Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Question & Answer With Mottel - Overcoming Lethargic Davening

(Illustration by Yechiel Offner)

A Simple Jew asks:

Our occasional lethargic davening reveals that we do not truly believe in the efficacy of the words we say. The Degel Machaneh Ephraim taught despite the fact that we are unaware of it, our prayers have a tremendous impact on the upper worlds, and not even one prayer goes unanswered.

Davening three times a day, every day, how are you able to keep a fresh perspective each time you open your siddur?

Mottel of Letters of Thought answers:

In our divine service in general we are exhorted that it should seem as something fresh to us -Davening, something repeated so often, truly presents a challenge in keeping things original. The advice that I have seen in seforim and heard from various teachers can be divided into two general categories - those related to the more mundane aspects of davening - so to speak preparing oneself physically, and those that related to the soul of prayer.

For davening to be effective to any degree, one must be ready physically. If a person is tired, hungry and the like - in effect tied so greatly to the ground, how is to grow wings and soar above?

Therefore, above all, one should make sure that he is ready to daven - get a good nights sleep (if possible) and eat something. In Hayom Yom it states:

When the Previous Rebbe's grandmother, Rebbetzin Rivkah, was eighteen, she fell ill and the physician ordered her to eat immediately upon awakening. She, however, did not wish to eat before davening, so she davened very early, then ate breakfast. When her father-in-law, the Tzemach Tzedek, learned of this he said to her: "A Jew must be healthy and strong. Regarding mitzvos, the Torah says: 'Live in them,' meaning, one should bring vitality into his performance of the mitzvos. To be able to infuse mitzvos with vitality, one must be strong and joyful." He then concluded: "You should not be without food. Better to eat for the sake of davening than to daven for the sake of eating." He then blessed her with long life.

The Rebbe once instructed a bochur who had claimed that he was "machmir" -stringent- in not eating before prayer, that he must eat - even more so his 'tikun' for not eating was to get his friends who didn't eat to do so as well.

(For those who wish to know the halachic ramifications of this matter - one is to say birchos hashachar and Shema before eating mezonos - as one may not wash for bread before davening. As to eating before davening itself, see Shulchan Aruch Harav where he clearly writes that one who is weak may eat before prayer, and in this generation we are all considered to be weak).

Another piece of advise passed down by Chazal is to daven out loud -as it says Hakol m'orar hakavana. When we not only verbalize our prayers (as we must in order to fulfill our obligation), but enunciate them in a clearly audible way, it becomes far easier to concentrate on what we're saying.

In Likuttei Torah, the Alter Rebbe makes note of three other actions that we can do to prepare ourselves:

-Going to Mikvah
-Giving Tzedakah
-and learning Chassidus

The last could variably be the most important - There is a famous Chassidic adage concerning a Rashi on Chumash. The Torah tells us that when Yosef Hatzaddik was thrown into the pit by his
brothers, 'The pit was empty, it had no water.' Rashi asks 'If the pit was empty, don't we already know that it had no water? Rather it was empty of water, but filled with scorpions and snakes.'

If our minds are empty and void of content then they will become filled with undesirable thoughts and sights – for nature abhors a vacuum. Rather we must work to fill our minds with words of Torah, holy letters, and they will become our thoughts and guide our minds.

To gain inspiration from our prayers, we must be receptive to the words and have our minds directed the right way - battling unwanted thoughts prevents us from achieving proper prayer. By learning Chassidus we are able to put our minds in the right frame of mind. All of this is brought down in Shulchan Aruch - where the Rema writes that before prayer one must think about the crassness of man and the greatness of the Creator.

What is more Chassidus speaks at length about the meaning of davening, helping to enlighten the words that we say with the soul of Torah.

ברוך אתה ה' אלקנו מלך העולם goes from a heartfelt 'Blessed are you Hashem, king of the universe . . ." to something far deeper.

For "Baruch" means not only blessed, but is from the expression of hamshocha - to draw down. When we make a blessing we are able to tap into the deepest levels of the infinite essence of the Creator - to a level beyond any name -"You" . . .

What is name if not a handle, a way to gain access to a person, not his essence. I, by myself, need no name. Thus when we refer to G-d in the second person, not with a name, but rather directly, we speak to His essence.We speak to his essence, and we draw it down - make it manifest in this world. Not only manifest as an all encompassing and exalted Deity, one to who the differences of light and dark, physical and spiritual, an amoeba and a star are the same, but rather on a far more personal level -To where our actions matter to Him.

This said exalted Creator, to whom we are now speaking, has chosen us, the Jewish nation as a whole, and me - a (seemingly) lowly individual in all my crassness, with all of my base needs and desires - as the one to carry out this task of bringing him down into this world. Why? Because it arose in His primordial desire to rule and be felt in the most mundane place - this said desire takes place through me. I am the one who will reveal this essence in the world - an עולם -a place of העלם of concealment, and make it a place of ultimate revelation... via my prayers!

All of this is very lofty, and it may be difficult at times to do it all 'once'. In light of this, advice is offered as to the proper time to go about prayer - Shabbos, a day of fewer distractions, when the vicissitudes of life are not in full force.

What is more, the Alter Rebbe suggests in Tanya that one perhaps assemble on truly desirable prayer...focusing on different parts of davening - as chassidim were once accustomed to make a 'kneitch' - a fold- in the siddur as to where they were holding. Slowly, as one looks into and becomes inspired in that certain section of davening, he is able to uplift it with new fervor...slowly assembling one whole prayer over the course of the year.

May it be G-d's will that through greater concentration in our prayers, He answer our ultimate prayer - and bring Moshiach now!


At March 5, 2008 at 9:49:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to point out that the approach regarding eating mentioned in this post is supported by HaBaD and most other groups of Hasidim. Not Breslov, however, where the Rebbe held that one should not eat befor davening even with the kavanah to assist one in praying better. The Rebbe himself did not even drink water befor davening (even though that is min ha-din permitted). I read somewhere in later Breslov writings (possibly from Rav L. Y. Bender) that not eating or drinking before davening makes it considered as if you fasted (even though you only pushed off eating). This is a great zechut.

At March 5, 2008 at 11:10:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mottel: Beautiful post! Ashrecha! Your work on davening is palpable in virtually every line.
Mike: Very well said. You are quoting from Siach Sarfei Kodesh (IV, #504) quoting Rav Elchonon Spectre who said this acquits one of any fasts they may need to fast.
Interestingly, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld also refrained from even drinking water before davening (even when he was weak and sick.)

At March 5, 2008 at 11:16:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Note: The Mishna Berurah (Siman 89 #25) writes in the name of the Levush that one may eat before davening only if one is VERY hungry. Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurebach, zt"l, held the same (See Ishei Yisrael.
As always one should ask a competent Halachic authority.
Hashem should protect us from "eating in order to eat before davening!"

At March 5, 2008 at 12:50:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yankee Mike: Yes, absolutely -- but don't forget, these Breslovers were davening at the break of dawn!

Something to aspire toward...

At March 5, 2008 at 3:27:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful tips. THANK YOU- It was just what i needed now before i go to pray.


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