Consistent Kavanah: Keeping Daily Prayer Alive
MyLife Essay Contest 2017
Once in my twenties, I attended an OU convention during the Torah portion of B’haaloscha. A prominent rabbi was referring to the opening comment of Rashi, about Aharon’s lighting the menorah in the same way every day. Rashi says, ‘to tell the praise of Aharon that he did not change (from each day’s service).’ The rabbi asked a question raised by many: ‘How was the greatness of Aharon, the High Priest, conveyed by the mere fact that he did what he was supposed to?’ The rabbi replied with a Chassidic comment, that every single day, Aharon approached the menorah with the newness and excitement of the first time. I responded, ‘Oh, I already heard that comment!’ Then the rabbi smiled and gave me a lesson that I never forgot: ‘If you think you heard it, that means you didn’t really hear it the even the first time!’
We read and study the same Torah portion every year, but we are supposed to learn something new each year-and in fact each day that we learn. Even more challenging: If many of us recite the same prayers every day, can we really be expected to put full attention, called kavana, into our words? And what does kavana mean anyway? Some of the Chassidic teachings that I have found most meaningful for kavana are based on understanding the relationship between the role of the heart in carrying the ideas of the mind into meaningful prayer. Why isn’t it enough just to ‘show up’?
It is told that the Baal Shem Tov once refused to enter a shul by protesting it was ‘too crowded’ even though there was plenty of physical space. He explained the idea that love and awe of G-d are the two wings that carry prayers to the greatest heights. However, the people in that particular shul lacked those wings, and therefore their prayers remained earthbound. That’s why the shul felt so crowded.
So just how do we keep our daily tefillah-prayers new and fresh? How do we immerse ourselves in the rich language and images of our siddur-prayer book- without feeling frustrated, distracted, or bored? Sure, if I really have a personal need, or if there is some imminent trouble- if someone I know or care about is ill or in danger somewhere, that makes it easier. But that’s pretty ‘low level’ daavening (the Yiddish word for prayer). Besides, requests are only one brief aspect of daavening- bakasha, asking for things. Praise and thanksgiving are also major components of the siddur. Still, even the gratitude moment can be usually just that- a fleeting moment.
CONFRONTING THE MIND-HEART BARRIER
The quality of daily prayer feels so difficult to hold on to. Relevant ideas may be in my head, but somehow when I try to place them in my heart, either they fly away quickly, or never get there in the first place. I am reminded about a very moving poem by Rilke, called ‘The Panther.’ “The Panther paces listlessly in its cage with dull eyes…Here is the last verse: “Only at times, the curtain of the pupils lifts, quietly—An image enters in, rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles, plunges into the heart…and is gone.”
This mind-heart barrier can seem formidable. Chassidus presents us with many Torah metaphors of the common disconnect between the mind and heart. To name just a few, Pharaoh and Egypt, and indeed the Hebrew word Mitzrayim meaning constriction, represent the choking of the throat that prevents understanding from reaching the heart. Similar is the archetype of Amalek, who comes to cool us off from spiritual ardor. In contrast, among our ancestors, we find examples of expansion rather than contraction of deep emotion. There is Yehuda who tries to get Yosef to ‘open up’ till wellsprings of tears gush forth from him. Also, we find Yitzchak and Rivkah whose prayer is rooted in the word ‘Eser’, meaning deep digging. They worked so long and so hard internally excavating, pleading for children, like archeologists in search of buried treasures.
In the Torah, (Deuteronomy, 11:13) prayer itself is called, ‘Avodah she’b’lev,’ service of the heart. On one hand, prayer does not focus merely on the mind, but on the other hand, neither can raw, spontaneous emotion in itself be considered ‘Avodah.’ Effort is required, but not of the mind and heart separately- rather a joint endeavor to allow the realization of the mind to penetrate the heart. The key verse that conveys this partnership is also from Deuteronomy (4:39) and recited in Aleinu at the end of each daily prayer: ‘You shall know today and settle in your heart, that Hashem is the supreme force, there is none other.’ This verse teaches that knowledge, Daas, must inform the heart. A person whom the Torah describes as a ‘chacham lev’, one wise of heart, is Miriam’s grandson, Betzalel, who at the age of 13, constructed many of the vessels in the Mishkan, the sanctuary. Literally his name means, ‘in the shadow of G-d’. Blessed with this mysterious intuitive quality, he was somehow able to bring the highest levels of sanctity into the most material objects of the Tabernacle.
So too, we are meant to be a sanctuary to unite spirit and matter, both within ourselves and the world. That is the essence of kavana, and its activation is the goal of Avodah she’b’lev. We as humans are beset by many obstacles to reaching this goal, but Chassidic teachings abound in useful ideas to overcome these impediments. For me it’s beneficial to concentrate before daavening, on specific terms and phrases in the siddur after learning some of the more inspiring teachings associated with them. For example, Chassidus provides manifold and profound teachings about the nature of the Divine, the significance of the different names of G-d, and how each aspect of creation is impacted and, indeed according to Chassidus, re-created each moment. (See Tanya, part 2; the Gate of Unity and Faith) And above all, how each individual is guided, assisted, and loved by G-d.
One of my favorite siddur phrases from the Amidah, the pinnacle of the prayers, is, ‘Melech Ozair,’ the king who assists. These words convey the image that G-d is both A-Mighty, and caring. These two words alone, if thought about deeply before praying, can facilitate our relationship to G-d by counteracting a theological misperception that G-d can’t help us, or doesn’t want to.
This form of concentration is called, ‘Hisbonenus,’ often translated as contemplation, or meditation. You may think that the idea of meditation comes from some new age or far Eastern source; think again! Listen to this teaching from the Mishna (Brachos, chap. 5) chassidim rishonim, the early pious sages, used to spend an hour preparing for prayer, in order to direct their hearts to the Omnipresent.’ The commentaries explain that an hour was not so much a time directive, as an internal preparatory stance. Similarly ‘to direct’-using a word that is the root of kavana- the heart, implies arousing one’s feelings, not just reciting the prayers.
UNDERTANDING THE DYNAMICS OF THE STRUGGLE
1. The two souls concept
Even if we can keep such concepts in mind, most of us will inevitably slip occasionally, in spite of having achieved peak times of sustained focus in prayer. And with those apparent setbacks, there may come, what Rabbi Steinsaltz in his Tanya commentary observes, a sadness and self-deprecation that is more insidious than the ‘foreign thoughts’ themselves. What to do then? Here chapter 28 of Tanya helps us by reminding us that the voices that push us to strive for connection and the voices that push us away are coming from two different sources within us. One is from our divine soul and the other from our amimal soul. In fact, specifically when and because our prayers are successful, we often feel most attacked by these ‘foreign thoughts’. Furthermore, these distractions themselves, can push us to dig deeper into the resources of love and awe within our divine souls. And isn’t this true of so much of life, that the blocks we encounter propel us to access untapped inner resources.
One of my favorite stories is that of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, the Berditchiver Rebbe. When he was still a young man, on Simchas Torah, he was asked to recite the opening verse of ‘Atah Horaitah’, the verses preceding the dances. He was about to begin, but he tried for three times to don his Talit , and finally threw it on the lectern and walked away. The congregation was aghast until he later explained that he had an argument with his yetzer hara, his negative inclination. The latter insisted that wherever Reb Levi Yitzchak went, whether to learn or to pray, the yetzer hora was always with him. The Rebbe finally responded to that inner voice: “If you are with me all the time in these holy occasions, then why don’t you say the prayers yourself?” What this story tells us is that on one hand, even a saintly person like Reb Levi Yitzchak can be beset by distractions, and on the other hand, all of us can and must try to separate our true selves from such disrupting voices.
2. Two reasons for the three daily prayers
Another key teaching I found very helpful regarding the two souls and their connection with prayer, is from the previous Rebbe, about the Talmudic discussion, from Brachot about the basis for the three-fold daily prayers. One says that they correspond to the patriarchs, and another opinion connects them to the daily offerings. Chassidus explains that these opinions reflect the difference in the service of the divine soul, and that of the animal soul. Each soul has to give up, or ‘re-model’ itself in order to connect to the Divine. We may understand the animal soul’s work more easily: The animal soul is naturally drawn to experiencing pleasure from earthly pursuits. Therefore it needs to let go of those attachments. But what does the divine soul have to relinquish? The Rebbe explains that even though the pleasure of this soul comes from spiritual and G-dly experiences, these pleasures are still on the level of what is called, ‘giluyim,’ –revealed holiness. This would include even profound intellectual insights into Torah, which though most valuable at other times, are not the primary aim of prayer. In order to serve G-d more fully, the Divine soul too has to surrender its pleasures in order to connect to ‘Atzmus=Essence’, which is beyond a focus on earth, as well as in heaven.
BEYOND THE SELF: WHAT PRAYER CAN ACCOMPLISH
1. Drawing form the highest realms
I am reminded about the anecdote of two neighbors, one a philosopher and the other a mystic. One morning they asked each other about the first thought that came into their minds upon awakening. The philosopher said, ‘I look at my body and my environment, and try to figure out how G-d fits into my world.’ The mystic replied, ‘I look around and feel G-d’s presence everywhere, and try to figure out how I fit into His world.’ Chassidic teachings prefer the perspective of the mystic. We may wake up more like the philosopher, but ideally our prayers should move us toward the mystic’s viewpoint. When we can maintain this outlook throughout the day, everything we do or say with have that much more impact, both in heaven and in earth.
In Likutei Torah, Rabbi Shneur Zalman presents a teaching from Parshas Balak about the uniqueness of prayer in contrast to other commandments-mitzvos. He explains that all of our service is meant to provide G-d with what the midrash calls, ‘DIRAH BATACHTONIM,’ a dwelling place in this lowest physical world’; what I like to call a ‘basement apartment.’ The rebbe clarifies that prayer is the soul of all the other mitzvos. Other mitzvos draw down specific aspects of holiness into this world, but prayer unlocks the original source channel of blessing. After the primary channel of the Ain Sof, the Infinite, is opened, then the lights from the individual mitzvos can be released with their full potential.
While writing this essay, I received an email entitled: HOW TO SCHEDULE YOUR DAY FOR PEAK CREATIVE PERFORMANCE. How apt a description for the above concept!
2. Cosmic effects
We need to be aware, as Chassidim stressed from the Baal Shem Tov times on, that each soul is an actual part of G-d called the Shechina, the divine presence. When we are in exile, hurting or feel ourselves spiritually drowning, the Shechina suffers along with us. Therefore, we are praying not just for ourselves or even just for others, but for the part of G-d that so to speak, also needs redemption and our prayers. How fitting that this year 5777, Chassidim recite the chapter of Psalms for the Rebbe’s birthday, Psalm 115, which begins: “Not for us, Hashem, not for us, rather for Your Name, give honor, for your kindness and for your truth.”
This idea has had a powerful effect on me. As a, thank G-d, healthy, only child of two handicapped parents, I was often overcome in my youth with a frustrating desire to heal them. Obviously, I could not. So the thought that I can, in some way, alleviate the suffering of the Shechina, helps me daven so much more intensively!
The very last entry in ‘Hayom Yom,’ the diary of the previous rebbe is a quote from the Tzemach Tzedek, the 3rd Lubavitcher rebbe, citing his grandfather the Alter rebbe, who in moments of ecstasy cried out: ‘I desire nothing; I don’t want Your Gan Eden, I don’t want Your World to Come…I want nothing but You alone. ‘ The last rebbe, in his final public discourse, refers to the above quote and adds that since it was made public, every Jew is endowed with the potential to express the desire that the Essence of G-d be revealed in the core of our own souls, no matter where we are in our lives. In Psalm 139 we read, “If I rise to the heavens, there You are, and if I make my bed in the grave, there you are!” Rebbe Nachman of Breslov explains this to mean that all of us can and need to seek the Essence of G-d, no matter how high we go, or how low we fall.
MY TAKE HOME
So, in response to my opening dilemma of how to keep daily prayer fresh and new, I respond: We are both capable and deployed to activate our renewed souls, through internalizing such principles as: 1-the power of pre-prayer preparation 2—the awareness that the struggle itself can be a sign of victory 3-prayer reaches the highest levels of reality, and impacts and transforms all parts of existence- both within and without. If, and when our efforts tend to wane, the Alter Rebbe promises in Tanya chapter 28: ‘Through our utmost exertion during prayer to awaken the deepest yearnings of our hearts, G-d will assist in protecting us against negative distractions, as darkness is pushed away by light.’
We read in Psalm 51: “G-d, create in me a pure heart, and a true spirit RENEW in me.” The heart is of primal importance, not just because the mind alone is insufficient, and not just because good action alone is insufficient. The heart is actually the bridge between the two. May we all merit the building of living, enduring, and inspirational bridges that transport us to the coming of Moshiach!