Experiencing Prayer

Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezeritch, used to pray at great length. Sometimes his prayers would take hours. Near Mezeritch there lived a learned man who, like the Maggid, also used to pray according to the kavanot (mystical intentions) taught by the holy Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) of Safed, but whose prayers did not take so long. When he heard about how much time the Maggid spent, he was perplexed, and wanted to know the reason. He decided to ask the Maggid himself.

Once a year this learned man, who also happened to be quite wealthy, would travel to the great fair in Leipzig. There he would invest some of his capital in merchandise, which he would then sell in his hometown upon his return at a good profit. He was able to live off the proceeds from these transactions for the rest of the year, while he devoted his time to Torah study and prayer. On his next such business trip, he made a point to pass through Mezeritch and stop there.

Witnessing for himself the Maggid’s lengthy prayers, he was amazed. At his first opportunity to speak privately to the Maggid, the wealthy scholar said, “I also pray according to the special mystical intentions taught by the holy Ari, yet I don’t find the necessity to extend my prayers for so long.”

Instead of answering directly, the Maggid expressed interest in how his guest made a living. The man explained how it was enough for him to travel once a year to Leipzig to invest in merchandise, which he then sold for a good profit in the area where he lived.

“But how do you know that you have made a profit?” inquired the Maggid.

“Simple. I enter all my capital expenditures and traveling expenses in my ledger, and subtract their sum from the total amount of income from sales. The remainder is my profit,” replied the merchant, wondering why the rebbe was so interested in the details of his business.

“But why,” the Maggid asked innocently, “do you waste all that time and money traveling to Leipzig and back? Why don’t you just write all the credit and debit figures down in your ledger and calculate your profits that way, without fuss?”

“Ha, ha, ha!” laughed the merchant. “Is it possible to think that from writing numbers can come a profit without bothering to do anything else? Ha, ha, ha. Of course, you have to travel and buy and sell before the profit can be real, not just theoretical.”

“Well,” said the Maggid, “the kavanot are like merchandise: if they are not fully possessed in your mind and heart as if you were ‘there,’ it is like writing profit figures on a piece of paper without doing the business work. On the other hand, if you are firmly attached ‘there,’ you can then acquire some excellent ‘merchandise’ and make a handsome profit with the kavanot.

“But that,” concluded the Maggid to his astonished visitor, “requires extended time and investment in prayer.”

Translated/retold from Reshimas Devarim, vol. 4.
“The Prayer Business”
-Rabbi Yerachmiel Tilles

Man should ponder thoughtfully how great are the kindnesses of the Creator: Such a puny insignificant being, Man, can bring great delight to the “Greatest of all great”‘ of Whom it is written, “There is no delving into His greatness.” (Psalm 145:1) Man ought therefore always be inspired, and perform his avoda with an eager heart and spirit.

“Today’s Day”
Sunday, Kislev 8, 5704
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

I’m not really a “mystic” sort of guy. I enjoy reading (I don’t seriously study mysticism) mystic commentaries and texts because I find they work wonderfully as metaphors of moral and spiritual concepts and ideas. Mysticism is a very good way to tell stories about people and God, which is why I’m fond of the writings of the Chassidim and Chabad.

So try not to take the commentary about prayer I quoted above as if I think this is a literal truth, although for some, I imagine it is. I latched onto it mainly because it makes me think about prayer and what it’s supposed to mean. Hopefully, it’ll make you think more about prayer, too.

DaveningIn yesterday’s morning meditation, I spoke a bit about my use of the Modeh Ani and Bedtime Shema blessings in my own life. Prayer is difficult for me, at least lengthy prayer, because I find that so many random thoughts and emotions creep in when I’m trying to talk (and listen) to God. Since the Modeh Ani is fairly short and I recite it from memory, there isn’t time for anything else to interfere, and since I recite the ending portion of the Bedtime Shema from my siddur, the fact that I’m reading from text helps focus my thoughts and my intention.

I actually have been thinking more about prayer since I read a friend’s commentary on his own experiences recently:

Early this morning before my flight had left the gate, I was quietly (and discreetly) praying Birchot Hashachar (morning blessings) from my pocket siddur when suddenly the woman sitting next to me asked me, “What language is that?” “Hebrew,” I replied. “Oh, I thought it was Greek,” she said.

“Well, I actually know that, too,” I said, which then led into an extensive conversation that unfortunately I was too tired to engage in and, B”H, managed to escape shortly after takeoff by falling asleep for the duration of the flight. (A window seat and foam earplugs are always my best friends on a flight.) Then after landing, I went to the airport chapel to pray Shacharit. I must have prayed Shacharit there countless times while travelling, and I usually have the chapel all to myself. Sometimes other people enter the chapel for some quiet moments while I’m there and they see me wearing my tallit and tefillin, which I can only imagine how that might look to them if they’re unfamiliar with Judaism. Usually they only stay for 30 seconds—one minute at most—and then they promptly leave. (I can always sense their feelings of uncomfortability and awkwardness.)

However, this morning while I was donning my tefillin, a clean cut, black gentleman dressed in a suit and tie entered the chapel and sat down a few seats behind me. I politely said “Good morning” to him, then began quietly praying Pesukei d’Zimra and continued with my usual morning prayer routine as quietly and discreetly as possible. Amazingly, however, he actually stayed. A few minutes later, when I was between the Shma and Amidah, he began walking toward the exit, but then quickly turned around, boldly approached me, and asked me forthright, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” I was a bit taken aback by his question and it took me a few seconds to process it. “Yes, I do,” I responded, although somewhat apprehensively. “Oh, praise the L-RD,” he said, and reached out to shake my hand. “Something in my heart told me to ask you that. I’ve heard of you guys. Yeshua Ha-ma-shee-ah?” “Yeshua Hamashiach,” I affirmed. And then he suddenly walked out with this big smile on his face while I was left there wondering what that was all about.

Depending on who you are and how and where you pray, you aren’t always praying alone and your prayer life may have some sort of impact on others. Of course, even when I prayed with a siddur, I rarely prayed in public (unless it was at a worship service where everyone was using a siddur), so I never had these sorts of encounters. But in reading the comments of my friend about his own experiences, I was reminded of the beauty of the Jewish prayers and how the early Jewish believers gathered daily to recite the prayers at Solomon’s colonnade at the Temple in Jerusalem.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but last spring, when I was attending the First Fruits of Zion Shavuot Conference at Beth Immanuel Shabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin, I had a wonderful experience. One morning, I arrived at the congregation early and was sitting in the main sanctuary waiting for services to begin. In the distance, I heard men davening Shacharit in Hebrew. I followed the sound into the library and discovered the men were praying together in an upper room. Not wishing to disturb them (and my Hebrew is more than abysmal), I chose to stand underneath the room and just listen.

If you’ve ever heard men praying the Hebrew prayers before, you know it is a beautiful sound and even without understanding all of the words (I’ve been around the prayers enough to be able to generally follow them), I felt myself transported in a sense, lifted up into the spirit of the prayer, and found myself drawing closer to God.

I don’t think you have to pray in Hebrew to draw closer to God, but there’s something about a minyan davening (not that I can qualify to pray with a minyan) that brings me into communion with God in a way I’ve never found when praying or singing hymns in a church.

Be that as it may, we are each responsible for our own prayer life and thus our relationship with God. And yet for me, prayer is one of the most difficult parts of my relationship with God. I receive great joy in reading the Bible and various commentaries and studies, but spending time alone with God is so difficult, again because my brain keeps getting in the way. I think that’s why I like praying with a siddur because it helps me focus my intention upon God and praising His Name. Praying “alone,” that is, without a siddur, allows the noise and static of my own thoughts to completely take over, and I find myself drowning in the sound that my brain generates rather than rising above my own existence and approaching the Creator.

When I go to church, we pray, but it somehow isn’t the same. When I go to Sunday school, we pray, but it’s not like we’re praying together. This too I think is one of the “weaknesses” of Protestantism.

I don’t really have an answer to my conundrum, but I think Rabbi DovBer has an answer that works, at least for some Jewish people (or people of faith), in that you have to invest in your prayers rather than just use praying as a “remote control” method of communication. Prayer requires time, discipline, and an investment of purpose. I haven’t attempted such a thing for a very long time. For me, Modeh Ani and the Bedtime Shema are a beginning, but unlike my friend, I haven’t extended myself to pray at set times, and particularly wouldn’t do so if I was in a public place such as an airport (and I didn’t even know airports had chapels).

Is my experience common or am I an oddball in his area of faith as well? What are your experiences like? Is anyone willing to share?

9 thoughts on “Experiencing Prayer”

  1. I have the same experience with prayer, and it’s always been troubling to me. I mean, I feel closest and most engaged with my Creator when studying His word or during any sort of midrash…but I can’t seem to keep focused for any length of time while praying. Truly, it’s at those times that I self-diagnose with ADD.

    Then a couple years ago, I heard a teacher speak about the importance of the daily prayers (I know this could be a point of contention) for followers of Yeshua…Gentiles even. It got me thinking–about lots–and our family has started to embrace the discipline of praying from a siddur. Not as a replacement for what we had before, but an enrichment. It is a surprisingly powerful tool that helps me focus, and align my priorities with the Father’s. in short, it’s been a blessing. In fact, I’ve often lamented your previous stance of not allowing yourself to pray from a siddur anymore…simply because we’ve found it such a blessing, and a way to pray the Father’s words back to Him.

  2. Prayer, like many other things, is a developmental process. In some ways, I’ve gone backward on this. Not sure how to fix it given my current schedule, though.

  3. I got a chance to read your blog this morning and I had a couple if thoughts as I was also reading from Steve Brown’s book Three Free Sins. “And then I realized I can’t do this anymore. I turned and headed out into the cold darkness, I was sadder and wiser…Just when the darkness engulfed me, I heard the voice that Jesus — because of His unconditional forgiveness–let me hear. The voice came from the throne: Welcome child, welcome”.

    I came running, and that’s how I became a man of prayer.”

    Pretty encouraging when you think about it.

    On another note, are you sure you can’t just write the figures in a book and pretend they are real? Cause that’s what our government is doing.

    Ok, I couldn’t resist. 🙂 bless you today Jim. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  4. On another note, are you sure you can’t just write the figures in a book and pretend they are real? Cause that’s what our government is doing.

    LOL. Good point, Dree. Blessings to you as well.

  5. Hi James. Just a point of information. In your Facebook post linking to here, you wrote, “In Christianity, [prayer] feels more like “shooting from the hip.” That’s the “Low Church” experience, my friend. In the High Churches (Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, etc.) there is a fully worked out annual liturgical calendar, all the way down to daily prayer from morning to night. Like Jewish prayer, it is primarily communal but is also used individually..I’m not suggesting that it would be suited to you, but it’s important to know that there are a large number of Christians who pray liturgically.

  6. You are quite correct Carl, and I apologize for expressing myself poorly. I was speaking from my own experience in the Protestant church, which is my primary connection to Christianity.

  7. Oh, my friend’s commentary on prayer. He posted it on his facebook page, and since I don’t have permission to reveal his identity, I’m kind of hesitant to add the link, LW. I did post all of the content, apart from names of people and locations.

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