In an address directed to rabbinical leaders entitled The Soul of Jewish Prayer, Abraham Joshua Heschel describes prayer as “an adventure of the soul.” And in that same address, he points out that “the problem (of communal prayer) is not how to attract bodies to enter the space of a temple, but how to inspire souls to enter an hour of spiritual concentration in the presence of G-d.”
The issue Heschel raised is the tremendous challenge that tefillah presents the observant Jew. While on the one hand we have set texts, blessings and times to pray, there is nevertheless an inner depth that is required of each one of us. We call that requirement intention, or kavanah. And while the rabbis taught that commandments do not require intention, tefillah is very different. They defined tefillah as the service of the heart (Taanit 2A), as an act requiring depth, thinking and contemplation. And in the fifth chapter of Brachot, the mishna says: “The chassidim harishonim would wait an entire hour before actually praying (the silent meditation), in order to direct their prayers to G-d.” Commenting on this law, Rabbeinu Yonah (13th century Spain) emphasizes that they would do this in order “to purify their hearts from all things of this world.”
Tefilllah therefore should be thought of not as just another mitzvah to perform but as a gift, a daily opportunity to reach out to G-d and express what we really want to say, and what we really need in our lives. And yet this great opportunity eludes us. Why? Are we not aware of the importance of tefillah? Perhaps it is because we have so many things on our minds daily that these spiritual encounters are so difficult. Or perhaps the pace of our modern minyanim (the weekly ones) resembles a speed race to see how fast the words can be said. Trying to keep up with the pace, I sometimes feel totally out of breath, reaching for my inhaler. Nonetheless, there has to be a way or ways for tefillot to be more meaningful in our lives. It cannot be that we race through thousands of words and many brachot and yet do not feel the adventure of the soul.
Quality vs. Quantity
One important thought is that tefillah is not about the amount or how many times we pray, but the quality of the words we say. For example, one of the oft-repeated concepts in the siddur is offering thanks or expressing gratitude. Upon waking in the morning, the very first words that we say are: “I give thanks to You G-d that You have restored my soul in mercy.” How utterly amazing! Before even doing anything, even before the ritual washing of our hands, we give thanks for another day. How often do we just mumble these words without thinking of their meaning? And before the recitation of the blessings for learning Torah, we thank Hashem for the “soul that You gave which is pure.” We are given the opportunity every single day to start fresh, to make new beginnings in our lives.
Know Before Whom You Stand
A second concept is the awareness that when we are praying, whether it is part of a minyan or by ourselves, we are standing in the presence of the Eternal. As Rabbi Soloveitchik once said: “Prayer is an intimate and direct encounter with the Master of the World.” Yes, we are in a physical building, but we are addressing Hashem. He is the King of Kings, and the opportunity to daven to Him is an awesome and humbling experience. If we were invited to a meeting with an important person – be they king or prime minister, we would not arrive late for that special occasion. And yet how rare it is to see a quorum where everyone comes on time, let alone early. Time and time again I see people just strolling in five, ten, or twenty minutes late and then rushing out before davening is over. Interestingly, the end of every tefillah is the Aleinu, in which we mention not only that we have to praise the Master of everything, but that it is incumbent upon us to “fix the world in the kingdom of G-d.” These are awesome ideas, and yet many in the minyan are busy wrapping up their tefillin, without even thinking about the words at all.
Tefillah can be looked at not only as an opportunity to address G-d but also as an opportunity to address ourselves – our real selves. It is a reality check of our spirituality and where we are holding with our own neshama. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of chassidut, once said, “If we are exactly the same person we were after praying, then for what reason have we prayed at all?” Our world is one of physical limitations, of spaces that we cannot leap or go beyond. But during the moments of prayer, we have this incredible opportunity to reach the highest of heights, much higher than Mount Everest or the Himalayas. We just have to give ourselves the few seconds or minutes to reach those heights. Pause for a second the next time you pray and think about the words you are saying.
We, living in the 21st century, are the descendants of great individuals who knew how to communicate with G-d. Whether it was Avraham beseeching Hashem on behalf of Sodom and Gemorrah, or Yitzchak and Rivka davening for a child, or Yaakov frightened the night before his encounter with Esau, they all prayed with the greatest of intention. And Chana had the audacity to pray for a child at the site of the Mishkan, where the usual manner was only to offer sacrifices. In addition, the greatest of our leaders never hesitated to pray on behalf of Klal Yisrael. If Hashem was angry at His people because of the sin of the golden calf, then Moshe demanded: “Wipe me out from the book that You have written.”
Tefillah was the focal point of their lives, and it penetrated their very being. And although we might not be able to come close to the greatness of these leaders, they all served as examples of the adventure that a soul can take.