Yes, davening is a challenge. We don’t want to mumble words. We want to experience profoundly what we are saying to Hashem.
A funny but telling moment from the 1970s will get us started.
A student who was davening on the subway was up to Shemoneh Esrei when she reached the stop for her college. No problem. The day before she had noticed a new phone booth being installed in the basement of her classroom building. (For the generation raised with cell phones: years ago at public sites there were booths with a pay phone inside; you inserted a coin and dialed your call.)
She went to the basement, entered the booth, held the receiver to her ear so that passersby would assume she was in the middle of a conversation, and davened Shemoneh Esrei. When she turned to exit the booth, a man in a phone company uniform was standing nearby. He looked puzzled as he asked, “Can I install the inside of that telephone now?”
She could have told him, “I had a direct connection, one to One.”
We each have that connection to Hashem, as Tehillim (78.38) tells us: “He is compassionate, forgives sins and will not destroy; time after time He will restrain His anger and not stir up His full wrath.”
You may have noticed that we say this verse – V’Hu rachum y’chaper avon v’lo yashchis v’hirbah l’hashiv appo v’lo ya’ir kol chamoso – again and again:
* at the beginning of Shacharis in Hodu l’Hashem,
* a minute or two later in Yehi Kavod,
* on Monday and Thursday in the long Tachanun after Shemoneh Esrei,
* a fourth time toward the end of Shacharis in U’va l’Tzion (which we also say at Minchah on Shabbos and Yom Tov),
* to open Maariv.
These words enable us to daven. We rely on God’s lovingkindness while we are aware of our mistakes and misdeeds. We count on His mercy toward our fallible selves when we begin davening and at the close, before we go on to our daily activities. Because Hashem is forgiving, we dare to open the conversation that is prayer.
We depend on chesed – lovingkindness, benevolence, generosity without any thought of recompense – which is one of the 13 qualities of Hashem (Shemos 34.6).
The word “chesed” appears in the siddur from beginning to end –sometimes in its plain form, sometimes with variations (chassid, chasd’cha, chasdo, chasadav) – because it is the basis for our relationship. Hashem’s kindness allows us to talk to Him, and to trust that He hears us.
* In the paragraph after the Morning Blessings, the Birkas Hashachar, we ask for chesed three times.
* In Hodu l’Hashem, the first collection of Torah quotations in the morning, chesed appears seven times.
* Chesed is the theme in the next collection of verses, Yehi Kavod Hashem.
* In Ashrei, verses 8 and 17 speak of chesed; the eighth verse ties chesed with God’s patience toward us.
* In Az Yashir (verse 13).
* In L’Ke-il Baruch – (“ki le’olam chasdo);
* In Shemoneh Esrei (six times about Hashem, twice in relation to people who practice chesed).
When you become aware, you start to notice the word everywhere:
* Six times in Birkas Hamazon (a seventh time when we say Ya’aleh v’Yavo).
* Chasdo appears twenty-six times in Tehillim 136, which we say Shabbos morning, and five times in Hallel.
* Chasd’cha is in the Tehillah for Wednesday and in Hallel as well.
As we trace the word in all its variations, we realize the original meaning of chassid is one who practices chesed, following in the way of Hashem. We find new meaning in the thirteenth blessing in the Shemoneh Esrei when we ask to be included with the tzaddikim and chassidim – to be benevolent without expecting recompense. The word is having a good effect on us.
Once we start to notice what we are saying, we become aware of the role of the Birkas Kohanim, the priests’ blessing, three verses we quote many times: Y’vorechecha Hashem v’yishmerecha; Ya’eir Hashem panav eilecha vi’chunecha; Yisa Hashem panav eilecha v’yaseim l’cha shalom (Bamidbar 6:24-26).
It is the first topic of our morning learning after birchas haTorah; we hear it from the chazzan at the repetition of the Amidah; we listen to the kohanim recite it at Mussaf on Yom Tov (and daily in Israel); we repeat it three times at night as part of K’rias Shema when we go to sleep.
We are always hoping God will bless us and keep us; make His face shine on us and be gracious to us; turn His face toward us and give us peace. The instruction in Bamidbar concludes “And they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them” (6:27).
This blessing for the Jewish people instructs us as to the third element in our conversation with Hashem. We have a unique relationship with God, Who chose the Jews be a source of blessing to all humanity: “You shall be a blessing…in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Bereishis 12.2,3). This is the role of Avram, not yet re-named Avraham, in his first journey as a Jew.
Although many of our prayers are universal and can be said by people of all nations (Psalms have been adopted to such an extent that some people don’t realize these are Tehillim in translation), the theme of our particular closeness to Hashem is always present.
For example, Tehillim 146-150, the circle poems beginning and ending with Hallelukah that we say after Ashrei, describe the beauty of the created world and can be said by anyone who appreciates it. But each Psalm includes a verse or two about Tzion, or Jerusalem, or Israel, or “the nation that is close to Him.”
This movement between the universal and the particular characterizes Jewish life; we are part of the world, and we have a distinctive role to play in it. When King Solomon dedicated the Beis HaMikdash in I Melachim 8:41-43, he looked forward to having anyone in the world who appreciated God and wanted to pray to Him come to this special place.
The prophet Yeshayahu repeated this universal invitation to serve Hashem and come to the Beis HaMikdash (Isaiah 56: 6,7). The rest of King Solomon’s dedicatory prayer ties our themes together: God’s kindness in allowing us to daven; His forgiving our mistakes; we are members of a family with a beneficent role to play in the midst of all the nations.
Once you are aware of why we are able to daven, you will think about the meaning of what you’re saying. The first step is to look in a translation for any word you don’t understand; it helps to use a siddur that gives the source of each prayer. You’ll see that most of what we say is comprised of quotations from the Torah, especially from the Chumash and Tehillim. These are shirah, poetry, which is a heightened use of language; if we think about what we’re reading, we can understand it.
When I thought about Barchi Nafshi, Psalm 104, which we say on Rosh Chodesh and on Shabbos afternoon from Sukkos to Pesach, I noted that after all the verses about the beauty and variety of the world, we come to verse 23, “A person goes out to one’s work, and to one’s labor until evening”; only then do we exclaim “How manifold are Your works, Hashem; in wisdom You have made them all” (verse 24).
At first I thought you feel you are part of the flow of life when you have meaningful work to do. Then I realized that when you sense you are accomplishing what God intended you to do – “one’s work,” “one’s labor” –you first truly appreciate the wonder of Hashem’s creation.
My father, zt”l, pointed out that if we are attentive to what we say, we’ll find profound meaning in every word.
He noted that in bentching we want to turn to Hashem’s hand that is full, open, holy, and generous –l’yadcha ha’m’lei’ah, ha’psuchah, ha’k’doshah, v’ha’r’chavah. A human hand cannot be full, open, and giving all at once; if it is open, it will no longer be full. Only Hashem can support us bountifully and without end.
Awareness makes us appreciate Hashem’s chesed. Follow chesed through the prayers; keep in mind the verse that permits us to leave our worries behind and trust Hashem’s forgiveness. Davening becomes an opportunity to clarify our relationship with God.