Sunday, May 30, 2010

Simple Prayer

Father said in the name of the holy Baal Shem Tov:

Even this person, who is occupied with his businesses all day, in the markets and streets - and nearly forgets that there is a Creator: when the time to pray the afternoon service comes, he remembers what time it is. He grieves over the fact that he must spend his whole day immersed in futilities, and he runs to a corner off to the side and prays the afternoon prayer.

Even if he is unaware of what he is saying, his words are important and precious before the Creator, Blessed Is He, and his grief shatters the Heavens.
I took that picture over four years ago, in Amuka, at the grave site of Rabbi Yonasan ben Uziel. The sign's message has always struck a chord within me.

I believe that it's an extremely important lesson for us to keep in mind; so many times we can mistakenly think that our tefillot, in their imperfection, are useless, God forbid. As the message above shows, there is inestimable value to even our most halfhearted prayer.

That shouldn't be taken as a license for complacency, of course; we must always work on improving our service an way that we can. On the other hand, I have personally seen the pitfalls of not believing in the power of the simple prayer. For some folks, they end up placing to much emphasis on the peripheral forms of worship, getting lost in the minutiae - others barely pray at all, taking an unfortunate "all or nothing" stance.

There is no question that tefilla is difficult, and that we have to constantly strengthen our resolve to succeed and pray properly. As with any thing that is done constantly, repetitively, several times a day, there is a struggle to take it seriously, with the proper reverence. That is why understanding the meaning of the words, the deeper significance of the prayers, and (for those inclined, like myself) the innovations of Chassidus (such as hisbodedus and other practices meant to intensify the relationship with God) can be such a boon for reinvigorating prayer.

But prayer is primarily an avodah sheB'Lev (a service of the heart); getting lost in the myriad explanations, the (seemingly) conflicting translations and in-depth analysis is counterproductive - those are good things for a specified study session of prayer, but not during the actual prayer! Prayer is about bitul - self nullification or abnegation before God. The workings of the mind, conversely, engender a sense of yesh - a sense of "I" (as in "I think, I say", etc. For more on this subject, see Reb Kalonymos Kalman's description of meditative techniques, printed in back of Derech HaMelech), which is counter to what tefilla is meant to be.

The same goes for the practices, kavanot, and other ritual things we do to enhance prayer: they are to some degree a means to an end, not an end themselves! There is an order of precedence; prayer and things that were established by our Sages come first, even when they are not done at their ideal performance.

Halacha is halacha; Rebbe Nachman exhorted his students, telling them that they may learn the Likutei MoHaRan any way they wanted, as long as they didn't veer from the path of halacha. Placing greater emphasis on the innovation can eventually lead to forgetting what the original "project" is, God forbid.

I am not even referring to the epidemic of praying late, way after the prescribed times for tefilla. In today's generation, I believe that there are very few individuals who can honestly say that they are concerned with ensuring that they are praying properly, and their ascetics and intentions are legitimate; those few people are also waking up very early in the morning to begin their preparations, not half past nine. But I digress...

The point I am trying to make is that even such a prayer as described in the letter above is valuable, despite it's lack of perfection. The fact that a person even ducks out of the whirlwind that is society and says a few rushed words - it's not ideal, but it is an acknowledgement of God in the midst of chaos. It is a valiant effort, because unfortunately we know all too well how easy it is to forget our Father in Heaven...


Noam the Preacher said...

I wish, ya know whats worse?
I cant stand 'em.
Its not the phone its the person using them.
I often wonder what is SOOOOO important taht G-d gets put on hold for.

Shmuel said...

I don't know what to tell you, Noam - except that we can't write off those folks.
Better to hate the Blackberry than the person who is abusing it.