The Chozeh of Lublin, zt”l, writes that prayer—even when it is thoughtless or lackluster—always has value. “In Arachin 23 we find that according to Beis Shammai— which is the way that things will be in the ultimate future—if something is declared hekdesh mistakenly, it is nevertheless consecrated. This alludes to the person who prays without any kavanah, whose mouth intones certain words but whose thoughts have boarded a very different train of thought. While prayer is compared to a sacrifice, this can be considered like sanctifying a sacrifice accidentally. In the future world, hekdesh declared erroneously is still holy. Despite its lack of perfection, it will still be precious when it is finally elevated on high.”
Nevertheless, prayers that are intoned without proper focus can sometimes take a very long time to ascend. The Baal Shem Tov, zt”l, once entered a shul with his disciples and immediately left. When asked why he refused to pray there, he gave a very strange explanation. “That shul is full of prayers.”
When he noticed that those with him were very confused by this reply he explained. “A shul should not be filled with Torah and tefilah, since these should ascend on high. It is only if the prayers were said in a very inferior manner that they remain below waiting for someone to elevate them.
On another occasion the Baal Shem Tov said, “Today I elevated prayers that have waited below for eighty years!”
The Tiferes Shlomo, zt”l, uses this story to explain another statement on today’s daf. “This is the deeper meaning of the statement of our sages that one who elevates his property is allowed to keep his tefillin. The word for tefillin…can also refer to prayers. The tefillos of one who sanctifies his property— meaning, one who nullifies himself and stops thinking about business during prayer—are elevated. This person who works to nullify himself as well as he can will be elevated.”
Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
I’ve talked about kavanah before. I’ve talked about what we bring to prayer and our struggles in prayer before. Yet this is something that I think is a common problem for many Christians and Jews. It’s difficult to disengage from our daily lives and to focus on being alone with God. Often, during prayer, I find that my thoughts have wandered and I am not so much praying to God as conducting an inventory the recent events in my life. I wonder if this is why the Master instructed his disciples to pray such a short prayer (Matthew 6:5-15). I can’t imagine there’d be much time in “the Lord’s prayer” to lose oneself in thought. But that’s just my opinion, of course.
However, we see from the Daf of Arachin 23 that perhaps even those prayers that are rooted in the mundane still have value and worth to God. I know this probably won’t make much sense to the Christians reading this “morning meditation” since Christianity doesn’t have such an elaborate set of thoughts and ideas woven around the concept of praying to God. For most people in the church, you pray in the name of Jesus, your prayer is heard by God, and that is that. In Judaism, the individual has a much more active and responsible role in prayer as part of the intricate and sometimes delicate relationship between a Jew and his Creator. I think that’s what attracts me to Jewish worship and study; the requirement that a person must be fully engaged and that what you do in worship and even in prayer matters. You’re not allowed to go on “automatic pilot” and expect that it doesn’t make a difference.
Are prayers grounded on earth when the proper kavanah is not attached and did men such as the Baal Shem Tov have the ability to release those prayers to Heaven after their lengthy “waiting period” in our realm? My tendency is to say “no”, but since the experience is subjective and completely mystical, there’s no way for me to know for sure. And yet, I find I don’t have to take a Hasidic Tale at face value and consider it a literal event in order to find value in its telling. Perhaps this story of the Baal Shem Tov and of synagogues already filled with “unascended” prayers can tell us something about our own prayers.
I believe that God is aware of us in a very detailed and exquisite manner. I believe He is with us all of the time, not just with the human race as a whole and not even just with Christians or Jews as people groups and religious congregations as a whole, but with each and every one of us as individuals. How that works, I cannot say, but I believe it is true. God attended individually to such people as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Peter (and of course to Jesus, but that goes without saying). Why can’t He attend to you and me? That’s why we pray, isn’t it…so that God will hear us…you and me…as individuals?
We see in the Daf that while any prayer has value, the prayer that is directed with kavanah has greater value and it ascends to God. What this tale teaches me is that prayer is not only a mitzvah but a discipline. It isn’t just sitting around with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table “talking” to God, although that has value too, but it is a personal struggle with God as (and I’ve said this before) Jacob struggled with the angel (Genesis 32:22-32). If you enter a wrestling match or any “martial” encounter with another person and you are not completely focused on the “fight”, you will end up with your opponent handing your head to you. You will be battered and knocked to the mat with nothing but your bruises to show for the effort. While it is true that Jacob also came away from such an encounter with an injury, he also received a blessing. But he had to be fulling involved with the angel as we must be fully involved with God in prayer.
Prayer is a comfort and a mitzvah but it is also a discipline. Prayer can come in many forms including liturgical, spontaneous, and even hitbodeut. Prayer can even be a violent encounter with God but that encounter can show us so much, and in our encounter, our prayers can soar to the heights of Heaven. Or, if we let it, prayer can be passive and rote and leave a puddle of thoughts and feelings on the ground like the remains of yesterday’s rain. If we want our “rain” to ascend, we must provide the kavanah and give our prayer wings.