Tag Archives: hitbodedut

Repentance and Confession

The Torah teaches us that it is never too late to change.

Changing for the better is called doing teshuva. The Hebrew word teshuva, which is often translated as repentance, actually means to “return.” Return to God. Return to our pure self.

How do people become interested in self-improvement?

People have faults. The faults they have cause them to suffer in some way or another. This suffering limits an individual’s freedom and is often painful. Hence, people want to change… to improve. To be free once again.

How does one change for the better? How does one do teshuva?

There are four steps of teshuva.

-Rabbi Mordechai Rottman
“Four Steps to Change”

I’m tempted to say something like, “Look! We’re halfway through the process of learning how to repent. Just two more steps to go and we’re home free.”

But if you’ve read the previous two steps and you’ve been paying attention, you realize it’s not that easy. Each step in this process could take weeks or even months to accomplish. I’m not sure if you have to completely finish one step before proceeding to the next, but being a rather linear fellow, that’s how I do it.

That means a single act of repentance isn’t an act at all, it’s a process. To focus on just one habitual sin and truly repent of it, to make teshuva, could take a very long time…it could be months or even years before you get to a place where you know you’ve finally, truly, authentically, completely repented.

And then what if you “backslide?”

But I digress. What about the third step in making teshuva?


Here’s how Rabbi Rottman describes it:

Why is it important to say it?

There is a power to saying things as opposed to just thinking about them. Verbalizing a thought brings the idea to a new level of reality, awareness and understanding.

The verbalization that is done after committing a transgression makes one more fully aware of what was done. It therefore heightens the regret and strengthens the resolution not to commit the act again.

This verbalization is not to be done before anyone other than God. Not even your rabbi needs to know about what you have done. It’s just between you and your Creator.

This reminds me of all the times I’ve seen an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in TV or in a movie. Some guy gets up in front of the group and says, ”I’m So-and-So and I’m an alcoholic.” In the film Finding Nemo (2003), a group of sharks are used to parody this sort of “confessional” meeting (“Fish are friends, not food.”) If you recall that scene, you know things don’t always work out as well as planned.

Humor aside, admitting your sin, especially in front of witnesses, is very powerful, very humbling, and potentially very shaming. You’d have to know you were completely accepted by the group or the person you’re confessing in front of…and it could backfire horribly.

Or at least that’s the fear, which is why most people don’t like making embarrassing admissions about their sins in front of others. Fortunately R. Rottman says that the ”verbalization is not to be done before anyone other than God. Not even your rabbi needs to know about what you have done. It’s just between you and your Creator.”

But there’s always one other living spirit in the room besides God. You.

HitbodedutGod, of course, already knows about our sin, so He’s not exactly surprised. He has no “reaction” as such, except perhaps the reaction of a father welcoming home his wayward son (Luke 15:11-32). However, what happens when we hear ourselves say, “I have sinned”? We think all the time about our sin, particularly during the process of teshuva. We think, we ponder, we feel shame, humiliation, sorrow, regret. We tell ourselves all sorts of negative stories about our sin and who we are as a result of having sinned. We remind ourselves of how many people we’ve hurt or offended, or how hurt our friends and family would feel if they ever knew about our sin, assuming it’s a secret.

But admitting out loud that you have sinned, the nature of your sin, the impact of your sin on others…how would that be? There’s only one way to find out.

Say it.

No, really. Try it out. If you’re reading this blog post and you’re human, you probably have sinned. Unless you are an expert at repentance…true repentance as I’ve been describing in this series, chances are you have something to say to God. It’s not like you’re going to be saying something that you and God don’t already know about. But hearing your own voice articulate your sin makes it seem so…real.

To meditate, try saying a single word out loud, and concentrate on it’s meaning. After ten minutes, your mind will be fully focused.

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
Total Concentration
from the 48 Ways to Wisdom series

I know ten minutes doesn’t seem very long, but try verbalizing your sins for that length of time and it will seem like an eternity.

Communal confession is not unknown in Judaism and in fact, as part of the Yom Kippur service each year, in synagogue, the people publicly confess in a short alphabetical prayer known as the vidui.

In Judaism, a penitent sinner must give verbal expression to his remorse: He must confess his sin before God pardons him. Strictly speaking, the confession is acceptable even in the bare formulation: “I have sinned,” but more elaborate forms have been compiled and used. Maimonides (Teshuvah, ch.1‑2) holds that the more the sinner confesses at length the better, but gives as the basic form: “O God! I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed before Thee by doing such‑and‑such. Behold now I am sorry for what I have done and am ashamed and I shall never do it again.”

Rabbi Louis Jacobs
“Confession (Vidui): A first step toward repairing wrong”

ViduiIn a public confession, there is a formula by which the group recites the vidui and people never openly verbalize their actual, personal sins. This is a mirror of the ancient Yom Kippur service when the Temple was standing in Jerusalem, when the High Priest would enter the Most Holy Place once a year to make atonement for the nation of Israel.

But even hearing yourself recite the vidui should remind you of your actual, personal sins. Even actively contemplating them during the Yom Kippur service should have a profound effect.

Remember, confession isn’t designed to make you feel bad or more guilty. We’ve discussed this before and feeling bad is more likely to result in your continuing to sin and to give up on repentance. By increasing the “reality” of your sin through confession, the idea is to intensify your regret and minimize your negative thoughts and comments about yourself. Having a frank conversation with God is one way of doing that.

There’s a Chassidic concept of prayer called Hitbodedut that might be effective, but it requires that you get to someplace where you can be completely alone and isolated from all distractions.

Opening one’s heart to God is the highest form of Jewish worship. Crying out to Him in spontaneous prayer, even doing so silently, reveals the essence of being: faith. Faith is a natural state, which is why children tend to speak to God directly. As people grow older, many find that their access to faith is obstructed and they experience doubt and lose their faith.

Hitbodedut is a way to unburden the self of doubt and recover a natural state of faith. The best way to achieve this solitude is to leave civilisation and society in order to be surrounded by nature and the wonders of creation. Any form of self-isolation can be effective.

Hitbodedut involves (ideally) going to a natural and secluded setting and “letting it all hang out,” as my generation said in our youth. Yelling, screaming, crying, even playing music, just about any form of self-expression is allowed.

The key to successful hitbodedut is total abandonment of inhibition. Prayers are direct, immediate and uninhibited, a natural outpouring of the soul of all that clouds and confuses its sight. Any natural expression is admissible. This can take the form of weeping, song, conversation, mantra or silent meditation.

This is a no holds barred, knock down, drag out conversation with God. It’s not even remotely polite or reserved, so you have to be willing to be honest with God and with yourself, and then to express yourself out of that honestly. Why not? God knows it all anyway.

In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.

Hebrews 5:7 (NASB)

anguishThe writer of the book of Hebrews describes Jesus (Yeshua) as praying in such a manner ”with loud crying and tears.” D. Thomas Lancaster in the Source of Eternal Salvation lecture from his Holy Epistle to the Hebrews series believes this describes Jesus at Gethsemane.

And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.

Luke 22:44 (NASB)

We may never experience the anguish and agony of the Master, but that doesn’t mean our own confessions and prayers to God should be any less passionate.

For successful teshuva, we have to realize that God loves us – even in light of all the mistakes we’ve made. Realize that God understands you, that He’s “cheering you on,” and wants to help. Don’t feel guilty; any mistakes you’ve made are part of a growth process to get where you are today. Growth is what God created us for, and even the hardships are the best thing for us. God is not the “big bully in the sky”; He’s on your side.

-from Ask the Rabbi
“Doing Teshuva”

The Aish Rabbi in his missive also reference to the four steps to making teshuva, but he adds this:

These steps go only so far, however. If our past actions have hurt another person, we must ask their forgiveness.

It is said that if we have sinned against God and confess to Him and make teshuva, He will forgive us. It is also said that if we have sinned against another, even if we confess to God, He will not forgive us until we have made amends to the person we’ve hurt.

Judaism, being a religion of action, says it is not enough to “mentally” regret one’s misdeeds. On this week’s verse that “very close is this (matter of Teshuva) to your mouth,” Nachmanides takes this passage literally; he understands that Teshuva requires verbal articulation of our misdeeds.

In instances where someone else was wronged, an apology must be made directly to that person. In instances where we transgressed the Almighty’s will, we must privately, with no one listening, confess to our Creator.

-Rabbi Yehuda Appel
“Asking Forgiveness”
Commentary on Torah Portion Nitzavim

TearsWhile the principle of confessing our sins to another person is sound, the practice may be fraught with problems, especially if the sin is secret and especially if your confession to the other person may cause them great harm. The complexities of confessing sin to another human being go beyond the scope of this small commentary, but I’ll try to address this part of making teshuva in brief, since it is an unavoidable truth that we have hurt another person in this life, and it is inevitable that we will have to face them.

For some people, the most difficult thing in the world is to ask for forgiveness.

If you find it difficult to ask for forgiveness, visualize yourself asking for forgiveness. Mentally see yourself approaching someone and saying, “I am sorry that I caused you pain. Please forgive me.” Rerun this picture in your mind over and over again. Feel a sense of strength and release at being able to do this.

Each time you ask for forgiveness and find it difficult, you are building up your inner resource of courage.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Asking For Forgiveness”
Daily Lift #353

The Bible tells us that if we confess to God and make teshuva, God will forgive, but with other people there are no guarantees. We can sincerely ask for their forgiveness, but they don’t have to forgive. Yes, they should, but people are fickle that way. This is the biggest risk in trying to a repair damaged relationship. The other party may be too hurt to forgive. They’re not ready. They may never be ready.

And even if they forgive, they may never reconcile with you because of their hurt. A wife may forgive her husband for abusing her after he has made teshuva, but she may never feel safe enough to stay with him and they may still divorce.

But what alternative do you have?

There is a flip side, also presented by Rabbi Pliskin:

When we forgive others, we help ourselves as much as we help those whom we forgive. We are elevating ourselves and will feel much better when we forgive, than if we would keep on adding more and more resentment.

Try it for a couple of weeks. At night, think about any difficulties you had with others and forgive them. Notice how it will change your attitude toward those people the next day.

A person who threatens, “I’ll remember that,” or “I’ll get even with you,” hurts himself more than he hurts others. Why suffer from resentment when you can choose the pleasure of forgiving?

Hitbodedut in ShiloConfess to God. Hear yourself say the words. Let yourself react to the reality of your sin. Let yourself be motivated to take further steps in making teshuva. If another person is suffering because of your sin, make amends as best as you can. This is part of healing the rift between you and that person and between you and God. This is part of repairing the world.

This is part of healing you.

The ultimate goal of teshuva is to draw nearer to God, to be Holy even as God is Holy (Leviticus 19:1-2). To learn more about holiness and how to become a Holy person in a hedonistic world, read Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s commentary on Torah Portion Kedoshim at Torah.org.

Do you think He created us because He wanted pristine, perfect beings?

He desired that a glimmer of Himself should descend into a creature who cries and laughs and dances and bleeds; who fails as much as he succeeds; who chases after fleeting moments and is torn by figments of his own mind.

He wanted to live in the petty world of such a being, and from within that place He will come to know His self that cannot be known.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on the letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

If Water Can Wear Down A Stone

prayer-hitbodedutSet aside time each day to meditate and pray alone in a room or some meadow and express your innermost thoughts and feelings and personal prayers to God. Use every kind of appeal and argument. Use words that will endear you to God and win His favor. Plead with God to draw you closer and let you truly serve Him. This is Hitbodedut.

You should hold these conversations in whatever language you speak best. Our set prayers are said in Hebrew, but if this is not one’s native language, it is difficult to use it to give expression to all one’s innermost thoughts and feelings and the heart is less drawn after the words. It is easier to pour out your heart and say everything you need in your own language.

You should tell God everything you feel, be it contrition and longing to repent over the past or requests and supplications to come truly close to God from now on, each person according to his level.

Be very careful to get into the habit of spending time every day on your personal prayers and meditation. Fix a regular time for this and then be happy for the rest of the day!

-Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
Translated by Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

Sunday before last, I was having my bi-monthly coffee encounter with my friend. We spoke of many things, including matters both painful and necessary to me, but one of the topics we briefly touched upon was hitbodeut. I should say that neither of us could remember the name, but this is what we were describing when discussing an encounter with God. To briefly quote from Wikipedia:

Hitbodedut refers to an unstructured, spontaneous and individualized form of prayer and meditation taught by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Through hitbodedut one may establish a close, personal relationship with God and gain a clearer understanding of one’s personal motives and aspirations. However, Rebbe Nachman states that the ultimate goal is to free oneself of all negative traits that obstruct the spiritually-transforming non-dual realization of the “Imperative Existent,” which is the Divinity inherent in all being.

Mystic aspects aside, why am I bothering to write about this? Those of you reading my blog who are aware of hitbodedut, probably know far more about the practice than I do, and those of you who don’t can simply reduce the concept down to a way to be alone and talk to God. What’s the big deal?

First off, I have been aware of hitbodedut off and on for a few years but mentally, I always manage to lose track of both the term and the practice. This is a sort of “bookmark” in my memory so if I lose my place again, I can just search my blog and find it. Beyond a reminder, there is also what we know about how Jesus prayed:

At about morning light he left and went to a desolate place.

Luke 4:42 (DHE Gospels)

But he departed to the wilderness areas and prayed.

Luke 5:16 (DHE Gospels)

As he was praying alone, his disciples were gathered to him.

Luke 9:18 (DHE Gospels)

Although we can’t draw a direct connection between these examples of Jesus praying from Luke and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, we can say that both of them seemed to practice a similar manner of prayer, withdrawing to wilderness areas or other places to be alone in order to pray. Even in his most desperate hour, Jesus continued to seek his Father alone.

Afterward, Yeshua came with them to a courtyard that was called Gat Shamnei. He said to the disciples, “You remain here until I have gone over there and prayed.” He took Petros and the two sons of Zavdai with him, and he began to become distressed and disheartened. He said to them, “My soul is bitterly troubled to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Then he went a little bit away from them, fell on his face and prayed, saying “My Father, if it is possible to be so, let this cup pass from me, yet not according to my will, but according to your will.”

Matthew 26:36-39 (DHE Gospels)

I’ve often wondered if Jesus wanted to be alone, why he also took his closest companions with him. Maybe he wanted them to keep watch in case anyone might come who would disturb his prayers. Maybe he wanted them to pray for him in his hour of terror and hardship, before the betrayer came. What is he trying to say to us? Is it better to be alone with God than to pray in assembly?

But as for you, when you pray, go into your room, close your door behind you, and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees the secret things will {openly} be generous to you.

Matthew 6:6 (DHE Gospels)

Being alone with God can be a lonely or terrifying experience. It can be lonely if all you experience is the emptiness of your own words. It can be terrifying if God answers you.

Really? How can I say that? Sure, we all have experienced times in prayer when it seems as if God isn’t listening, as if He has taken a two-week vacation to some distant place, leaving us to fend for ourselves, but why would God answering prayer be terrifying?

Because it’s God. He’s not a “cosmic teddy bear” who allows us to hop on His comfortable lap as if He was Santa Claus. We are trying to be seriously alone with the creator of the entire universe, who can and has laid waste to the surface of the Earth. Do we…do I know what I’m asking for?

And how can Nachman of Breslov say, “and then be happy for the rest of the day?”

Hitbodedut is of the greatest value. It is the way to come closer to God, because it includes everything else. No matter what you lack in your service of God, even if you feel totally remote from His service, tell God everything and ask Him for all that you need.

If at times you find yourself unable to speak to God or even open your mouth, the very fact that you are there before Him wanting and yearning to speak is itself very good. You can even turn your very inability to speak into a prayer. Tell God that you feel so far away that you cannot even speak to Him! Ask Him to have mercy on you and open your mouth to tell Him what you need.

Many great and famous Tzaddikim have said that all their achievements came only through Hitbodedut. Anyone with understanding can recognize the supreme value of this practice, which ascends to the most sublime heights. This advice applies to everyone equally, from the very least to the very greatest. Everyone is capable of practicing it and can attain great levels. Happy are all who persist in it.

It is also good to turn Torah teachings into prayers. When you study or hear a teaching of a true Tzaddik, make a prayer out of it. Ask God when you too will be able to fulfill this teaching. Tell Him how far from it you are and beg Him to help you attain everything contained in the lesson.

A person of understanding who wants the truth will be led by God in the path of truth, and he will learn how to practice Hitbodedut and offer words of grace and sound arguments to persuade God to bring him to true service.

Hitbodedut rises to a very high place. This applies especially to turning Torah teachings into prayers, which creates the greatest delight above.

Hitbodedut is the highest level: it is greater than everything.

When God helps with Hitbodedut, it is like a person talking to his friend.

prayers_in_the_darkI get the sense that the “talking to his friend” part is more familiar to some Christians than to many religious Jews. I could be wrong of course, but when I pray from a siddur, the words communicate a more formal relationship with God, a greater awe, the powerful majesty, as we stand before the King of all Glory. Not exactly like schmoozing with a good buddy.

But then again, that’s not exactly right, either. God is closer, more intimate than a friend. As the Master says, He is our Father, our “Abba.”

It is very good to pour out your heart to God like a child pleading with his father.

Doesn’t God call us His children? “You are children to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1) . Therefore it is good to express your thoughts and feelings and all your troubles to God, like a child nagging and complaining to his father.

Even if you think you have done so much wrong that you are no longer one of God’s children, remember that God still calls you His child. As the Rabbis taught: “For better or worse, you are always called His children” ( Kiddushin 36a) .

Even if you think God has rejected you and told you that you are no longer His child, you must still say: “Let Him do His will – but I must do my part and continue acting as His child.”

How good it is when you can arouse your heart and plead with God until tears stream from your eyes and you stand like a little child crying before his Father.

Confusing thoughts may enter your mind, but if you stand firm, God will send you another thought to encourage you. You may think you are no longer one of God’s children. But if you do your part, God will eventually send you thoughts of encouragement.

Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray to their Father who is in Heaven. These were his Jewish disciples but by extension (and since we have no other model from the time of Jesus), we may apply the teachings of the Master about prayer to we non-Jewish disciples as well. What choice do we have?

I know Nachman of Breslev is addressing Jews in his teachings, but he does say, “From the smallest to the greatest, it is impossible to be a truly good person without Hitbodedut,” implying that one’s station in life or relative level of spirituality is beside the point. No matter who you are, unless you pray Hitbodedut, that is, pray totally from the heart, you are missing something.

Can we small, finite creatures be intimate with an infinite and Holy God?

Christianity seems to think so and sometimes I think some folks are a little too intimate. I’ve never been one of those who thinks that I can simply sit down at my kitchen table and share a casual cup of coffee with Jesus. He’s a King, not my next door neighbor. Not even his own disciples treated him so commonly.

But I’ve got to “reboot” my journey by starting somewhere. I’ve got to attempt to rise to a higher level. Even if I get it wrong, it’s better to stub my toe while walking the path than to stand frozen in one spot out of appearing foolish or a fear of failure.

During your Hitbodedut, it is good to say: “Today I am starting to attach myself to You!”

Make a new start each time, because everything that comes later is always in accordance with the beginning.

No matter what happens, it is always good to make a new start each time and say, “Today I am beginning…” If things were already good, now they will be even better! And if they were not good before, then you certainly need to start anew.

You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “today is the first day of the rest of your life,” generally attributed to Charles (“Chuck”) Dederich, and that seems to be part of what the Rebbe is saying too. Each day is a new beginning. Every moment is a fresh opportunity. The Master said, the spirit desires but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). We want to draw nearer to God, but there are so many things we let get in the way. After a while, we start to feel as if there are too many barriers and we stop trying.

But while we live there are always opportunities. Pushing the walls aside is as easy as finding some place to be alone and then starting to talk to God. Our first words can always be, “Today I am starting to attach myself to You!” Even if nothing seems to “happen” first, be patient.

Even if many days and years pass and it seems as if you have accomplished nothing with your prayers and conversations with God, don’t give up! Every single word makes an impression.

“Water wears away stone” (Job 14: 19 ) . It may seem that water dripping on hard stone could not make any impression, yet when water drips on stone continuously for many years, it can literally wear a hole in the stone. We actually see this.

Even if your heart is like stone and it seems that your words of prayer are making no impression at all, still, as the days and years pass, your heart of stone will also be softened. For: “Water wears away stone”.

rabbi-akiva-stone-waterThere is a story told about the great Rabbi Akiva that applies to us and particularly (I hope) to me.

Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd, a laborer, an am ha’aretz – religious in observance, but ignorant of Torah knowledge. At age 40, he didn’t even know how to read the aleph-beis.

One day, while sitting by a brook, Akiva noticed a steady trickle of water hitting a rock. It was only a drip, but it was constant – drop after drop after drop. Akiva observed something incredible: A hole had been carved out by that steady drip of water. He wondered how that could be. He concluded: If something as soft as water can carve a hole in solid rock, how much more so can words of Torah – which is hard as iron – make an indelible impression on my heart.

That marked a turning point in Rabbi Akiva’s life. He committed himself to Torah study, and went on to become the greatest sage of his generation, with 24,000 students learning under him at one time.

-from “Like Water on Rock”

It is said of Rabbi Akiva: If water can wear down a stone, then every Jew can and will study Torah…If water can wear down a stone, the Jewish people can overcome Rome…If water can wear down stone, then the Temple can be rebuilt…

If water can wear down a stone, then I can encounter God in prayer.

And so can you.

Grounded Prayers

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
“Accidental Hekdesh”
Arachin 23

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.

PleadI 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.