot – the vital forces of creation, the “angels”– are described as “running and returning” (Ezekiel 1:14). They rise up in yearning to transcend their limitations as created beings and to merge in unity with their Creator: they “run out” of themselves... But then they “return” to themselves and their separate existence, because it is the will of God that they should continue to be independent creatures.
So it is with human beings. We may have moments of self-transcendence and intimate closeness with God – “running.” Nevertheless, they are always temporary. God's will is that as long as we remain in this world, these moments of merging with God should be followed by a “return” into ourselves and our everyday states of mind. Our purpose in this world is to transcend ourselves and attain closeness to God of our own free will. It would go counter to this purpose if God simply did this for us. We have to “return” to our separate selves in order to continue with our work, until the time comes for us to leave this world.
The whole of this life is made up of rhythms of “running” and “returning.” We wake up from our sleep in the morning and come back to life and activity – “running.” But eventually we get tired and have to “return” and we go to sleep again. Similarly, we eat and fuel our bodies and for a time we are full of energy. But eventually all the energy is spent, and we get hungry and have to eat again.
In order to live to the full, it is very important to be sensitive to the rhythms of life. Learn to recognize and respect the rhythms of your body. You may function better at certain times of the day than at others. Where possible, try to schedule your various activities accordingly. Know your limits. After a reasonable period of activity, you need to relax. If you take intermittent breaks from tasks involving intense concentration, you may be able to accomplish more than you could if you were to work uninterruptedly for the same length of time. Remember that if you take a rest, you may need to limber up gently before resuming vigorous activity.
People's nutritional needs also vary according to the time of day. For some, it is better to eat light in the morning and more substantially later on, while others have different needs. Try to learn what foods, and in what quantities and combinations, will help you to function optimally at different times of the day.
It does not pay to push yourself beyond your physical limitations. While you should not give in to your bodily whims and appetites, you should respect the genuine needs of your body. Get to know what they really are by careful trial and error. Rebbe Nachman said, “Sleep well and eat well. Just don't waste time!” (Kochvey Or p.25).
Learn your own limits, when is enough and when is too much, whether it be in Torah study, hisbodidus, work, social interaction, or anything else. One of the ways the
It is no good staying up to study so late one night that you oversleep the following morning and then have to go through your prayers like an express train, or spending such an inordinately long time on your prayers one day that you never get to do the other things you want to do. Learn the proper balance in all things.
The Wise Man was an expert in the fine art of good timing. After the two of them had put on the shirts, he waited. Not until “after a while” did he give the sign for the trousers.
What do the “trousers” signify?
We have seen that the “shirts” can be understood as a reference to the Tallit, the fringed upper garment, and that the Tzitzit, the fringes of the Tallit, allude to the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot of the Torah, and to study of the Torah. (See above pp. 147-8.) The “trousers” can be seen as a reference to the Tefilin, the phylacteries, and to Prayer.
The order of the daily service of the Jew is first to put on the Tallit and then to put on the Tefilin. The Wise Man followed the same order when he started getting the Prince dressed. He began with the “shirt”– the Tallit. He then continued with the “trousers”– the Tefilin. Thus, the Tefilin are called a “garment” (see Tikkuney Zohar 69 interpreting “garments of leather” [Genesis 3:21] – “these are the Tefilin”). The Tefilin are particularly associated with Prayer. We wear them while praying, and the very word TeFiLin is connected with the Hebrew word for prayer, TeFiLah.
Our Rabbis speak of prayer itself as a “garment” covering the “legs”– i.e. the “trousers.” Thus the verse in the Song of Songs (7:2) says: “How beautiful are your feet in shoes, noble daughter, the circles of your thighs are like ornaments of gold, the work of the hands of the craftsman.“
Commenting on this verse, the Rabbis said (Mo'ed Katan 16b): “ `...the circles of your thighs are like ornaments, the work of the hands of the craftsman.' – Just as the thighs are covered over, so are the mysteries of Torah covered over.”(The verse is comparing the thighs and the ornaments to one another. We know that the “ornaments” are the mysteries of the Torah, because we find at the end of the verse that they are called “the work of the hands of the Craftsman.” This is the Torah, which is the handicraft of the Creator of the World. See Rashi ad loc.)
Just as the thighs are covered over, so too the mysteries of the Torah are covered over. What is the garment that covers the mysteries of the Torah? The prayers. The prayers may at times seem simple, but beneath the surface of the words and letters lie the profoundest secrets of the Torah. The prayers are “garments” that clothe these mysteries. The mysteries of the Torah are covered over exactly the way the thighs are covered over. What is the garment that covers the thighs? The trousers. As a garment, the prayers correspond to the trousers. (See Likutey Moharan I:15, 5-6 and I:73 etc.)
We thus see that the “trousers” with which the Wise Man now proceeded to dress the Prince can be taken as a symbol for prayer!
“Know that prayer is the main way to become connected with God and attached to Him. Prayer is the gate through which we enter to God and come to know Him.”
Likutey Moharan II:84
“Prayer stands at the very summit of the universe, yet people treat it lightly.”
Berachot 6b and Rashi ad loc.
Many people think of prayer as a magical way of asking for things that is irrelevant in a world where everything is governed by natural causes. Why is it necessary to pray for our livelihood when it is up to us to go out and earn a living? Why pray for healing – go to the doctor! Either he can do something about it or he can't, in which case, what's the use of praying? For many people, the prayer services are little more than meaningless, tedious relics to be hurried through with minimal attention.
The idea that prayer is a matter of “asking for what I want” is a
In fact, the purpose of prayer is not to force God to do what we want, but rather to open ourselves to the Godly blessing that is constantly pouring forth, and to channel it to ourselves and the world around us. The great prestige of science in our culture has led people to assume that everything in the universe is subject to the laws of nature. But in fact natural law is only one of the ways in which God governs the universe. The more aware of God we become, the more we see that the entire fabric of life within us and around us is made up of all kinds of nissim – “wonders.” The Hebrew word ness means a flag or banner that reveals and declares the sovereign power of God.
The essential work of prayer is to become conscious of God's hand in all the processes of life, and to channel Godly awareness and blessing to ourselves and the world as a whole – all through words. The words of our prayers are the “vessels” through which Godly blessing flows down to us.
A vessel is a container which holds something else. A cup may hold water; a pipe is a vessel that will channel the water from one place to another. The physical sounds that make up a word are a “container” for the meaning of that word. By uttering the word, one can “channel” this meaning from one's own mind, via one's mouth and through the air, across to the ear of the listener and into his mind. The message that gets across, and the effect it has, depends upon which words we use and how.
Words may seem insubstantial, but you can change the world with them. Lovers, flatterers, advertisers, politicians and many others know and exploit the power of words. Try saying one word over and over to yourself. “Hate!” Now repeat a different word. “Love!” And now, with reverence and awe, repeat the word “God.” The more skilled you are with words, the more subtly you can manipulate the influences you want to have dominance in your life and environment.
When we pray, we are using words to channel Divine influences into our lives. It is because we are part-Turkeys living in an under-the-table world that we need to do this work. To create our challenge in this life and bring us to our destiny, the world around us and our own inner make-up were designed in such a way as to conceal Godliness from us. In our everyday states of consciousness it is natural for us to assume that things depend either on “my strength and the power of my hands” or on chance.
In order to recognize the truth that lies beneath the surface appearance of this world, the Torah teaches us to work on ourselves and our consciousness. “And you shall work for Him” (Deuteronomy 6:13). The work referred to is the work of the heart – sifting out and developing our higher, Princely consciousness, while learning to dispense with
The work of prayer involves learning the limits of our worldly egos. Not “my strength and the power of my hands,” but “Yours, HaShem, is the power and the sovereignty over every head. Wealth and honor are from You, and You rule over everything. In Your hand is power and might, and it is in Your hand to make anything and anyone great and strong... You, HaShem, are alone. You made the heavens, the heavens of the heavens and all their hosts, the earth and all that is upon it, the seas and everything that is in them, and You give life to all. The hosts of the heavens bow down to You” (I Chronicles 29:11-12 & Nehemiah 9:6).
It is common for people to say that God Himself has no need for our prayers, it is we who need them. This is true to some extent: one of the main reasons for praying is that we should be aware of God and come to know Him. But it is only part of the truth. In a sense God does need our prayers, because He created the cosmic order in such a way that the prayers of the Jewish People are an integral part of the chain through which blessing flows into the world as a whole.
“The twelve tribes of
The Fixed Prayers
The art of prayer is to use the right words and combinations of words in order to channel Divine power and blessing. The Hebrew language is called the Holy Language, because Hebrew is the language of God's revelation in the Torah, and the letters and words of the Hebrew language are the perfect vessels to reveal and channel Godliness.
From the beginnings of Jewish history until the destruction of the
During the Babylonian Exile, however, a new generation grew up speaking the vernacular of the countries of exile, and their knowledge of Hebrew deteriorated. People no longer knew how to exploit the unique power of the Holy Language by themselves in order to channel Godliness. It was in response to this new situation that Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly – the supreme legislative court of the time – instituted a standard form of prayers and blessings for all occasions (ibid. 4). Together with certain Biblical passages and Psalms, these prayers and blessings form the basis of the Siddur, the prayer book, as we have it today.
The Men of the Great Assembly who composed these prayers included outstanding prophets, such as Chagai, Zechariah, Malachi, Daniel, Nehemiah and Mordechai. They had Divine inspiration in arranging the twenty-seven letters and ten vowels of the Holy Language into the sequences that make up the fixed prayers and blessings. Each word of the Siddur has a clear, simple meaning that even a child can comprehend. At the same time, it is enough to glance at the Kabbalistic writings of the ARI, or a Kabbalistic Siddur such as that of Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (the RaShaSh), to get a glimpse of the awesome depths of every single word and the worlds upon worlds of significance that hang upon every single letter and vowel. “Prayer stands at the very summit of the universe” (Berachot 6b).
In a sense the prayers do not have one single meaning: they mean something different to each individual, depending on his or her level of knowledge, understanding and devotion. The fixed prayers include everything that anyone needs to express formally to God. Rebbe Nachman evokes this idea in one of his stories, where he tells of a great king who had a secretary to whom many people came, some with praise for the king, others with petitions. “I take all their messages,” said the secretary, “and condense them into a few words that I tell the king. The few short words of mine contain all their praises and petitions” (Rabbi Nachman's Stories p.401).
The fixed prayers composed by the Men of the Great Assembly were never intended to supersede private prayer in one's own language – hisbodidus – but to complement it. Today we need both. (See Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #229.) Because of the low overall spiritual level, we would no longer know the correct way of approaching God or how to channel Godly blessing into ourselves or the world as a whole without the fixed prayers, which were designed to do just this. Through their daily recital, we establish our connection with God and keep certain essentials at the forefront of our minds: God's awesome majesty, His overwhelming love and kindness, and His might and power.
At the same time, each one of us has our own individual issues which we need to work out with God. Each of us has our own unique way of reaching out to God: we need to do this in our native language, in our own individual words, songs, cries, moans, sighs and other forms of self-expression. This we do in hisbodidus. It is in the private, intimate conversations of hisbodidus that we can attain the greatest heights of personal communion with God.
The Set Prayers: How to Pray
There is an extensive literature on the subject of the set prayers. The first volume of the Shulchan Aruch is largely taken up with the rules governing all the various blessings and prayers recited both regularly and occasionally. The details of these rules are elaborated in a wide range of commentaries and derivative works. Literature on the meaning of the prayers is a field of its own, with commentaries at every level, ranging from simple, straightforward, step-by-step explanations to profound devotional texts and Kabbalistic explorations involving complex kavanot – mystical intentions – on the highest of levels.
The rules governing the recital of the regular prayers – what to say when, postures, when it is permitted to interrupt and when not, when to pray out loud and when to pray in a quiet whisper, etc. – are printed clearly and simply in most Siddurim. A variety of excellent translations of the Siddur is available, many of them accompanied by commentaries giving information about the background and significance of the various prayers.
Invest in a quality Siddur of your choice that you will enjoy using. If you are not familiar with the most frequently recited blessings, such as the blessing after attending to one's needs and those before and after food, you could copy the relevant blessings onto a slip of paper and take it around with you, unless you prefer to carry a pocket Siddur. (A Siddur should not be taken into a bathroom, but if you have a sheet with blessings written on it in your pocket, bag or wallet, etc., it is permissible to enter without removing it.)
Beginners for whom saying all the blessings and prayers in full would be beyond their present ability are advised to consult with a competent Rabbi as to which they should emphasize first. It is a Torah mitzvah to pray daily, to recite the three paragraphs of the Sh'ma in the morning and after nightfall, and to say Birkhat HaMazon (Grace) after eating bread. Over the course of time, aim to familiarize yourself with the words of the basic prayers and as much of the translation as you can understand. Study works about the prayers and their meaning.
Praying in Hebrew
Even those who do not understand any Hebrew should aim to recite the Sh'ma and a few basic prayers and blessings in Hebrew. This is not to say that you should not pray in your native language if you wish. However, even if your Hebrew is rudimentary and halting, there are advantages to reciting the prayers in Hebrew. Simply by articulating the Hebrew letters and words in order, even without comprehension, you are forming vessels that are channeling Godliness into the world. Personal prayers may also be introduced at certain points in the set prayers. When you weave your private offerings in with the holy prayers of the Siddur, you are forming a most powerful connection with God.
You do not have to understand how a telephone works in order to make a call. All you have to know is the number of the party you want to speak to and how to dial it. If you dial the wrong number, you will not get through, regardless of how sincere you may be in wanting to make the call. The prayers of the Siddur are the codes for getting through to God. All we have to do is to say them!
The set prayers influence cosmic processes whether we understand them or not. Similarly, you may not have the faintest idea of how the inside of a computer works, but you can operate it perfectly simply by punching out the requisite letters and symbols on the key-board. The computer will do exactly what you tell it, neither more nor less. To get the desired results, you must punch out the correct commands. Otherwise, you will get a “Bad command or file name” message back.
If you do not understand Hebrew, the prayers you take upon yourself to recite are the most selfless service you could offer to God. In the time of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, there was one illiterate boy who knew nothing but the letters of the Aleph Bet. While everyone else in the synagogue was praying fervently, he repeated the Aleph Bet over and over again. Then he said to the angels of prayer: “I don't know the words of the prayers. All I know is the Aleph Bet. You take the letters and form them into the proper words.” The Baal Shem Tov said this boy's prayers broke through all the barriers and lifted up the prayers of all the others in the synagogue. Say what you can and leave it to HaShem to bring blessing into your soul and the whole world.
Praying with a Minyan
One should make every effort to pray in a properly constituted synagogue together with a minyan of ten adult males. Prayer is more than a personal religious experience. Most of the set prayers are phrased in the plural, because when we stand before God, it is as members of the community of
A frequent problem experienced by people trying to pray with proper devotion is that they find it difficult to keep up with the minyan. For whatever reason, many minyanim go through the prayer services at a brisk pace. If you cannot find a nearby minyan that prays at a comfortable pace, could you find enough people with similar interests to make one? You might try to form a group that would get together to pray once a week or once a month, etc. As a first step, you might consider trying to organize a regular study circle on themes related to prayer.
In the event that you have to pray regularly in a minyan that you find unsatisfactory, still try to make every effort to judge everyone positively. Think how long it took you to reach the stage where you want to pray with devotion. Remember that each person develops at his own pace. Don't expect to be able to change others: you will save yourself a great deal of frustration if you learn to tolerate people the way they are. When the Wise Man wanted to change the Prince, he didn't try to clothe him forcibly. He taught him by example. The Wise Man put on his own shirt and trousers, allowing the Prince to follow in his own good time.
No matter how the others may pray, make it your goal to pray with as much concentration as you can. Consult a competent, sympathetic rabbi as to how you should conduct yourself if you constantly find yourself falling behind the rest of the minyan, yet want to fulfill your halachic obligations and make all the necessary responses (Barchu, Kaddish and Kedushah). The halachah gives detailed guidance about when you may interrupt the prayer you are saying in order to join in the congregational responses if the minyan is at a different point in the service.
If you find the behavior of other members of the minyan a distraction, there is no need to feel that you have failed because you cannot rise above such distractions. It is very natural to be disturbed by others. In the words of Rebbe Nachman: “People say that if you have true feeling and are really bound up in your prayers, you should not hear any disturbance. Your devotion should be enough to block out everything else. But the truth is that this is no argument. The greatest Tzaddik may pray with great strength and attachment to God, but he can still be disturbed, no matter how great his enthusiasm, no matter how deeply he is bound up in prayer.... All his feeling and emotion will not prevent him from being disturbed and distressed” (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #284).
Take time to look around the synagogue and find a place where you will be able to pray regularly with the minimum of distractions. If the synagogue is crowded and you find you are pushed and jostled, try to move to a place where this will be less likely to happen. Avoid the temptation to watch other people: look only at your Siddur, or close your eyes and imagine you are praying in a forest! (Yesod ve-Shoresh Ha-Avodah I:10).
Despite this, you may still hear things that disturb you or that you find inappropriate in a synagogue. Rebbe Nachman taught that the solution to this is to erase one's ego completely until one is aware of nothing but the presence of God: “When a person stands in the palace of the King, nullifies himself completely and sees nothing there but the King, then certainly when he hears something shameful, he will find a way of interpreting it in a way that actually enhances the greatness of the King” (Likutey Moharan I:55,7).
Having Faith and Making Time
Prayer is intimately bound up with belief. One of the main reasons why people feel they get little out of praying is because they do not have enough faith in the importance of what they are doing. They think God is not interested in their prayers. Since they underrate the activity of praying, they give it little time or attention. They hurry through the prayers unthinkingly, and consequently find them dry and uninspiring. Strengthen your belief that God is listening to your prayers, and that every word and letter is most precious. The more you understand the meaning of the prayers and the exalted spiritual work you are doing by simply saying them, the more enthusiastic you will become and the more you will enjoy praying.
In practical terms, one of the first prerequisites is simply to make the necessary time. If it takes x seconds to mumble a blessing or prayer without feeling, and y seconds to say it clearly and deliberately, the only way to say it properly is by taking the extra time. This applies equally to the incidental blessings and the fixed prayer services. That is not to say that the only way to pray with attention is to go slowly. Not everyone finds this necessary. Some people are able to pray fast and maintain their full attention. What is important is to pray at the pace you need to pray at in order to concentrate.
Work out how much time you can devote to the daily prayer services: how long can you spend praying in the morning, how long in the afternoon, and how long at night? Consult with a competent rabbi, if necessary, to work out how much of the full service you should say, given your present rate of reciting the prayers. If you feel that, owing to lack of time, you will have to compromise and recite only part of the service, doing this at a pace that enables you to concentrate and say the words properly may be better than rushing through the entire service inattentively and without enunciating the words properly.
Before you begin your prayers, try to put yourself in a cheerful mood. Sing a happy tune on your way to the synagogue. At the entrance to the synagogue, pause to compose yourself, then enter with reverence. Before beginning one of the main weekday prayer services, give some charity according to your means. If you cannot put the money in a suitable charity box or give it to someone immediately, set it aside from your other money and give it later.
Affirm out loud that you take upon yourself the mitzvah of “love your friend as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Affirm that you bind yourself to all the true Tzaddikim. Binding oneself to the Tzaddikim means looking to their teachings and example for guidance and inspiration, both in one's prayers and one's life in general. The Tzaddikim have general souls, in which all the individual souls are rooted. By binding yourself to the Tzaddikim you connect yourself with all the souls. This gives added strength to your prayers. (See Likutey Moharan II:1, 1-3.)
Out of the Mouth, Into the Ear
“Let your ears hear what you are saying with your mouth.”
The essential work of prayer is twofold: to articulate the words of the Siddur clearly, one after the other, and to listen to what you are saying. This applies equally to the daily prayer services and to the various other blessings and prayers recited at different junctures during the day. “True devotion is listening very carefully to the words you are saying” (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #75).
People sometimes ask if it is possible to “use the blessings and prayers as meditation.” In order to answer this, it is necessary to be clear in what sense the term “meditation” is being used. If “meditation” is being used in the sense of a method of stress reduction and relaxation, clearly it would be a grave insult to the blessings and prayers to look upon them merely as this. It may be that those who put effort into their prayers do become more relaxed as they deepen their trust in God, but prayer is far more than a means of reducing tension.
Another definition of meditation is “thinking in a controlled manner... deciding exactly how one wishes to direct the mind for a period of time, and then doing it” (R. Aryeh Kaplan, Jewish Meditation p.3). In this sense, the fixed prayers and blessings are unquestionably a form of meditation. We could call them “guided” meditations, in the sense that the goal is to direct the mind along a series of thoughts as expressed in the words of the prayers.
As we have seen (above p. 94), the Hebrew term for directing the mind is kavanah, from the root le-khaven, meaning to aim or direct, as when an archer aims an arrow. Thus people speak of “praying with kavanah“– proper attention and inner feeling. A specific thought or intention that one has in mind while saying a word, phrase or entire prayer, or while performing a mitzvah, is also called a kavanah (plural, kavanot). There is an enormous literature on the kavanot of the prayers, from the simple meanings and allusions of the words to the profoundest Kabbalistic devotions, as set forth in the writings of the ARI and derivative literature.
To pray with proper attention and inner feeling means that “the person praying should inwardly concentrate on the meaning of the words that he is saying with his lips” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 98:1). Not only is it unnecessary to know or use the Kabbalistic kavanot of the prayers in order to pray with inner feeling, but for anyone who lacks the requisite depth of knowledge and spiritual purity, it can be highly confusing to try to do so. (See Tzaddik #526 and Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #75.) Rebbe Nachman said: “Perfect prayer is having in mind the simple meaning of such words as Baruch Atah HaShem – `Blessed are You, O God' “ (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #75).
“Let your ears hear what you are bringing out of your mouth” (Berachot 13a). This fundamental Talmudic prescription about prayer means that one should physically listen to the sounds one is making with one's mouth. In addition, the idea of hearing what you are saying implies understanding the words and hearing their message. (Thus when King Solomon prayed for wisdom, he asked God to give him “a heart that hears“– I Kings 3:9.) Letting “your ears hear what you are bringing out of your mouth” thus means exactly the same as what the Shulchan Aruch says: concentrating on the meaning of each word as one says it. As you say each word, think of the literal translation of the word, and listen to its message.
“The person praying... should feel as if the Divine Presence is directly before him.”
Orach Chaim 98:1
“I imagine You, I address You, even though I do not know You” (from An'im Z'mirot). God in Himself is unknowable, yet all our prayers are directed to God, the Source of all existence.
HaShem literally means “the Name,” referring to the Tetragrammaton – the essential name of HaShem: Y H V H. (Tetragrammaton is Greek for “the name of four letters.”) It is strictly forbidden to pronounce the Tetragrammaton as it is written: even when one has occasion to say the letters in the order they are written, one says Yod Ke Vav Ke so as not to come even close to pronouncing the Name of God.
Nevertheless, it is not forbidden to contemplate the Name of God: on the contrary, much Kabbalistic teaching is concerned with the meaning and significance of the Name and its letters. God's Name is bound up with the Hebrew root HaVaH, meaning “is” or “exists.” We could say that the “meaning” of the Tetragrammaton is “the One that brings existence into being”– i.e. the Source of existence.
When reciting prayers and blessings, the Tetragrammaton (or the conventional Yod Yod often printed in Siddurim in its place) is pronounced as “Adonoy”– “Lord.”(When merely quoting a phrase containing the Tetragrammaton, as opposed to reciting it in a prayer, we say “HaShem” in order to avoid taking the name of God in vain.)
All our prayers and blessings are woven around the Name of HaShem, the Source of all existence. The different prayers and blessings contain all kinds of statements, descriptions, praises, affirmations and requests and so on, but essentially all of them revolve around and return to HaShem. In our prayers we affirm how all the manifold phenomena of existence derive from HaShem. With each blessing, praise or request we offer, we should think of how the specific item which is the subject of this blessing, etc. derives from God. Similarly, when reciting the Sh'ma we should have in mind that we are binding ourselves to the Source of our existence.
During the recital of any prayer or blessing, try to keep your awareness focused on the fact that you are speaking to and about HaShem – that the Divine Presence is directly before you. When pausing to relax, breathe and focus prior to each prayer service or blessing, this is the thought you should try to bring to mind. Then, as you start to say the words, try to keep your attention on the simple meaning of each word.
The word Baruch, “Blessed,” is related to the Hebrew word breichah meaning a pool in which the waters of a stream gather, and from which all our various needs for water are supplied. When saying Baruch you should recall that you are drawing from the Source of all blessing. The word baruch is also related to berech, which means a knee. When we bend the knees, the head is lowered. When we humble our hearts and thank God for His blessing – “Baruch“– we are making it possible for the Source of Creation, the “Head,” to descend, as it were, bringing blessing to the very place where we are.
Atah – “You.” When we address God directly we should be aware that the Divine Presence is before us. The word ATaH includes Aleph and Tav, the first and last letters of the Aleph Bet, through which God created the Universe. Atah signifies that from beginning to end, through all the diversity of creation, “You are One.”
HaShem: When saying Adonoy in prayer, we should have in mind that this word means that HaShem is Adon Kol – Master of All. When reciting the Sh'ma and, if possible, in other places where the Tetragrammaton appears in the prayers, we should also have in mind that the Name of HaShem signifies: “Was, is and will be,” i.e. God is eternal (Orach Chaim 5, and see Mishnah Berurah ad loc. 3). When saying Adonoy one could thus think: “Eternal Master of All.”
Elohim: (When pronouncing this name of God other than in prayer, it is customary to pronounce it as Elokim so as not to profane the Name.) Elokim is usually translated as “God”– and Elokenu means our God. The Divine name Elokim refers to God's power as manifested in the Creation. Thus grammatically Elokim is a plural form, although when referring to God it is almost always used with a singular verb. All the various powers manifested in the diversity of the Creation derive from the unitary God. When saying Elokim or Elokenu, have in mind that God is “mighty and omnipotent” (ibid.).
The ultimate connection with God in every prayer and blessing is when we address HaShem directly. However in this world it is not possible to remain constantly in a state of direct communication with God. After “running” forwards and addressing God directly, we now have to “return” to ourselves and the world we live in. The blessing continues to speak about God in the third person, and about the things He creates, etc. Having had a glimpse of the unity of God at the moment of direct connection, the task now, in the continuation of the blessing or prayer, is to try to experience His unity even amidst the plurality of the created world.
Melech HaOlam, “Ruler of the Universe”: The word Olam, universe, is related to the Hebrew root ALaM, meaning “conceal.” We look around at the visible universe but we do not see God. The very creation of the universe could only come about through the concealment of God's light. But in speaking of Melech HaOlam, “Ruler of the Universe,” we remind ourselves that even though God may be concealed, making the world seem independent, in fact the Universe and everything in it has a Source and Ruler: beyond the diversity is the unitary God.
In practice, it is very difficult for anyone to maintain his concentration on every word throughout the recitation of the prayers. In any event, one should make every effort to concentrate at least while reciting the first verse of the Sh'ma and the first blessing of the Amidah, the silent Standing Prayer.
One of the main problems encountered by everyone who prays regularly is the tendency to repeat the prayers by rote. Try to prevent this by pausing from time to time during your prayers in order to remind yourself of the importance of prayer. The best way to concentrate on the meaning of key words and phrases in the prayers is to pause briefly before saying them. Look at the word or phrase on the page, and give yourself a moment to think what it means. “Think the word before you bring it out of your mouth, as taught in the Psalms (10:17): `prepare the heart...' – first, and then: `...make the ear hear' “(Iggeret HaRamban).
Ideally, “the person praying should remove all distracting thoughts until his mind is clear and his attention fixed on his prayer” (Orach Chaim 98:1). In practice, however, most of us find it virtually impossible to achieve this. The important thing is not to worry about distractions. “You may be distracted by many outside thoughts when you pray. Ignore them completely. Do your part and say all the prayers in order, ignoring all disturbing thoughts. Do what you must, and disregard these thoughts completely” (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #72).
Rebbe Nachman tells us that these disturbing thoughts actually benefit our prayers. “There are tremendous powers denouncing our prayers. Without distracting thoughts, prayer would be impossible. Outside thoughts disguise our prayers so that they are ignored by the Outside Forces. They do not denounce the prayers, which are then allowed to enter on high. God knows our innermost thoughts. We may be distracted, but deep in our hearts, our thoughts are only to God... God knows what is in your heart, and sees this innermost desire. He sees through the disguise, and accepts the prayer in love” (ibid.).
“It may be impossible to go through the entire service with proper devotion, but each person can at least say a small portion with feeling.” Rebbe Nachman explains that this is because in the root of their soul, each person is associated with a particular part of the prayer service. When he comes to the part of the service pertaining to his soul-root, he is aroused to great devotion. “You may sometimes pray with great devotion, but then the feeling departs and the words begin to seem empty. Do not be discouraged, for you have merely left your area... Continue the service, saying each word in absolute simplicity” (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #75).
Even though it may be impossible to pray the entire service with devotion, you should still “force yourself to say each word of the service. Make believe that you are a child just learning to read, and simply say the words... Follow the order of the service even without feeling. Continue word by word, page by page, until God helps you achieve a feeling of devotion. And even if you complete the entire service without feeling, it is not the end. You can still say a Psalm. There are other prayers to be said” (ibid.).
After all your efforts, you may still feel like a
Rapturous prayer is a sweet and amazing experience. You are totally involved in the prayer: the only reality for you at each moment is the word you are now at in the Siddur. The word comes leaping off the page and into your mouth: it comes forth from your mouth as if through a spirit that is beyond you, yet speaking through you. Each word cries out the magnificent glory of God. You stand in your place, but you are lifted up. Suddenly you see a world you do not see most of the time: the world all around you, transformed into oneness. Every familiar object and person is shouting the glory of God in unison – the other daveners, the chairs, the tables, the walls, the windows, the buildings and trees, the skies...
How does one attain the intense, ecstatic fervor of the true Chassidim – lovers of God? How does one come to pray with leaping joy, with profound awe and amazement at God, with shaking and trembling, dancing and singing, tears and radiant happiness? Does such prayer come by itself, or do you have to make it come? Are you supposed to force yourself to feel the prayers intensely, or perhaps even pretend you feel them intensely?
Two hundred and fifty years ago, before the birth of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto had this to say about Chassidut (devout religiosity): “Chassidut has come to have a bad odor in the eyes of the broad run of people, including the more intelligent, in that they assume that Chassidut involves empty and irrational practices, or simply means reciting many lengthy supplications and confessions to the accompaniment of a lot of tears and violent swaying and bowing, and strange forms of asceticism” (Mesilat Yesharim ch.18).
Today, it often happens that even those who feel drawn to fervent Chassidic prayer are confused by the externals they see in some Chassidic circles: vigorous physical movements, loud cries, hand-clapping, jumping and the like. They wonder if the only way to become true Chassidim is by imitating these externals. Are they a necessary part of Chassidic prayer? Should you sway, clap and shout while praying, even if you don't feel like it?
Maybe when we find ourselves half asleep and want to arouse ourselves, one way to do it is by moving about vigorously and praying loudly so as to “warm up.” However the true inner emotion of Chassidic prayer does not come merely by imitating the external movements. Sincere emotion when praying is certainly desirable, but it is a mistake to try to force it. For example, speaking of tears when praying, Rebbe Nachman says: “When a person is praying, if he keeps on thinking he should cry and is waiting for the tears to come, this so confuses him that it makes it impossible for him to say his prayers sincerely and whole-heartedly... The thought that he is going to cry at any moment distracts him and prevents him concentrating on what he is saying... If you weep, very good. If not, not” (Likutey Moharan II:95).
True emotion is not something you can force. If it comes, it comes. The essence of the work of prayer is not to affect emotion but always to concentrate on the words and their meaning. Regarding whether to sway or not to sway in prayer, do whatever comes to you most naturally. Sometimes you may want to sway, at other times you may prefer to stand (or sit) still. Some people find gentle swaying from side to side, or backwards and forwards, soothing and an aid to concentration; others find it a distraction.
The same applies to whether one should pray loudly or softly, and whether one should speak or sing. You should always be able to hear the words you are saying, including during the Amidah prayer, when your whisper should be audible to you. But how loudly you pray is entirely up to you – as long as you are not disturbing others. There may be times when you may wish to pray more loudly, especially when you want to arouse yourself. At other times you may want to put your entire focus on hearing the letters and words in your mind and heart, and you will not pay attention to the volume of your physical voice.
The main thing is to “detach yourself from every outside thought in the world and only direct your attention to the words you are saying to HaShem, just as a person speaks to his friend. Your heart will then easily be aroused by itself... Say the words sincerely to HaShem without any other thoughts whatsoever” (ibid.).
It is not one's emotions that one should force, says Rebbe Nachman, but one's concentration on the words and their meaning. “There are some who say that prayer must come of itself, without being strained, but they are wrong, and one must do everything in one's power to force oneself... True devotion is the binding of thought to word. If you listen to your own words, then strength will enter your prayers by itself. All your energy anticipates the time when it will be drawn into words of holiness. When you focus your mind on the prayers, this strength rushes to enter the words” (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #66).
“You can be a
Some people may feel ecstatic prayer to be light-years away from where they are currently holding with their own daily
Don't be discouraged. No matter how badly you may think you pray, the fact that you say your prayers every day, no matter how, is more important than anything. Once the Baal Shem Tov bitterly reproached a preacher who had denounced someone. “Will you speak evil of a Jew? Know that a Jew goes to work every day, and in the late afternoon he starts trembling and says to himself, `It's getting late for Minchah'. He goes off somewhere to pray Minchah, and he doesn't know what he is saying, and even so, the heavenly angels quake at his prayer“ (Shevachey HaBa'al Shem Tov #132).
Every day, three times a day, we pray. You may feel unable to give any more time and attention to your prayers than you do already. You may feel you cannot concentrate properly on even a single word. Perhaps you think you are the vile-smelling galbanum and you'll never be able to pray properly. That doesn't mean you cannot make an effort just once – perhaps one day when you happen to be in a place where nobody knows you, or in a moment of great seriousness one Yom Kippur, or at a quiet point one Shabbat...
“You can be a
“Anyone with sense and understanding should pray all his days to be able to say one true word to God the way he should – even just once in his life“ (Likutey Moharan I:112).
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