Praying for a Better Future
For the next two weeks, in preparation for Elul, we will be reviewing four of the first five segments from the start of the Shemoneh Esrei series.
At the start of Elul, rather than plunging ourselves into cheshbon ha’nefesh (accounting of one’s soul), many advise to begin by strengthening the core areas of our avodas Hashem. Since we are involved in tefilah in this program, and since tefilah is certainly one of the core areas of our service to Hashem, we will review four segments in particular, between this week and next week, since they speak about the purpose of tefilah, and arguably the three most important words of tefilah and of all of our brachos, which, in Elul, is another area we must work on strengthening.
Shemoneh Esrei 1
Shemoneh Esrei is the core of our tefilah and therefore requires the highest level of kavanah. The Meiri writes (on B’rachos 32b) that one cannot compare the kavanah required even for Shema with the kavanah required for Shemoneh Esrei. “With every word [of Shemoneh Esrei] one will find inspiration to fear and love Hashem…and to increase one’s humility before Hashem” [sefer Beis Tefilah, by the author of the Pele Yoeitz]. Each and every word will rise above, each to its source and root, to accomplish wondrous p’ulos (actions) and tikunim (corrections) [sefer nefesh HaChaim 2:13] in creation.
The Chovos HaL’vavos sums up tefilah with just a few words: “Our intent in tefilah is essentially nothing but longing for Hashem and humbling ourselves before Him, recognizing that we are totally dependent upon Him.”
The following two paragraphs are mostly excerpts from Rabbi Warren Goldstein, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa:
The key to successful tefilah is that it must come from the heart; it has to be sincere, not just going through the motions and the externalities, having a siddur open in front of us though our minds and hearts are in many different places. It means having a spiritual and emotional connection to Hashem.
Real prayer should have the power to uplift and transform us. We daven three times a day, Shacharis, Minchah, and Maariv; at each stage in the day we have the opportunity to step out of life and connect with Hashem. This is why, when we step into the Amidah prayer, we take three steps back and then three steps forward: Symbolically, we are taking three steps back out of our lives, and then three steps forward into the presence of Hashem. These moments give us the opportunity to have the clarity, peace, and tranquility that come with knowing that G-d is in charge and that, no matter what happens in the end, He is a loving father and we can connect with Him.
The reason tefilah is called avodah (service) is that through tefilah we recognize that we own nothing, that all we have is from Hashem, and that we are completely dependent on Him, the same way a servant owns nothing and is completely dependent upon his master.
Many of the external acts we perform immediately before and during the Shemoneh Esrei symbolize and reinforce the very purpose of tefilah as expressed above by Chovos HaL’vavos in six words that translate as “longing for Hashem and humbling ourselves before Him.” Some examples based on the Maharal include the following:
Standing with our legs together – We cannot move when we stand with our legs together; we are stuck. This inability to move our legs reflects our total dependence on Hashem (Rashba). Thus, standing with our legs together for the Amidah is a statement to Hashem and to ourselves that we cannot make a single move in this world without Him. All our dreams, aspirations, and achievements, everything we want and need, come from Hashem.
Eyes cast downward/heart directed towards heavens – The eyes cast downward represents our standing before Hashem as humble servants, completely dependent on Him; and having our heart directed toward the heavens represents our being close to Him. We need both aspects, because tefilah is not just about being dependent on Hashem, but about coming close to Him. Our dependency on Hashem is what brings about our closeness to Him; when we realize how much we need Him and that everything in life comes from Him, we are drawn closer to Him.
There are two aspects to kavanah (concentration or intent) in tefilah. The first and most crucial aspect is recognizing and internalizing that we are standing before the King of Kings (“Da lifnei Mi atah omeid–Know before Whom you stand”) and speaking directly to Him. The second aspect is understanding the meaning of the words we say.
The Rambam defines “kavanah” as clearing our minds and visualizing ourselves standing before the Sh’chinah. This is codified in both the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch. There are specific halachos that we derive from this concept, because we are actually standing before Hashem.
The challenge of tefilah today is to block out all noise and throw ourselves into our tefilah. We live in a world where we are pulled in many different directions and are constantly distracted by all the electronic devices and the pressures of life. This is an enormous challenge, but it is also a great opportunity. Amidst all of the pressures and distractions of life, we have an opportunity to disengage from our preoccupations and pull ourselves together, to be inspired, and to come close to Hashem through our tefilos.
Let us use this week to focus on our approach to Shemoneh Esrei, removing ourselves from the distractions of life, focusing on our feelings of total dependence on Hashem, and longing for closeness to Him that results from our total dependence.
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You can direct any questions or comments to Eliezer Szrolovits at 917-551-0150.