A Path of Presence
The primary obstruction to a deep and fulfilling prayer experience is one of presence. Whether it is in regards to one’s own awareness and focus, or in relation to exactly Whose presence one is standing within during the act of prayer, the importance of presence is paramount.
It is quite difficult for most people to transition from one state of being into another, but that is exactly what is required of one who seeks to enter into a prayerful mode. One must shift from one state of mind into another in order to maximize the transformative potential within the experience of prayer.
This ability is not only present within the dynamics of prayer, but permeates all time-bound Mitzvos or spiritual practices. For instance, in order to fully access and appreciate Shabbos one must enter into a Shabbos state of mind or being. If one is in a weekday mode during Shabbos it will be much more difficult to acknowledge and appreciate the unique gift of Shabbos. Similarly, if one is mentally still at work while they are taking care of their child, they will most likely not be fully present in the moment and will hence miss out on the unique experience that such a moment has to offer. The same holds true for prayer.
One must be in a prayerful state to properly pray. One must be able to switch ‘programs’ so to speak in order to either leave behind the minutiae of their busy day, or to pack it all up and bring it along with them as they enter into prayer. With this understanding we can view prayer as both something that one does, as well as something that one actually is (i.e. ‘prayerful’).
In the context of formal structured prayer we pray three times a day — morning, afternoon and evening.
With this three times daily prayer schedule an individual is asked to move into and out a state of prayerful presence numerous times throughout their day.
In the morning one makes the transition from the dream-state of sleep into the waking state through a series of blessings, songs and readings known as Shacharis/the morning prayers. In the afternoon one is required to take a break in the middle of the workday, with all of its demands and details, in order to enter into a quick yet potent prayer cycle called Mincha. In the evening, as one’s tasks are coming to a close, the prayer of Ma’ariv comes to remind one of their relationship to the Divine before going off to sleep, the place from which the day emerged.
To further illustrate this dynamic let us look to the words of our sages.
Our sages tell us that upon entering the synagogue or place of worship we should, “walk in a measure of two doors before beginning to pray” (Berachos, 8a).
In addition to the literal meaning of this teaching, which is not to stand by the exit-door when we pray, this teaching also suggests a deeper meaning.
Namely, that we need to leave behind one door/reality/state and enter into a new door/reality/state as we approach the act of prayer. We need to shift our awareness from one state to another.
But how do we do this?
How does one affect their awareness and improve their quality of presence before prayer? How does one incorporate and integrate such an idea into practice? Stated more philosophically, the question emerges as: “How does one transition from the phenomenal world of multiplicity to the essential world of unity, from the mundane to the sacred, from the surface to the secret of reality?”
Our sages hint at this dilemma when they state that, “The Sages of old would tarry for an hour before prayer, then they would pray for an hour, then they would tarry for an hour after prayer” (Berachos, 32b).
Tradition teaches that the Sages would in fact meditate for an hour before prayer in order to prepare themselves to pray, as well as for an hour after praying so as to allow the ripples of their prayer to trickle down and settle into their psyche and soul before returning to their busy day.
The sages understood that one could not just jump into prayer. One needs to ‘stretch’ or ‘warm- up’ first, so that when one enters into their prayers they are fully awake and engaged. This kind of preparation for spiritual practice, which is an integral aspect of the practice itself, opens one up, calms one down, and activates a more receptive and relaxed state of being within the practitioner.
Simply put: The success of one’s prayer is dependent upon one’s preparations. In the words of a Chassidic Rebbe, “If you see that you are successful in the preparations for prayer, know that your prayers are already in the process of being answered” (Pri Tzadik, Vayeshev, 3).
This is a prime example of exactly the sort of experiential approach to prayer that we seek to further explore.
What is Prayer?
Before proceeding any further, we would be well served to outline some of the broad contours of what we are referring to when we say the word prayer.
This brief introduction is by no means exhaustive or definitive, but is merely meant to present some of the more paradigmatic aspects of prayer.
When one uses the somewhat generic word ‘prayer’ in the English vernacular they may likely be referring to a set order of religious services, the outpourings of an anxious heart, a serene end-of-day soul accounting, or some frantic version of foxhole mutterings. For our purposes in exploring the heights and depths of prayer as a transformative and spiritual practice we will pull from all of these associations, and many more.
At various times we all feel the need to pray, to reach out, to make contact with or acknowledge ‘something’ beyond us. In that moment we are attempting to sense that which is beneath or behind all of the mess, pain, confusion and apparent randomness of life.
But on an even deeper level, we recognize that aside from all of the specifics of one’s life situation that is prompting them to ‘pray’, the initial impetus to pray ultimately originates from the fact that we all just want to sense a feeling of connection in our lives — a connection to our deeper selves, to our purpose, to our community, to the world around us, and ultimately to G-d.
Interestingly, the Hebrew letters that comprise the word Tefilah/prayer, when rearranged, spell the word Pesilah/string or rope. Prayer can thus be understood as our way of throwing a rope to Hashem/G-d, or better yet, of grabbing onto the rope that Hashem is constantly throwing us. In reality, we are always bound as one with Hashem. Prayer just allows us to observe and experience this unity in a conscious way.
Where does Prayer come from?
There is a place deep inside our hearts wherein we all desperately desire some sense of profound connection beyond all the brokenness and alienation. It is from such a place that we aspire to make contact and communicate with something larger than ourselves, something more whole, intense, real and beautiful.
It is paradigmatically human to seek out, uncover or reveal such a place of perfection within this imperfect world, finding joy in the place of sadness, light in the place of darkness, and holiness in the place of foolishness.
We all deeply yearn for this. We all hope fervently that something will change, either inside of us or within the world itself. We all want more out of life and this inner hunger is the beginning of prayer. When we become aware of and reveal this inner aspiration, prayer occurs naturally and shifts begin to occur. From this raw and vulnerable place deep within, prayer is born.
In this way, prayer is like peeling an onion. You peel away layer by layer, going deeper and deeper. And as you do, you begin to tear up. You start to cry because as you are going deeper into the core, more of you is being revealed. All of the hidden layers of your psyche and soul — the memories, dreams, traumas, and fears that you harbor — are being exfoliated and begin to emerge. You are making a connection with your deeper self and at the same time allowing that deeper self to reach out and reveal that sense of connection with the Creator of the universe.
Walking the path of prayer is an often slow and sometimes heart wrenching Avodah/spiritual practice. We do not just chop open the onion to get to the core in one slice of the knife. Getting to the core without dealing with the multiple layers and veils that surround it is potentially more dangerous and deceptive than not embarking upon such a journey in the first place. This kind of instant gratification approach misses the point of the entire process, which is the revelation and reflection of the Infinite One within our finite lives. Rather, we slowly and arduously peel the proverbial onion layer by layer, prayer by prayer, word by word, breath by breath.
Before one is able to walk the path of prayer, one must be able to stand firmly. You cannot walk if you cannot first stand. Prayer allows us to stand, and later, from that place of strength deep within, to move forward.
This is alluded to in the very name of the main section of our set prayers, the Amidah/standing prayer.
The Amidah is so central to the idea of prayer that it is referred to by our sages simply as HaTefilah/the prayer.
To stand means to be present — to encounter and engage.
In a sense, when one prays in the presence of the Most High one is standing up in a variety of ways. One is standing up to bear witness to the reality of the Creator of all Being and Source of all Blessing. One is standing up for themselves, for their needs, dreams, and desires. One is also standing up for others who are in need of help or healing. In prayer, one is essentially standing up for their belief in G-d, in themselves, and in the possibility of a better, healthier, happier and holier world.
Of course, one is also standing up in a different way — they are standing up to face and take responsibility for their own shortcomings, doubts, and misdeeds. In prayer, one stands up amidst the rubble of their own life, rising precisely from within their own brokenness, pain and hurt. And from there they are able to lament suffering while at the same time longing to connect with the Master and Life of the Universe in simple faith.
Hashem’s presence is with us giving us the strength to move forward and to bridge the abyss of those longings — to heal, repair, transcend and become ever more holy and whole.
Clearly, the journey is perpetual. Once one gap is filled, we should long for more and more healing, wholeness and holiness. Every day we pray in the morning, afternoon and evening — always longing, sometimes reaching, and longing again.
A People Born in Prayer:
We have been speaking primarily of intrapersonal elements concerning one’s process and practice of prayer, but our relationship to prayer is also founded upon our collective story.
Our collective history began as slaves in Egypt. Indeed, the Israelites were enslaved for a few hundred years before there was any sign of shift or salvation. During this period the Israelites just accepted their situation; they begrudgingly bore the load of their oppression. There were no prayers uttered. The people did not express their personal or collective suffering or yearning for change, for freedom, for something different.
In truth, these two things are linked: The Israelites’ enslavement and their inability to pray. For it was not until they began to express their pain to Hashem that they were redeemed. This is reflected in the Torah’s statement concerning the beginning of the Israelites’ liberation, “and they groaned…and Hashem heard their groan” (Shemos, 2:23-24). There is a profound connection between speech and salvation.
Only once there was a groan, a crying out, a reaching towards an alternate reality, was there a “hearing Above” — and so began the process of their redemption. Prayer is the path of liberation through acknowledgment and articulation.
The ‘groan’ or sigh was enough to relax the inner rigidity that had accumulated within the slaves during their years of abuse, both individual and collective. This opening, the actual sigh, softened their heart and allowed them to sense their relationship with something greater, something outside their condition of slavery.
And slowly, as a result of that first guttural groan, that non-verbal and unselfconscious expression of pain and yearning for change, they were eventually redeemed from their bondage and taken out to walk with G-d towards their Promised Land. The opening below aroused an opening Above. As they softened, so in a manner of speaking did Hashem. And in response to their opening, Hashem began to open the way for their redemption.
The Redemptive Nature of Prayer:
The act of praying is redemptive. When we have the ability to express our hurt, desire and yearning, this itself is a form of inward redemption. The deepest exile is an exile of speech. To be human is to be a Medaber/speaking being. When we cannot express ourselves, we are in exile; we are, in a way, less human. Taking away the ability to speak robs people of their humanity. Sometimes this silence is externally imposed, and yet, often it is internally generated. In this situation, one is in a state of deep exile or stuckness.
According to the Zohar, the story of the Israelites going out of Egypt is the story of our collective redemption from a seemingly external, but ultimately internal enslavement — an exile and redemption of speech (Zohar 2, 25b).
A slave cannot express or reveal who he really is or what he wants, for his conditioning is imposed upon him. Speech implies choice, for it is through language that we define our reality. Additionally, a slave cannot truly listen to another, nor can they hear the possibility that things may be different.
Even though Moshe/Moses was essentially above slavery (as he was born into the un-enslaved tribe of Levi and raised as an Egyptian prince), he still could not easily speak. At the Burning Bush Moshe says of himself, “I am not a man of words, and I have a hard [or heavy] mouth” (Shemos, 4:10); as well as, “the people will not listen to my voice” (ibid. 4:1). These statements are related. Moshe could not speak because the people were not yet open to listening. At the same time, the people were unable to listen because there was no one to speak for them. There was no opening.
In Egypt the slaves were forced to do Avodas Perach/harsh labor. The word Perach can be broken down into the two words, Peh Rach/weak mouth (Sotah, 11b). This symbolizes the fact that their faculty of speech was in exile.
The word Pharaoh can also be pronounced Peh Ra/negative mouth. This symbolizes the force of negativity that sought to keep the slaves stuck within their current situation, with their hearts hardened and not open to change.
The word Pesach/Passover can be divided into two words, Peh Sach/the mouth speaks. When we have ‘a mouth that speaks’, we can liberate ourselves from our own ‘weak mouth’ and ‘negative mouth’.
Prayer is a means of release from our own personal exile. When we are troubled and are given the amazing gift from Above — to stand in prayer and pour out our hearts — the act itself is redemptive, healing, and cathartic.
We were not only born in prayer, we in fact birthed ourselves through prayer. Prayer can thus be seen as a spiritual midwife for one’s ultimate dreams and desires to be born into the world. That is precisely the work of prayer: To move one’s inner potential into the realm of the actual.
The Human Nature of Prayer:
It is a human instinct to pray.
A person is ontologically an Alul/effect, which is caused by the Ultimate prime Ilah/cause. Every Alul is connected to and needs its Ilah, and hence it is natural to pray (Maharal, Netzach Yisrael, 23). It is only natural for an Alul to be drawn to its Ilah.
In fact, prayer is understood as a defining factor of what makes us human. A human being is referred to as a Ma’aveh. The word Ma’aveh is from a linguistic root which means ‘implores, asks, or prays’ (Rashi, Baba Kama, 2a).
Furthermore, the hidden substance of the human being is prayer. The word Adam, the generic word for ‘human’, reveals this reality beautifully when we apply the Kabbalistic technique of “filling out” a word.
In this technique one spells a given word by actually spelling out each letter. For instance: The word Adam is not just spelled with the three Hebrew letters—Aleph, Dalet, Mem—as it usually is. Instead each of the three letters is spelled out: Aleph is Aleph, Lamed, Pei. Dalet is Dalet, Lamed, Tof. And Mem, is Mem, Mem. When you subtract all the “original” letters from the word Adam (Aleph, Dalet, Mem), you get the word, Mispalel/praying (Lamed, Pei, Lamed, Tof, Mem). The inner nature of an Adam is a being that prays.
Who are we? We are prayers, pray-ers.
To live means to dream, to aspire, to long for. Some long for power, others for love, but at their root, all yearnings are ultimately for Yichud/Unity. Without awareness this primal longing can easily manifest in cravings for consumption, be it for a new possession or a new relationship, coupled with the mistaken belief that if we were able to just attain this one desire, completion would be achieved. When we feed our desires with false perception, satisfaction is never attained and frustration only increases. To respond to this root desire of all desires in a healthy way means to constantly be in a state of prayer, reaching ever inwards toward the Source of all Life, and reaching out to connect oneself to all that is good and holy.
In prayer we come to recognize that our lives are being lived within the presence of the Creator. It is through prayer that we transform the abstract and intellectual understanding of Hashem into a living and loving truth. In this way, through prayer, we make Divine reality our reality.
It would be a severe oversight while attempting to provide a deeper and more experiential understanding of the practice and process of prayer if there were no mention of the issue of Kavanah/intention. This brief note will have to serve as a general introduction, but rest assured, we will be exploring the concept of Kavanah in much more depth throughout the body of this text.
To put it simply, Kavanah is what turns speech into prayer, action into worship. It is the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of whatever one may be doing. Kavanah is the underlying purpose and passion that propels one’s pursuits.
One’s Kavanah is directly related to the quality of one’s presence while immersed in a given action. To become aware of one’s Kavanah prior to or while engaged in a particular undertaking is an essential goal of all Mitzvos, especially prayer.
Often to achieve such a state of sensitized awareness in the moment of one’s doing or being, it is necessary to ‘take a moment’ or a breath, pause to focus the mind, maybe even sing a melody or contemplate a passage from the Torah or Psalms to activate the imagination or open the heart.
Kavanah is where the experiential and the contextual aspects of prayer come into dynamic interplay.
Regarding prayer there are two main areas in which Kavanah is fundamental:
A) The act of prayer itself as being a real attempt at communication and relationship with the living presence of Hashem, who hears and answers our prayers. Prayer is not mere monologue, but rather a space created for profound dialogue. Our prayers are heard, and it is also through prayer that we open ourselves to hear. Therefore, one must seek to initiate and maintain an immediate awareness of the presence of the Infinite One in order for genuine prayer to occur. In Reality, Hashem is always listening. But it is only during the time of our prayer that we generally decide to consciously acknowledge and encounter this Infinite Presence in our lives. It is on account of the quality of this Kavanah that one is able to enter fully into the spiritual practice of prayer.
B) The depth and meaning of the words one is saying during the act of prayer. This pertains particularly to one who is praying during the three set prayers of the day from the Siddur, which is comprised of the pre-written words of our sages, prophets and the Torah. It is an alchemical act to transform the written prayers of an-other into the living words of one’s own heart, and it is only with Kavanah that this is possible.
Regarding these two fundamental Kavanos, there is an old argument about which is the most important Kavanah to hold while praying: Is it to concentrate on the meaning of the words, or is it to stay connected to the awareness that you are praying in front of The Infinite One who hears all prayer?
Clearly, the most important Kavanah and the most basic intention to establish while praying is that one is standing in front of the Shechinah/the immanent presence of the Most High (Rambam, Hilchos Tefilah, 4:16). Without this general Kavanah there is no prayer (R. Chaim Brisker. Al Ha’Rambam, ibid, 4:1). Without this intention, not only has the Gavrah/person not fulfilled his or her own obligation to pray, but the Cheftzah/thing of prayer itself did not even occur (Likutei Sichos 22, p. 117). Ultimately, in order to properly pray we need to be in a prayerful state of mind. We need the Hergesh/feeling of literally being in the presence of the Shechinah/the Divine Presence while speaking to Hashem.
And yet, it goes without saying that it is also extremely important to know what you are saying while praying. The best approach would be to engage both intentions together (Miteler Rebbe. Hakdamah, Shar Ha’emuna.)
In fact, it would be most commendable to use the Pirush/meaning of the words to arouse one’s awareness and focus one’s concentration on the fact that one is standing in front of Hashem throughout the course of the prayer.
In this way, the Pirush Hamilos/meaning of the words is not a distraction. Rather, it enhances the general awareness of just Whose presence one is standing within as they begin to pray.
Every Prayer is Authentic:
There is a well-known and universally retold parable:
Once there was a powerful king who built himself a beautiful castle. In order to furnish the castle he divided it evenly in half and called upon two of his ministers and told them to each decorate one part of the castle. He told them that they have two months to finish the decorations, whereupon they will be rewarded for their work.
One of them immediately set out to decorate his part of the castle with the finest gold, paintings and tapestries. He toiled for two months, night and day, and at the end of the two months, his half of the castle was magnificent.
On the opposite side, the other fellow lazed around and did not get started on the project until a day before the two months were up.
The night before the grand opening a deep remorse set in and he was sick with worry for not obeying the king and wasting his time with frivolity. But what could be done? Just then, a genius idea came to him. He took some shiny potter’s glaze and covered his entire part of the castle with it. The glaze acted as a mirror. He then took a curtain and hung it between his half of the castle and the other.
In great anticipation the day finally arrived and the king, accompanied by his entourage, came to inspect and marvel at what he hoped would be his beautifully decorated castle.
He was shown the first half (the side which had been labored over for months) and he was quite pleased. It was beautiful and magnificent. At this time the second half was still hidden behind the curtain. When the king asked to see the second half, the curtain was lifted and behold — a perfect mirror image of the first part was seen.
There are three possible endings to this tale:
A) The king punishes the second minister, for all he did was play a clever trick on the king. Of course if he does so, then it reflects badly on the king. It shows that he lacks a sense of humor and resourcefulness.
B) The king is pleased with his work and inspired by his ingenuity. He rewards him as he does the first minister.
C) The king cleverly rewards the minister through a similar use of mirrors. Instead of giving him actual coins as a reward, the king merely offers him a reflection of coins by placing them on the other side of the castle. Through the mirror it would appear as if he had placed the coins on his side.
The first option is obviously ruled out, as it reflects negatively on the king. We are left with the second two. The more well-known understanding of the tale supports the third option. As such, the story concludes with a clever king outsmarting a clever minister.
Yet, when Rebbe Nachman of Breslov told the tale he ended the story with option B — that the king is pleased with his work and rewards him accordingly.
What Reb Nachman is teaching us is that even if one feels inauthentic, like an impostor or charlatan, the KING still enjoys our work, our efforts, our practice. Maybe it is merely a mirror of generations past, or a miming of those who have reached higher levels, but it is our mirror, our ingenuity, our creativity, and we are indeed trying to see ourselves in its reflection.
Just because we did not put in the maximum amount of preparation or hard work — and of course we should — but even if we did not, we tried as best as we could at that moment, and Hashem rewards us accordingly.
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