Pausing Before Engaging God

So we’ve determined that meditation is not just a nice thing, but crucial for every human being with functional grey matter. It’s something that was always considered core to the tefillah experience, at least by those who were into that experience. For some, it meant the mind’s contemplation of the vast beauty of G-d’s creation that their eyes beheld, gazing upon the stars and the wonders of nature. For others, it was the reverie of the worlds of the angels, who stand in constant praise and song. Still others focused upon G-d’s compassion and love for His creatures, and all His kindnesses to us.

So was the practice of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as they sat in perfect awe beneath the star-speckled sky of the still desert night; so too, the ancient prophets in the Judean hills, strumming musical instruments as they gazed upon the mysteries of heaven and earth, awaiting the vision of prophecy as the morning’s horizon awaits the rising sun; so did the sages of the Talmud, the Bahir and the Zohar lift their souls on mystic journeys through orchards and palaces, chambers and pathways of the spiritual realms, never sure that they could return to their earthly bounds; so too the chassidim were lost in contemplation and the ecstasy of their prayer from early morning until the hours of night.

So now you’re asking: If meditation is so vital to Jewish observance, and if it is such an embedded tradition, why don’t I see it happening anywhere?

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Meditation’s Hallway”
from the Multimedia Guide to Jewish Prayer series

Good question, and one that can probably be applied to Christians as well. The answer is that some do meditate before prayer but most don’t. I think I know why.

When I got up this morning at around 4 a.m., I was pretty tired, but I knew I needed to get out of bed if I intended to make it to the gym when it opened at 5. My brain is never really “on” when I first wake up, so I had a cup of coffee, a glass of water, and read the “funny papers” online as a slow and casual method of getting my thoughts to engage. I was still telling myself to “wake up” as I drove to the gym.

Forty-five minutes of sweating later, my mind and body were definitely awake. I was conscious enough to “engage” God in prayer, but time is limited. I also had to publish the day’s “morning meditation”, post it on twitter, Facebook, and Google+, eat breakfast, say “hello” to my wife who was also in a state of not really being awake as she got ready for work, shower, get dressed, make lunch, and various other routine morning tasks. Somewhere before 7 a.m., I have time to read from the Bible and to pray, but meditation, as you can see from Rabbi Freeman’s description, is time consuming.

More accurately, it’s time consuming because you have to take your recently reawakened brain and put it in a calm and contemplative place. That’s a little dangerous for me, since I’m libel to start feeling sleepy again.

Don’t worry. I get Rabbi Freeman’s point.

If you ever hire an architect to design a synagogue, you will need to inform him of the two-door rule: The worshipper must first enter into a vestibule that precedes the sanctuary before walking through the doors of the sanctuary itself, as verse in Proverbs goes, “Fortunate is the man who listens to me to watch by my doors day by day, to watch the doorposts of my entrances.” (Talmud Berachot 8a. Tur, Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, Levush 90:2. Magen Avraham ibid. Shulchan Aruch Harav 90:19.)

The first door, explains Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch in his “Booklet on Tefillah,” (Kuntres Hatefillah, siman 11) is the door in from the street. You first need to leave the confusion of the world outside and empty your mind of all worldly concerns, power down your cellphone, spend a few moments to gain calm and focus. As Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel would say (Avot 1:17), “All my life, I grew up among the sages and I did not find anything better for a person than quietness.”

Not, however, to get stuck in the hallway. Despite the common misconception, that’s not the goal of meditation. It’s not a path to placid bliss, transcendentally oblivious to the temporal world. Serenity is not a goal in itself. Calmness and stillness provide a healthy frame of mind from which to begin meditating, praying, struggling to grow and change—to enter door #2. But not to simply bathe and soak in. As Adin Steinsaltz once put it bluntly: serenity is death, life is struggle.

You prepare yourself in the hallway, then you enter the Sanctuary of God. Life is struggle. Apparently, so is prayer. Maybe that means, that prayer is also life. It makes sense, since I struggle with both.

But life is busy. I’ve mentioned before that all of the details Rabbi Freeman presents as relevant to preparing to enter your day are numerous, and most folks who have a regular job and who live with a family might not be able to incorporate everything he suggests.

Getting back to my original metaphor, here I sit at the bottom of the abyss, attempting to practice being still, (I’m not doing a very good job) and contemplating that ladder God has put down in the hole with me. The problem is, getting my mind to be still enough to do a good job at contemplation. Whenever I try to shut out the bedlam of life around me, the bedlam of life inside me takes over. Where do I go from here?

When the soul awakens, it descends like a fire from heaven.

In a moment of surprise, we discover something so powerful, so beyond our persona, we cannot believe it is a part of us.

In truth, we are a part of it.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Fire From Heaven”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

There’s only one more part of Rabbi Freeman’s series on Jewish prayer, which I’ll present tomorrow. But what then…what then?

5 thoughts on “Pausing Before Engaging God”

  1. “When the soul awakens, it descends like a fire from heaven. In a moment of surprise, we discover something so powerful, so beyond our persona, we cannot believe it is a part of us.
    In truth, we are a part of it.”

    This quote PERFECTLY sums up some of my recent meditation/ quiet time experiences. The deeper I look inward, the further I see beyond ‘me.’ It blows me away every time!

    I can’t say that I’ve consistently observed the 2-door rule, but now I think my communion with God would be richer if I did. Amazingly, I was taught to observe a “3-door” rule… more along the lines of the ancient tabernacles and temples (entrances to outer court, inner court, holies of holies). What I know for sure is that usually when I jump right into a prayer, it feels very hollow and I know I’m only scratching the surface. When I set aside time to prepare my body, mind and spirit, then I truly connect and emerge with a sense of empowerment, clarity, and intentionality on what I am to do to maximize my day.

    This was an unexpected, wonderful read!

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