Our sages would put much effort into their prayer preparations (Talmud, Berachot 30b). The essence of prayer is kavanah — focus and concentration. In order to achieve proper kavanah, it is important to pray in the proper place and with as few distractions as possible. This article focuses on the appropriate location for prayer, as well as the immersion in a mikvah (ritual pool) before prayer. There are additional preparations; they will be discussed in another article, G-d willing.
If you read the rest of Rabbi Citron’s article on prayer, you’ll find that Jews take praying very seriously and utilize a great deal more ritual in prayer than most Christians would find comfortable or necessary. And yet, think about what you are doing when you’re praying. Prayer isn’t just shooting off an email, IM, or text message; prayer is entering into the presence of the living and eternal God. If you were to enter into the court of a King, or even into the Oval Office of the President of the United States, wouldn’t you prepare extensively for the occasion?
Of course you would. It’s just amazing how much effort we’ll put into say, getting ready for a job interview, but we’ll just “drop in” in God anytime we feel like it, wearing whatever and saying whatever.
OK, I’m not suggesting that God isn’t available to us under any circumstances and that He would refuse to hear us if we prayed while wearing our pajamas on our sick bed, but perhaps there is some merit to approaching prayer the way we would approach a meeting with an important person.
Rabbi Citron suggests praying in a fixed place where you will not be distracted. This is derived both from “Abraham who, on the morning after Sodom was destroyed, went back to pray to the same spot where he had prayed the previous day to prevent its destruction” (Genesis 19:27) and from Isaac praying the afternoon (Minchah) prayer in a particular, secluded field (Genesis 24:63). The Rabbi goes on to say that the “very air of a synagogue is sanctified due to all the prayers uttered there” (See Rabbeinu Yonah on Berachot 4a, d.h. Eimasai). Perhaps prayer can make a place special and holy.
Jews also value praying in the synagogue rather than just alone:
The ideal place to pray is in a synagogue. One should always try to pray with a minyan (congregation); but even if one is unable to do pray with a minyan, he should still try to pray in a synagogue.
Corporate prayer is not unknown in Christianity, but it would be unusual for a Christian to pray with a “minyan” (in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, this is ten men) morning and evening. While corporate worship is generally conducted on Sundays in the church, Christianity still largely sees the Christian faith as a faith of individuals, with each one of us negotiating our own, personal relationship with Jesus. Judaism is much more about a faith of the community and that not only does the person approach God in prayer, Israel approaches God, much as they did at Sinai when they received the Torah from the hand of Moses (see Exodus 19 and 20).
For Christians, the most important thing we’ve been told we should know about prayer is said here:
“This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’ –Matthew 6:9-13
The church tends to disdain (rather unfairly) the way Jews pray in the synagogue because of a misapplication of this:
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. –Matthew 6:5-8
Jesus was speaking of specific groups who practiced prayer so that others would see them and be “impressed” by their “holiness”, but that doesn’t taint all communal prayer. As Rabbi Citron said, prayer is about “kavanah — focus and concentration”, not about how you think others will perceive you when they see and hear you pray.
There is also a tradition of purifying oneself in the mikvah before prayer:
Ezra the Scribe instituted that a man who had a seminal discharge – during intercourse or otherwise – should go to the mikvah before praying, reciting blessings or studying Torah. The Jewish people found this decree too difficult to keep, so the Sages repealed it. Some say the decree was only repealed with regards to Torah study, not in relation to prayer. Although this is not the commonly accepted view, all agree that prayer is more accepted after immersion.
That said, if we want to take our approach to prayer and to God a bit more seriously, we might want to consider some form of preparation before prayer as a matter of self-cleansing. I’m not suggesting immersion as such, but I am saying that we might want to meditate upon the gravity and seriousness of approaching God. Yes, there will always be times when we need to cry out to Him in our anxiety, our torment, and our pain, but when we pray each day to make a connection, to pour out our hearts, to live and be with Him, is it so wrong to treat God with respect in the process? Is it a bad thing to prepare ourselves in advance, to adopt the proper intention before going before the Throne of the Eternal King?
da lifnei mi attah omed – “Know before whom you stand.”
-the words displayed before the Holy Ark in the synagogue
Two more things about prayer and our relationship with God before leaving this morning’s meditation:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” –Luke 18:9-14
We are imprisoned because we have exiled our G-d.
As long as we search for G-d by abandoning the world He has made, we can never truly find Him.
As long as we believe there is a place to escape, we cannot be liberated.
The ultimate liberation will be when we open our eyes
to see that everything is here, now.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
“G-d in Exile”
We “exile” God from the world He made because we believe He stands apart from us. We believe that He is in Heaven while we are stuck on Earth. We long for the day when Jesus comes so that we can be with God and serve at the Throne of the Father and the Throne of the Lamb. But when we pray, we are not just reaching up to Heaven, we are bringing Heaven down to Earth. God is with us. While we pray with proper respect and awe of the King, once prepared, all we need to do to enter into His presence is to speak. He is already here listening.
Jerry Landers: Maybe, sometimes… couldn’t we just talk?
God: I’ll tell you what. You talk… I’ll listen.
from the film Oh, God! (1977)