Is this a familiar scenario? You have at least a hundred things on your mind. “Where can I buy a new… Need to pick up Dina for her doctor’s appointment… Mustn’t forget to call my mother and wish her a happy birthday… My son’s teacher wants me to call him… Which yeshiva should we send Chaim to next year… How can I generate more sales…” Then suddenly you realize that the sun is about to set and you did not yet daven mincha. So you start davening and try hard to concentrate on the words, but your mind is still racing. Before you know it, you are taking three steps back and Shemoneh Esrei is over. And certainly this is the case when something is bothering you or if you are dealing with difficult issues. Is there anything you can do to help yourself focus on the words of Shemoneh Esrei?
The following approach is based on an extraordinary essay by Rav Ury Weisbloom (Mashgiach of Yeshivas Nachlas Leviim in Haifa) in the preface of his sefer Ha’aras Hatefillah.
As you are sitting on the plane waiting for takeoff, you glance out the window. The rain is pouring down, the skies are covered with gray clouds, and the sun is nowhere to be seen. “Cabin crew, please be seated for takeoff.” The engines come to life with a great roar and the plane begins to pick up speed. You whiz past terminals and hangars until, all of a sudden, the airplane lifts off the ground. As you gain altitude, the people down below turn into microscopic specks, the streets and houses into a monopoly board, and the skyscrapers into toothpicks. Soon the ground is out of sight and the plane is engulfed by dark stratus clouds. You say a chapter of Tehillim and hold on for dear life as the plane is tossed around due to turbulence. And then, all of a sudden, the plane rises above the clouds and the sun is shining and the sky is blue. It is as if you are in a different world! Here everything is beautiful, calm, and serene.
Sometimes we get so caught up in our busy lives and trials and tribulations that we think everything is dark and gloomy. But we are making a huge mistake. Yes, it may seem as if our lives are difficult sometimes, but that is because we are looking at it from our perspective, down here on earth. But if we would look from above, we would see that our world is really just a small temporary place, like the waiting area in front of a grand ballroom. This is where we prepare ourselves for the real world – the World to Come. True, down here life is not easy and there are many challenges, but if we view our lives from the right perspective we will be able to deal with everything correctly – by realizing that the true world is the one “above the clouds,” up in Heaven, and from there Hashem is orchestrating everything. It may look like a storm down here, but in Heaven the skies are blue and the sun is shining, as Hashem is doing what is best for us.
This is what happens during davening. Previously we mentioned the Gemara in Brachos (6b) that tefillah is a matter that “stands at the top of the world.” When we daven Shemoneh Esrei we can imagine that a huge gust of wind has blown us up to Heaven – right in front of Hashem’s Throne of Glory. We leave behind all our worries and the mundane matters that are occupying our minds. Not that we forget about this world; on the contrary, many of our requests are for our physical needs, but we now ask from a different viewpoint. We are up in Heaven looking down at them from the correct perspective. And at the same time, we put aside all of the hundreds of things on our mind – we leave them far away, down on the ground. Up in Heaven, everything is calm and quiet!
Higher and Higher!
The truth is that we do not shoot straight up to the highest level of Heaven; we must pass through several stages in Shacharis before we reach Shemoneh Esrei. Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l (Alei Shur Vol. II, Section 3, chapter 2) cites the words of the Mekubalim who say that each section takes us up to another spiritual world.
We begin with birchos hashachar – the morning blessings. In this section, we are still down here in our world, and we thank Hashem for the basic aspects of our lives, for the way He created us: as Jews, not as slaves, etc. Then we thank Him for the ability to see, stand upright, walk, and more. By reciting these blessings with feeling and concentration, we learn how to view the daily aspects of the world from the right perspective. Nothing can be taken for granted; everything was created by Hashem and was given to us for a purpose.
Next we rise up to the world of p’sukei d’zimrah – the verses of praise. In this section we do not focus on the individual aspects of our lives; instead we discuss areas that involve the entire universe. Each chapter of Tehillim that we recite describes a different element of the way Hashem runs the world. The grand finale of this section is the Shiras Hayam, the song of Az Yashir. In the splitting of the Red Sea we saw that even though this world seems to be entirely physical and governed by the strict rules of nature, it is only that way due to the ongoing Will of the Creator. So when He wants a roaring sea to turn into towering walls of flowing water, it happens.
We now have risen to an even higher world, and our perspective of the world is getting clearer.
The next section is birchos krias Shema – the blessings of krias Shema. Until this point in the tefillah, we have described what Hashem does down on earth. Now we rise to the level of the sun – the source of light – but we do not stop there. We shoot right past the planets and stars into the world of the angels. There we see how with awe they shout praises of Hashem! We see that while the angels are arranged in ascending ranks, they nevertheless strive to reach greater levels of understanding of the Master of the Universe.
But our trip is not yet finished. We finally enter the world of Torah – the greatest connection to Hashem that a human being can have. Only after all this do we say Shema Yisroel and accept upon ourselves Hashem’s absolute sovereignty. Finally we talk about the redemption from Egypt where Hashem chose us as His nation and brought us close to Him. That last step brings Him close to us; we are now ready to start Shemoneh Esrei – our great meeting with Hashem.
We now have discovered how tefillah brings us to the top of the world. So let’s put everything aside and fly right up to the spectacular world of davening, and pour out our hearts to Hashem. He is waiting to see us there!Rabbi Eliezer M. Niehaus