Struggling to Pray

On today’s amud we find that one should have intense kavanah when saying uva l’tzion. The gemara tells us that since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, the world rests upon the careful recital of this kedushah. Unfortunately, many people fail to maintain proper focus during prayer in general.

One day in the beis medrash, as the prayers were drawing to a close, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev zt”l seemed to be observing a group of his chasidim. While everyone was busy wrapping up their talleisim and tefillin, he made his way over to them. To their surprise, he approached them with a hearty greeting. “Shalom aleichem!” he thundered.

They looked somewhat puzzled to hear their rebbe offer the greeting traditionally given only after returning from a journey of at least three day’s duration. “But Rebbe,” they protested, “we haven’t been anywhere! We’ve been here in Berditchev all along!”

Rav Levi Yitzchak continued to make the rounds, shaking their hands vigorously, as if they were newly-arrived travelers, all smiles.

Suddenly, he turned serious and said, “From the way you were praying, it was clear that your minds were elsewhere! So, welcome back from Odessa, welcome home from the market in Lodz! Since none of you were actually here while you prayed, I was glad to welcome you back upon your return!”

Mishnah Berura Yomi Digest
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“Shalom Aleichem!”
Siman 132 Seif 1

Ouch. That’s embarrassing. I suppose God always notices when during prayer, our minds wander, but if we’re so obvious about it that someone watching us knows as well, then where is our kavanah; our intention? OK, I’ll admit it. During lengthy sessions of prayer (and some not so lengthy), it’s hard to keep focused on God or at least on honoring God in the manner He desires (not that anyone is perfect at this). Often, my mind drifts into a sort of monologue as if I were “talking” to God rather than entering into formal prayer in the presence of the King. I catch myself and try to redirect my thoughts but after another small bit of time passes, my mind starts to wander again. I suppose that’s one reason why praying with a siddur is an advantage. The prayer-book acts as a compass and a guide, directing prayer to where it is supposed to be traveling.

I know Christians tend to criticize the use of liturgical prayer as “lifeless” and “rote”, but I’ve just described the dangers in both liturgical and extemporaneous prayer. In either situation, we must strive to stay within the light and to pray with intention and dedication. Letting yourself “wander” in prayer is as if you are talking to your spouse about an important topic and little by little, you begin rambling about whatever thoughts happen to enter your head at the moment. Imagine what would happen if God were talking to us about something important (and when He “speaks”, it’s always important) and our minds started to wander, recalling the events of the day or planning out our tomorrow.

So how should we pray?

Luke 11:1 records such a request from Christ’s disciples.

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

In contrast, Matthew 6:1-4 gives us a teaching of the Master on prayer and without any intervention from the disciples, Jesus launches into instructing them (and us) how to pray (Matthew 6:5-15).

“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.’

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

In either case, Jesus is providing the disciples with something they apparently lacked: a template for how to pray to God. I can only conclude (this is just my opinion) that human beings need some sort of “form” to prayer to keep us focused. Adding on to that concept, we must make sure not to allow the form to take on a life of its own and become our intension. It’s a structure or a framework to help us from wandering, but it can, if we let it, substitute for our intension in prayer, as we see in Rav Levi Yitzchak’s criticism to his Chasidim.

However, according to Rabbi Moss at be-true.org, perhaps our difficulties in prayer are exactly what’s supposed to be happening.

Prayer can be a confronting experience. And that is exactly what it is supposed to be. Prayer is an inner battle waged between two distinct sides of your personality. Your spiritual self and your physical self, your body and your soul, are each vying for control over your mind. And it is not a quiet confrontation.

In yesterday’s meditation, I wrote:

We see that happening all of the time, even within the context of the Talmud itself. Judaism isn’t always about “getting it right” but rather, it’s sometimes about struggling with the Torah, other Jews, and God.

I was talking about the struggle in understanding God from the perspective of study, but here we see this struggle can be applied to prayer as well. Although we have the famous example of Jacob wrestling with the Angel (Genesis 32:22-32) as an illustration of how Jews in general struggle in their relationship with God, I think this can apply to anyone who encounters God through faith. As much as we may not want to admit it, we do struggle with God in a “wrestling match” that pits our humanity against our holiness, as Jacob was perhaps pitted between those two aspects of his existence (and I commented on this about a month ago when studying Torah Portion Vayishlah).

According to Rabbi Moss, the more difficult the struggle in prayer, the more effective our prayer actually is.

On the contrary, the more intense the distractions, the more effective the prayer must be. Your soul is being fed, and your body is getting nervous. Don’t give the body the attention it seeks. Rather gently tell it that now is not the time. You are feeding your soul, and there will be plenty of time to feed the body later.

Is there a dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual? This is a common theme in Christianity but it’s not always presented as such in Judaism. A person who is very advanced spiritually should experience virtually no dissonance between his day-to-day life in the world and his life with God. Most of us aren’t that advanced, and so, like Jacob, we “struggle with the Angel”, so to speak, but without a clear-cut winner in the contest. Jacob “won” not because he was so strong as to literally, physically defeat a supernatural being in hand-to-hand combat, but because he was (this is interpretation and midrash) able to defeat his yetzer hara or “evil inclination.” Holiness won and as a result, Jacob became the father of Israel; a man bridging heaven and earth (Genesis 28:10-19) as evidenced, not only by his dream, but by his dual names of Jacob and Israel.

Every time we pray, we build a bridge between heaven and earth and we struggle to keep it stable enough to maintain the connection between us and God. Sometimes building that bridge is like trying to construct a span made of bamboo across a mile wide canyon during a typhoon. Other times, we seem to be able to create the Golden Gate Bridge out of solid steel on a calm day in late spring. Most of the time, for me, my “bridge building” experience is somewhere in-between.

As with all other aspects of our faith, the struggle itself is not the failure. That we have difficulty concentrating and keeping our mind on Him is not the problem. Only surrendering and ceasing our prayers is the failure. If, like Jacob, we continue to struggle against impossible odds, we too will see our dawn…and receive a blessing.

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4 thoughts on “Struggling to Pray”

  1. James,
    Sometimes it seems that feeding the hungry or clothing the naked is easier than working through prayers. And it is interesting to me that at the end of the age Yeshua says that those who have fed the hungry and clothed the naked are blessed of His Father and may enter into life eternal, not those who had perfected the act of praying.
    And yet we know that without a competent prayer life it is doubtful that we will be successful in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.
    There have been times when prayer comes easy and times when the battle rages. Not unexpected in a time of war.
    A good post on a too often overlooked subject.
    Russ

  2. I completely agree that using our hands to serve God can be much easier than dedicating private prayer to Him with all of our will. Fortunately, He knows that we cannot be perfect in the “mechanics” of our prayers, and cries of our hearts always reach Him.

  3. Prayer has always been an awkward thing for me, not easily done. It only comes naturally when I am feeling very desperate, or maybe when some major turning point has/will come. I admit I can’t keep up a steady non-liturgical “man-to-divine” conversational prayer pattern from day to day. It has just never worked.

    As for “Christians” denouncing liturgy as lifeless, only within the last few hundred years has this been the case. In Catholicism, the Eastern Churches, and in Anglicanism (with their famous Book of Common Prayer), liturgy is and has always been central, maybe not to the same extent as Judaism, but still very important. If anything is lifeless, it is the attempt of the Protestant reformers to strip the faith of its beautiful trappings.

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