A friend called this morning and described a shabbat morning service he recently attended with his family. It was three hours long; it covered many pages of dense liturgy, included long scriptural readings (in Hebrew, of course), and was punctuated by numerous speakers who droned on about matters that were meaningful only to their family members but not to the rest of the community. Although he was primed to appreciate the service as an opportunity for prayer and learning, he found himself mostly waiting for an opportunity to get up and stretch his legs. Does my friend’s experience sound familiar to you? Have you, as the expression goes, “been there and done that”?
For many of us, prayer and study in a service are a challenge on several levels. Prayer requires both an intellectual background to understand the structure of the service and the meaning of the prayers, and then enormous concentration, focus, and effort to actually engage with the service in a productive way. By nature, we are easily distracted. If we find it difficult to focus and truly pray, or truly learn from the Torah and Haftarah readings, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Some comfort and help comes to us from the 18th century hasidic master, Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf of Zhytomir, a disciple of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch through his novel interpretation of a passage in this week’s parashah, Shoftim, that is not about prayer at all—it’s about war. And further insight comes from the great 20th century mind and soul of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Both Ze’ev Wolf and Heschel understood just how difficult real prayer is.
Let’s begin with parshat Shoftim. Toward the end of the parashah, we find a discussion of war that opens with these words:
כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל-אֹיְבֶךָ, וְרָאִיתָ סוּס וָרֶכֶב עַם רַב מִמְּךָ--לֹא תִירָא, מֵהֶם: כִּי-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עִמָּךְ, הַמַּעַלְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. וְהָיָה, כְּקָרָבְכֶם אֶל-הַמִּלְחָמָה; וְנִגַּשׁ הַכֹּהֵן, וְדִבֶּר אֶל-הָעָם. וְאָמַר אֲלֵהֶם שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, אַתֶּם קְרֵבִים הַיּוֹם לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל-אֹיְבֵיכֶם; אַל-יֵרַךְ לְבַבְכֶם, אַל-תִּירְאוּ וְאַל-תַּחְפְּזוּ וְאַל-תַּעַרְצוּ—מִפְּנֵיהֶם.
When you take the field against your enemies, and see horses and chariots—forces larger than yours—have no fear of them, for Adonai your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, is with you. It shall be when you draw near to battle, that the priest shall come forward and address the troops. He shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemies. Do not let your courage falter. Do not be fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. (Deuteronomy 20:1–3)
Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf points out that the word וְהָיָה (“It shall be”) is usually a term expressing joy, but what joy could there be in war? He thereupon offers us a novel interpretation of the passage that encapsulates a keen psychological insight. With Rosh Chodesh Elul now behind us, and Rosh Hashanah only a few weeks away, our thoughts turn to two of the most difficult tasks before us: prayer and study. There will be plenty of both throughout the High Holy Days, but for many people they are difficult, confounding, confusing, impenetrable. Ze’ev Wolf understands that for many people they are so challenging that they are the enemy with whom we feel we are doing battle:
It appears that the hidden meaning here refers to study and prayer, which are the essential battles we face through life. Happy is the one who fills his quiver with them (Psalm 127:5), shooting arrows at [the wicked angel] Samael. Have sharply pointed “arrows” in your hand, arouse yourself with letters filled with love and fear. Then let your heart trust that you will come to victory and not defeat.
Most people, we see, come to the inner heart-work of prayer bearing neither words nor speech; their voice is not heard (Psalm 19:4). Only their bodies sway, like trees in the forest. The battle is heavily turned against these people; they have fear in their hearts before the enemy who dwells within. That foe, the evil urge, takes away their weapons of war, the letters, reforming them into words that support the foe, confounding their minds with vain, worldly thoughts. Indeed they have no arrows to shoot into the darkness, to triumph in chasing this hidden one from their heart. This is indeed defeat. When they turn to study and prayer, they come away empty-handed.
Does this sound familiar to you? Does this reflect your sense of things and your experience? Do you go to synagogue and find that the words of prayer and Torah don’t move you, don’t speak to you, don’t penetrate into your soul? There is an internal battle, Ze’ev Wolf affirms, raging inside us for our attention. Even when we struggle to focus on prayer and study and get something out of the service, the idiom of traditional prayer may be foreign to us and we are sometimes easily distracted from the task at hand.
Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf goes on to say that most people are consumed by the quotidian of life: earning a living, raising a family. “They spend most of their years in pursuit of food and clothing. Service, the real reason they were created, is forgotten from their hearts.” This is why Torah employs the term וְהָיָה (“It shall be”)—when we take the field against our enemies “in the war of study and prayer,” vanquishing thoughts that distract us from seeing realizing our true purpose in life, we are headed toward a joyous victory. He suggests that the very effort is, itself, success, and that any success, however small, is a major victory—one that should bring us joy.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in the 20th century, couched the problem of prayer somewhat differently. He noted that contemporary psychology (of the time) tended to understand prayer in terms of what it accomplishes for the one who prays. Whether or not this is an appropriate metric, using a beautiful analogy from music, Heschel asserts:
The drive toward practical consequences is not the force that inspires a person at the moment of his chanting praise to God. Even in supplication, the thought of aid or protection does not constitute the inner act of prayer. The hope of results may be the motive that leads the mind into prayer, but not the content which fills the worshipper’s consciousness in the essential moment of prayer. The artist may give a concert for the sake of promised remuneration, but in the moment when he is passionately seeking with his fingertips the vast swarm of swift and secret sounds, the consideration of subsequent reward is far from his mind. His whole being is immersed in the music. The slightest shift of attention, the emergence of any ulterior motive, would break his intense concentration, and his single-minded devotion would collapse, his control of the instrument would fail… Prayer, too, is primarily kavanah [intention, direction of the heart], the yielding of the entire being to one goal, the gather of the soul into focus. (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel. 1996: Farrar, Staus and Giroux, p. 348.)
For Heschel, a prayer service is a venue for achieving a spiritual experience—however you understand that. The prayers, themselves, are a springboard into your own consciousness. You need not understand them (or intend them) literally. The experience of prayer is key. For some, that might be inner exploration. For some, it might be meditative. For some, the beauty of the prayers and music might be transcendent. For some, being amidst community might be transporting. For some, the texts of prayer and scripture might be revelatory.
Combining the views and insights of Ze’ev Wolf and Heschel, here’s my take: Don’t worry about achieving total focus and concentration through the service. Find meaning where you can, allow the tunes to transport you, enjoy the ruach, schmooze with people you are happy to see, and don’t forget to have a nosh before you go.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman