When we were younger, my parents would sometimes take us to the Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles. It was always an exciting trip, as my father would point out the unbelievable wisdom of the universe that Hashem revealed to the scientists.
I remember once going to an exhibit in the Aerospace Hall where a person could see if he fit the physical requirements needed to be an astronaut for NASA. When I saw that I was tall enough to be able to float in outer space, I was very excited. But then I saw the photographs and videos of the long and arduous training process needed before one could take that little spacewalk and decided that I had better things to do with my life. (As a side point, there are many halachic issues involved being an astronaut, such as when one observes Shabbos, when one should daven, and whether it is permissible to put one’s life in danger, etc. Therefore, the accepted ruling is that a Torah-observant Jew should not become an astronaut.)
But I did not have to give up my dream. The truth is that when we daven, we are all astronauts, and not because many of us (unfortunately) find ourselves “spacing out” in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei. The Gemara in Brachos (6b) cites the verse in Tehillim (12:9), “K’rom zulas l’vnei adam,” which literally means “When baseness is exalted among the sons of men.” However the Gemara gives a midrashic interpretation: “These are matters that stand at the top of the world, but people disrespect them.” Rashi explains that this refers to tefillah. We see from here that when a person prays, he rises higher than an astronaut – he goes to the highest levels of the universe! And that got me thinking. Without vast preparation, one cannot even think of going to outer space. How much more so if we want to truly rise to the world’s great heights through our prayers.
Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch rules (O.C. 93:1) that “one should wait an hour before starting to pray in order to be able to direct his heart to Hashem.” The Mishneh Berurah explains that only one who is on the high level of the chassidim of the days of the Gemara must wait that long. For all other people, it is sufficient to wait a few moments. But what is a person supposed to do during this time? How should we prepare ourselves?
Why Can’t I Concentrate?
Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l in his classic sefer on tefillah, She’arim B’Tefillah (page 20), asks the million-dollar question: Why is it that no matter how hard we try, we only manage to concentrate for a few blessings of Shemoneh Esrei and then suddenly find our minds wandering? When it comes to speaking on the phone, even if we cannot see or hear the person we are talking with, we have no trouble concentrating on our words – as long as we know that the other party is still there. So why is praying any different? Since we all believe, without any doubt, that Hashem is standing right in front of us when we pray and is listening to every word, why do we have so much trouble paying attention to what we are saying?
Rav Pincus cites a Rashi in Brachos (31a) that cites a Talmud Yerushalmi explaining why we must mention that Hashem took us out of Egypt right before we daven Shemoneh Esrei. It explains that doing so brings Hashem closer to us – by praising him for the redemption from Egypt. Then, when He is close, we can ask Him for our needs. We see from here that making proper preparations for tefillah is what brings Hashem so close to us.
If a person does not take a few moments to put aside his own personal matters, he has left a huge separation between himself and Hashem. This can be compared to two people trying to talk to each other at a chasunah. Even though they are sitting right across from each other, if the music is so loud that even deaf people can hear it, or if there are other people in between them who are also talking, they will not be able to carry on a normal conversation. Before we daven we must forget about everything that we are involved with so that nothing will divide us from Hashem.
How to Connect
But there is an even deeper reason why this preparation is so crucial, says Rav Pincus. As we explained in the past, tefillah is not the recital of blessings and ancient words. We are actually having a conversation with Hashem. We praise Him, we tell Him what we need, and we thank Him for all He has given us. When you have a conversation with another person, that person must be interested in listening to you. If not, you might as well talk to the wall. The same is with Hashem – if we do not bring Hashem close to us, we cannot hope to have an ounce of concentration. Hashem is not there, so of course we cannot concentrate on the words – there is no conversation going on!
The Gemara in Brachos (31a) states: When a man prays, he should direct his heart to heaven. Abba Shaul says: A siman of this is found in Tehillim (10:17): “Tachin libum, takshiv aznecha – guide their hearts; let Your ear be attentive.” The Bach explains (O.C. Siman 98:1) that unless Hashem guides our hearts, it is simply impossible to have proper concentration when we daven. But if we try our hardest, then Hashem will help us. That is why it states that He will guide our hearts, as only then will His ear be attentive.
At first glance, this explanation seems difficult. It is clear to all of us that regarding everything we do in life – whether it is a spiritual activity or a mundane one – without Hashem’s help we cannot possibly succeed. So why is it necessary to point this out regarding tefillah? The answer is that Chazal are teaching us that tefillah is a conversation with Hashem and the only way to have a conversation with Him is if He is willing to come close to us. Therefore, it is not merely that we require His help – without Him it is not considered tefillah at all, as there is no such thing as a conversation without another party.
The first step in being able to daven properly is to S-T-O-P! Forget about the million things you need to do. If you don’t, your mind will automatically continue racing, and you won’t even realize that you are davening. Next, take a few moments to think: “I am about to talk to Hashem – the Master of the Universe.” Doing so will bring Him close to us, and that in itself will help us consider our davening as a conversation – not words spoken robotically without concentration. And finally, before each Shemoneh Esrei, we ask Hashem for help and say “Hashem sifasai tiftach – Hashem open my lips.” Now that we know that the only way to pray with concentration is with His help, we will say those words with much more emotion.