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Praying with Kavana – Part II

 

In this week’s parasha we learn (Bereshis 25:21): “And Yitzchak prayed to the Lord opposite his wife because she was barren, and the Lord accepted his prayer, and Rivka his wife conceived.” Only after they prayed was Rivka blessed with children. In this week’s article we will continue the topic of prayer with kavana.

In last week’s article we outlined the basics of kavana: The foundation is the feeling of standing before the King of the World and speaking to Him. The second aspect is concentrating on the meaning of the words we say. The feeling of attachment to Hashem, full disengagement from the physical world and the spiritual feeling of connectedness are often a sign for successfully achieving awareness of standing before The King, but may also be a sign for stormy emotions, not necessarily real kavana. Our efforts must be invested in achieving the first two aspects – awareness of Whom we are speaking with, and the meaning of the words we say.

In last week’s article we established that full kavana was rare even in early times, and even more so nowadays. Although one who didn’t fully concentrate on the first blessing of the Shemone Esrei should have been obligated to repeat the blessing, since we cannot be certain that the second time will be better than the first the Shulchan Aruch rules it isn’t repeated (OC 98:2). While full kavana is difficult, one must invest all his energies to try to achieve it. Hashem primarily wants our efforts, not the results. Therefore, a prayer in which one tried to concentrate and was only partially successful is accepted faster than that of the more spiritually attuned who didn’t need to invest so much.

This week’s article will provide readers with practical tips on how to achieve kavana, and the halachos designed to assist us in it. Yesod V’Shoresh H’avoda (sha’ar 5:1) writes that one is obligated to review the 98th chapter in the Shulchan Aruch at least once a week to reinforce his kavana in prayer. This week’s article is based heavily upon this chapter. In perusing this article our readers will have fulfilled this directive, and praiseworthy is he who reviews it more than once.

Mindset

After outlining what basic kavana is, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 98:1) directs us how to achieve it: All disruptive thoughts should be removed, leaving one’s mind free and focused only on prayer and the feeling of standing before a King. How is that done? The Shulchan Aruch answers: Imagine planning an audience with a flesh-and-blood monarch: the mental preparation, reviewing the words, practicing the gestures, learning the etiquette… The Gemara (Brachos 31a) learns this halacha from a pasuk: “You shall hear the desire of the humble, O Lord; may You prepare their heart, may Your ear hearken” (Tehilim 10:17). In merit of conditioning one’s mind, his prayers are accepted.

Another directive: Focus on G-d. Before prayer, think of G-d’s greatness and focus on thoughts that infuse humility and connection. This is a personal place — every individual knows what helps him reach the desired state of mind. For example, you could think of man futility and finiteness, his neediness and helplessness; compared to G-d’s benevolence, love, and generosity. One must refrain from thoughts of frivolity, lust, and other inconsequential thoughts.

The Mishna Brura (98:1) limits these preparatory thoughts to the moments before prayer. During prayer these thoughts are forbidden. Rather, one must remain fully focused on the words he is saying and the fact that he is now standing before The King.

The Thought That Counts

Sefer Chassidim (chapter 158) advises to thoroughly think and carefully articulate every request from G-d. The Chavos Yair (Mekor Chaim 95:2) calls for thinking about the content of every blessing before reciting it. The Chafetz Chaim teaches (Shmiras Halashon, introduction) how easily it can be done: just stop before beginning a new blessing, and think about the topic of the blessing.

The Shulchan Aruch (OC 98:3) adds that Hashem owes us nothing. One who prays to Hashem should entreat  Him just as a poor man stands begging at the doorstep. The Mishna Brura adds (footnote 8) that one should feel how there is truly nothing but Hashem Who can help him – no mazal, angel, or person in the world.

Another halacha (ibid): One must pray slowly and deliberately, appreciating and savoring the privilege of being about to speak to The King. Prayer cannot be an item on our to-do list, waiting to be crossed off. The Mishna Brura writes this requires extra attention because according to many opinions it is one of the intentions that prevent prayer from being accepted. The Biur Halacha (98:3) notes this is the main kavana one must have in the first blessing of the Shemone Esrei: prayer is a privilege and opportunity, one to appreciate and relish.

The prayer of Aleinu L’shabieach was added just for this reason. Chazal wanted to give us a moment of reflection, allowing us to slow down and spend a second praising G-d instead of running right into the day and its tasks. It helps us internalize the centrality of prayer in our lives and the pleasure in prayer, something we’d love to linger upon. This is an important point because one who doesn’t know it, may think that Aleinu is simply a part of the prayers, missing out on the above-mentioned feeling that Aleinu was intended to impart.

Melody

Sefer Chassidim (158) instructs its readers to invest in searching for the right melodies for every section of the prayers to arouse the desired emotions at the opportune moment. Music creates connection and conditions one’s attitude at the appropriate time.

Mystic Kavana

Some associate the term kavana to Jewish mysticism, attempting to incorporate those mystic kavanot in his prayer. The Mishna Brura warns (98:1) against it, instructing to focus only on the plain literal meaning of the words. The kavanot printed in special siddurim are intended for the select few who merited understanding these lofty concepts and have reached a level that allows thinking of them in prayer. For a layperson to think of them is very detrimental. The Mishna Brura adds that the Maharshal (chapter 98) noted that after one of the leading early kabbalists learned all the kabbalistic kavanot he went back to praying like a day-old baby.

Meet the King

One of the things that help us drive home the feeling of standing before The King is our manner of dress. Putting on special prayer clothes and ensuring that we look presentable is one way of internalizing the main kavana – standing before The King of the World (OC 98:4). The source for this halacha is from the pasuk “…Prepare to meet your G-d, O Yisrael” (Amos 4:12).

Wearing a special belt is the way Hassidim fulfill this directive, but a regular belt can also suffice since it affords its wearer a feeling of put-togetherness.

Another reason for putting on a belt before prayers is to separate between the heart and the lower extremities. This teaches us to separate between our physical aspect and our spiritual self. While certain mitzvos call for fusing the two together, separating spirituality from the physical body and its desires is essential for prayer.

Nowadays, whereas people wear undergarments, this reason is no longer applicable. It could however be pertinent in hospital settings, as often patients dressed in hospital gowns may find themselves praying without their regular clothing.

Our physical position is also designed to facilitate kavana. We pray facing Jerusalem (OC 94), and thinking of it creates a mindful connection between praying and service of G-d in the Mikdash.

Straying Thoughts

A human being, as much as he tries, doesn’t usually have full control over his thoughts. We can try and practice control, employ some tricks and pray for success, but if great Jewish leaders admitted their failure, our own is certainly assured. So what do you do if you find yourself daydreaming in the middle of Shacharis?

The answer is: stop (OC 98:1). Stop praying, and wait for the thought to pass. Then, when you feel it is gone, resume praying.

Remedies

The Gra (Even Shlema, footnote 2) writes that praying from a siddur serves as a protection from unwanted thoughts. An allusion for this can be found in the pasuk “…Letters to be written to the effect that evil thought against the Jews be returned” (Esther 9:25). Looking at the letters in the siddur can help successfully eliminate unbidden thoughts.

The Gra’s student, Rabbi Chaim of Volozin, follows along the same lines (Nefesh Hachaim 2:13): The most important facet of kavana is picturing the written word. This is easily done when praying from a siddur, and very difficult, and requires practice and concentration, when doing so by heart. The Ben Ish Chai adds (Beshalach, 1:5) that one should try to do so at least in the first three blessings of the Shemone Esrei, or at the very least — in the first.

The Mishna Brura adds another remedy: saying “Pi, pi, pi” (the acronym of two people who successfully overcame their evil inclination – Plati ben Laish, and Yosef Hatzaddik) three times, then gently spitting three times with the tongue between the lips. This remedy cannot, however, be done during Shemone Esrei.

Another remedy mentioned by the Mishna Brura and quoted from the Elya Rabba is to pass the right hand over one’s forehead three times before praying and reciting the pasuk “Create for me a pure heart, O G-d, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Tehilim 51:12). Then, if a foreign thought pops up during prayer, one should again stroke his forehead with his right hand and think of the above pasuk.

Time and Place

One should choose the time and place most beneficial for mindful prayer. Some shuls have certain odors, lighting, noises, etc. that can be distracting. For some, a large congregation is a distraction, while others are stimulated by it. Every person must spend time and thought on when and where is most conducive for his prayers, and act accordingly.

The time one prays should also be carefully chosen to ensure one is at his best. One who just walked in the door and knows he can’t pray properly until he sits down and has something to eat should do so before going to pray. The same is true in the morning – some are more focused after their morning coffee and others need a short brisk walk to get focused.

Impossible Kavana

Where should one pray if he is in an uncomfortable situation or place, and by the time he reaches a better place the time for prayer will pass?

The Gemara instructs us (Eiruvin 65a): “One who is coming from a journey [when traveling was by foot or donkey] should not pray for three days.” The Gemara continues and describes how Shmuel’s father did just that, because he could not focus on prayer before recuperating from his journey.

The Shulchan Aruch gives this story context (OC 98:2): while this is the halacha, today since we don’t have the energy to focus fully, we do pray within three days from traveling because we anyway only focus as much as possible and no more.

The Mishna Brura adds, though, that if there is still enough time to rest before the time for prayer passes or one reaches a place where he won’t be bothered, he is obligated to do so. Only if the time for prayer will pass before reaching a better location can one pray in whatever situation he finds himself. But, the Mishna Brura adds (98:6) — if one can find a place where the interruption will be even slightly less — he must do so, or find a way to relax, even somewhat, from whatever emotions fill his mind.

 

 

 

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