Please, if you feel inspired to do so, pray for my mother, Yehudis bas Tzviya (Judith, daughter of Sylvia). She is 82 years old, and has a heart condition. She is being evaluated at a medical center, and may need to be hospitalized. She had been diagnosed with stage 2 heart failure; at current, further testing is being done.
A Few Thoughts on Prayer and Sincerity: Elokai Neshama
“My G-d, the soul you placed within me is pure.”
– from the morning prayers
Too often, I am unable to say the beginning of this prayer “as is.” Was the original soul that G-d placed within me pure when I was born? Yes, as far as I know, I can receive this as a truth.
Is my soul renewed every morning, having spent some time in the upper realms to get a recharge, before being placed back within me before I wake up? No doubt, that my soul is renewed each and every morning, as implied elsewhere, “new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23).
Yet, I know myself too well; my conscience is not necessarily renewed to its pristine quality every morning. And, if yesterday’s taint upon the soul is still present in my mind, my soul does not “feel” pure when I awake to the “rise and shine” of the day.
For some time, I have been disconcerted by the apparent incongruity of how I feel, as compared to the literal text; so, I explored various ways to understand this concept of the soul’s purity being restored. One finding is that, only a certain part of the soul is referred to in the prayer; that part is “pure.”
I also seem to recall learning of tzaddikim, who were unable to say certain prayers in sincerity. As far as I can recall, they modified those particular prayers a little bit, for themselves, in the moment, in order to be heartfelt and true to their words. Yet, this is not to be understood as a pretext to actually changing the prayers of chazal (the sages).
Yet, there does appear to be a pretext to solving my own troublesome dilemma, by altering a prayer somewhat, at least, in the moment, to be faithful and true to one’s own words. As such, I usually say, “My G-d, may the soul you placed within me be pure.” I have turned a statement into a request.
Additionally, the prayers may be personalized, to some extent, while reciting them: that is the nature of personal kavannos, best explained as thoughts about the prayers while reciting them. (There are also specially designed kavannos to recall while reciting certain prayers).
While riding on a donkey, what is appropriate in regard to prayer? Specifically, for the Shemonah Esrei prayer? Anyone riding on a donkey would find prayer challenging, especially the type of prayer alluded to in the Mishnah, namely the Shemonah Esrei that is recited while standing. Yet, the Mishnah covers this, noting several options:
If someone else can hold the donkey while one is praying, this is acceptable. Although, a more authoritative ruling explains that because one is traveling, even if another person holds the donkey, the person praying will be distracted, worrying about the journey, so as to not have proper concentration; for this reason, one should continue riding on the donkey, and pray while doing so.
The gist of the Mishnah actually has to do with the requirement to pray the Shemonah Esrei, while facing Jerusalem, if living in Israel; or, facing in the direction of Israel, for those living outside of Israel. Thus, one should turn his head towards Jerusalem, while riding on a donkey. If one can not turn towards Jerusalem while riding on a donkey, for the sake of prayer, he should focus his heart energy towards the Temple mount. (Keep in mind that these rulings were recorded in the third century; however, the oral tradition predates the written accounts by at least several hundred years).
“Redeem, L-rd, Your people, the remnant of Israel, at every transition. May their needs be before You. Blessed are You, L-rd, Who listens to prayer.”
– Mishnah Berachos 4:4, sefaria.org
The Mishnah discusses fixed payer; and, the inability to pray a complete prayer, while walking in a place of danger. Fixed prayer, that is to say, prayer viewed as an obligation, whereof prayer may seem like a burden, and done only to fulfill an obligation is discouraged. For that type of prayer will not be sincere, as the person praying only seeks to relieve himself of what is considered a burdensome obligation.
In regard to prayer while traveling through an area that might be dangerous, it is assumed that the person’s mind is unsettled, hence, an inability to foster proper concentration. In this situation, a person is not required to say a complete prayer (e.g., the Shemonah Esrei). Moroever, there is not even a requirement to say Havineinu, a shortened version of the Shemonah Esrei; rather, an even briefer prayer may be recited (see above-mentioned prayer). Incidentally, I imagine that the reason the prayer is in the plural is because, prayers including oneself with others are more likely to be answered.
These considerations are made, for the sake of the safety of the traveler. Consider Moshe, who at the Sea of Reeds began to pray to H’Shem, when Pharaoh’s army posed a significant threat to B’nei Yisrael. To paraphrase the passage, H’Shem told Moses, now is not the time to pray; rather, I will deliver the people now. Certainly, in any given situation wherein imminent harm is at hand, the time would appear to be a time to act, rather than pray.
However, a brief prayer for deliverance is in total accord with what is right in the eyes of G-d, who would like us to put our trust completely in Him. At times like those, a brief prayer, like, “H’Shem, guard me against evil,” would be appropriate. The Mishnah, in discussing prayer here, Is only referring to traditional prayers recited on a daily basis, as opposed to impromptu heartfelt prayers that may be said at any time, in any situation.
Jacob journeys on foot to Haran, in order to take a wife from his own kindred. Along the way, he encounters the place (hamakom). He “spent the night there, for the sun had set” (Genesis 28:11). “And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12). This ascent and descent of the angels upon the ladder in Jacob’s dream may be understood as being symbolic of prayer (Sforno).
Consider that this place (hamakom) is described as “the House of G-d,” and ”the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17). So, a parallel may be drawn between this place (hamakom) on earth, and “the place (hamakom),” used to describe where the L-RD resides in Shomayim (Heaven): “Blessed be the glory of the L-RD from His place (makom)” (Ezekiel 3:12, JPS 1917 Tanach).
Additionally, both the first and second temples were built on this very same spot. When Solomon built the first Temple, he gave a speech, stating, “I have surely built Thee a house of habitation, a place for thee to dwell in for ever” (1 Kings 8:13, JPS 1917 Tanach). Contrast these words, spoken by King Solomon when he inaugurated the first Temple, with his words, later in his speech: “But will G-d in very truth dwell on the earth? behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee; how much less this house that I have builded” (1 Kings 8:27, JPS).
This contrast points to the understanding found in the Talmud, that G-d may be both transcendent, in His place (hamakom) in Heaven, and immanent, for example, when His Presence, the Shechinah appeared at the Beis HaMikdash (Temple). “And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the L-RD, so that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud; for the glory [kavod] of the L-RD filled the house of the L-RD” (1 Kings 8:10-11, JPS).
The Talmud further notes that even though G-d resides in Shomayim (Heaven), He can still hear the whispered prayers of a penitent, standing near a column, during a prayer service at a synagogue. Perhaps, the column itself suggests a connection between heaven earth.
Nevertheless, for many people, G-d seems to be distant, far away from the mundane business and chatter of the world. This dilemma may be approached through finding the opportunity to speak to G-d, from the depths of the heart, preferably, during a quiet time set aside for this purpose. Although, even in the sanctuaries of prayer today, the service allows for an individual connection to G-d, when we resolve ourselves to tune out any distractions within or without.
Prayer is meant to be self-reflexive. For, how can the prayers truly benefit the soul, unless the meaning of the prayers is known to the person who is praying? Yet, there is a belief that praying in Hebrew, regardless of knowledge of the Hebrew language, also benefits the soul. While it may be the case that the soul benefits, this could be at the expense of the individual’s actual understanding of the words. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the founder of Breslov Chasidism advocated the need to pray in one’s own language. I find this approach refreshing, inasmuch that he understood the importance of kavanah (intention) at the level of praying in a meaningful way.
Moreover, not only pray in one’s own language, at least for some of the prayers, but to be able to comprehend the meaning of the words one prays is important. Words have meaning in and of themselves; a dictionary is a handy guide to those meanings when unsure of what a word conveys, or how it is used in a sentence. However, the words of kitvei kodesh (holy scripture) have meaning above and beyond the words themselves, and must be understood within the greater context of the themes of the biblical narratives they portray, as well as their theological significance.
The siddur (prayer book) has been described as an overall composite of what is most significant in Judaism. The prayers are an active means for inculcating the values, traditions, and beliefs of Judaism into our lives. As such, the siddur should garner our greatest attention, and praying should not end up being a rote experience, performed without true intention or understanding. If our prayer experience is dry, then we need to somehow make amends.
One way to do so is to increase a sense of kavanah (attention; intentional reading) through specific techniques designed for this purpose. For example, if praying too fast, one way to slow down is to pause, every time the name YHVH is written, otherwise denoted by the words H’Shem or L-RD. This serves to develop a pace whereby reflection becomes possible, by paying more attention to the words that are being prayed. This is davening with kavanah, when the words have a direct and immediate impact on the soul of the individual praying.
It is of paramount importance to seek understanding of the meaning and significance of the words that are being prayed. Each individual should decide for him or herself, what language to pray, and how to find a healthy balance between Hebrew and one’s own language. The original Hebrew prayers are established by chazal (the sages) and should not be changed; at least not to the extent that they are unrecognizable in an English translation, or seem to abandon the original intent. For, the ultimate goal is to connect with H’Shem at the level of one’s own understanding and comfortability.