Connecting with God through Prayer

... וכשאתם מתפללים דעו לפני מי אתם עומדים ובשביל כך תזכו לחיי העולם הבא

...and when you pray, know before Whom ye stand ; and on that account will you be worthy of the life of the world to come."

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer
“The awareness that we stand in the presence of the Living God is one of the most important realizations we can install in our operative consciousness. God is always present. The question is, how present are we? We want to stand in that Presence without opacity. Our work is to penetrate, in meditation and in action, to the very heart of being nokhach penei ha-Shem (Lamentations 2:19), of being truly present before God.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man's Quest for God

“Great is the power of prayer. For to worship is to expand the presence of God in the world. God is transcendent, but our worship makes Him immanent.”

When do you most strongly feel the presence of God?

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer
“Many who live their lives as Jews, even many who pray every day, live on a wrapped and refrigerated version of prayer. We go to synagogue dutifully enough. We rise when we should rise, sit when we should sit. We read and sing along with the cantor and answer ‘Amen’ in all the right places. We may even rattle through the prayers with ease. We sacrifice vitality for shelf-life, and the neshomoh, the Jewish soul, can taste the difference."

A Chasidic Tale

There once was a king who loved music; he directed musicians to play for him every morning.

The musicians performed to obey, but also because they loved and respected the king, they valued the chance to be in his presence. Every morning they played for the king with enthusiasm and delight. For many years, things went well. The musicians enjoyed playing, the king enjoyed listening. The musicians eventually passed away, their sons sought to take their place; but they had not mastered the art, nor kept the instruments in proper condition. They no longer loved the king so much. They blindly followed their fathers' custom of arriving each morning to perform, but the harsh sounds were so offensive to king he stopped listening.

Why do you pray?

Forms of Jewish Prayer

As in the Amidah:

Praise (or as Anne Lamott puts it, "Wow!")

Requests (Help!)



Confession - I / we screwed up - connected to a request - forgiveness

Affirmations - reminders, relative to our relationship with God and others, and for personal growth

אמר רב חסדא לעולם יכנס אדם שני פתחים בבית הכנסת שני פתחים סלקא דעתך אלא אימא שיעור שני פתחים ואחר כך יתפלל:

Rab Hisda said : A man should always enter two doors in the Synagogue and then pray ; as it is said, "Waiting at the posts of My doors." "Two doors" [literally], do you imagine ! But say [the meaning is], A man should enter into the Synagogue a distance which equals the width of two doors, and then offer prayer.

R. Sholom Dovber Schneerson:

“In other words, upon coming in form the “outside” (i.e., from his physical and material concerns), a person should not hasten to pray immediately. Rather, he ought to wait until he discards and dispels his earlier concerns, so that they won’t disturb him.”

(א) אין עומדין להתפלל אלא מתוך כובד ראש. חסידים הראשונים היו שוהים שעה אחת ומתפללים כדי שיכונו את לבם למקום. אפילו המלך שואל בשלומו לא ישיבנו; ואפילו נחש כרוך על עקבו לא יפסיק .

(1) Someone should not stand up to pray unless he is in a serious frame of mind. The original tzadikim ones used to wait one hour and then pray, in order to direct their hearts towards the one reciting Shemoneh Esrei, even if the king greets him, he should not respond to him, and even if a snake wraps around his heel, he should not interrupt.

אין עומדין להתפלל לא מתוך עצבות ולא מתוך עצלות ולא מתוך שחוק ולא מתוך שיחה ולא מתוך קלות ראש ולא מתוך דברים בטלים אלא מתוך שמחה של מצוה
Don't stand to pray from sadness, and not from laziness, and not from laughter, and not from idle chatter, and not from frivolity, and not from purposeless matters. Rather, pray from the joy of the mitzvah.

Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

A little with kavanah (focus, intention) is better than a lot without.

God doesn't count the number of words you say, He counts the time you spend with Him.

הא דידיה הא דרביה דתניא א"ר יהודה משום ר' אלעזר בן עזריה הקורא את שמע צריך שישמיע לאזנו שנאמר שמע ישראל אמר לו ר' מאיר הרי הוא אומר אשר אנכי מצוך היום על לבבך אחר כונת הלב הן הן הדברים

For there is a teaching : R. Judah says in the name of R. Eleazar b. 'Azariah : He who reads the Shema' must make it audible to his ear ; as it is said, "Hear O Israel." R. Meir said to him : Behold the Scriptures state, "And these words which I command thee this day shall be upon thy heart," i.e. the words depend upon the Kawwanah of the heart.

What can we do to help "shift gears" when we come into the synagogue?

אמר רב המנונא כמה הלכתא גברוותא איכא למשמע מהני קראי דחנה (שמואל א א, יג) וחנה היא מדברת על לבה מכאן למתפלל צריך שיכוין לבו רק שפתיה נעות מכאן למתפלל שיחתוך בשפתיו וקולה לא ישמע מכאן שאסור להגביה קולו בתפלתו ויחשבה עלי לשכורה מכאן ששכור אסור להתפלל ויאמר אליה עלי עד מתי תשתכרין וגו' א"ר אלעזר מכאן לרואה בחברו דבר שאינו הגון צריך להוכיחו ותען חנה ותאמר לא אדני אמר עולא ואיתימא רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא אמרה ליה לא אדון אתה בדבר זה ולא רוח הקודש שורה עליך שאתה חושדני בדבר זה איכא דאמרי הכי אמרה ליה לא אדון אתה לאו איכא שכינה ורוח הקודש גבך שדנתני לכף חובה ולא דנתני לכף זכות מי לא ידעת דאשה קשת רוח אנכי ויין ושכר לא שתיתי אמר רבי אלעזר מכאן לנחשד בדבר שאין בו שצריך להודיעו אל תתן את אמתך לפני בת בליעל אמר רבי אלעזר מכאן לשכור שמתפלל כאלו עובד ע"ז כתיב הכא לפני בת בליעל וכתיב התם (דברים יג, יד) יצאו אנשים בני בליעל מקרבך מה להלן ע"ז אף כאן ע"ז ויען עלי ויאמר לכי לשלום אמר רבי אלעזר מכאן לחושד את חברו בדבר שאין בו שצריך לפייסו ולא עוד אלא שצריך לברכו שנאמר

Rab Hamnuna said : How many weighty Halakot there are to be learnt from the passage relating to Hannah ! "Now Hannah, she spake in her heart" (I Sam. i. 13) — hence it is deduced that one who prays must direct his heart. "Only her lips moved" — hence, one who prays must pronounce [the words] with his lips. "But her voice was not heard" — hence, it is forbidden to raise the voice when praying. "Therefore Eli thought she had been drunken" — hence, it is forbidden to pray when intoxicated. "And Eli said to her. How long wilt thou be drunken?" (ibid. v. 14) — [[fol. 31 b.]] R. Eleazar said: Hence, if one sees in his neighbour anything that is unseemly, he must rebuke him. "And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord" (ibid. v. 15) — 'Ulla (another version: R. Jose b. R. Hannina) declared : She said to Eli, "Thou art not 'a lord' in this affair, nor does the Holy Spirit rest upon thee, seeing thou hast suspected me of this thing." Some declare that she spoke to him thus : "Thou art not a lord ; neither the Shekinah nor the Holy Spirit is with thee, for thou hast judged me in the scale of guilt and not in the scale of merit. Dost thou not know 'I am a woman of sorrowful spirit'?" "I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink" — R. Eleazar said : Hence it is deduced that one who is wrongly suspected must clear himself. "Count not thy handmaid for a wicked woman" (I Sam. i. 16) — R. Eleazar said : Hence it is inferred that if a drunken person prays, it is as though he practised idolatry; for it is written here "a wicked woman," and elsewhere it is written, "Certain base fellows are gone out from the midst of thee" (Deut. xiii. 14) — as the reference in this latter passage is to idolatry, so also in the other passage idolatry is intended. "Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace" (I Sam. i. 17) — R. Eleazar said : Hence, if one wrongly suspected another, he must conciliate him ; nay more, he must bless him ;

Zohar III 105a

Come and see. If a man says that there is no necessity for actual deeds, or to utter words or make them audible—may his spirit expire!...for thought does not accomplish anything, and no sound is produced by it, and it does not ascend. But once a man has produced a word from his mouth, that word becomes a sound and it cleaves atmospheres and firmaments, and it goes up and another matter is aroused…And whoever produces a holy word from his mouth, a word of Torah—a sound is made from it that ascends, and the holy ones of the supernal king are aroused and they are crowned near his head, and then there is joy in the upper and in the lower worlds.

Why does actually making a sound make a difference?

(יג) רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי זָהִיר בִּקְרִיאַת שְׁמַע (וּבִתְפִלָּה). וּכְשֶׁאַתָּה מִתְפַּלֵּל, אַל תַּעַשׂ תְּפִלָּתְךָ קֶבַע, אֶלָּא רַחֲמִים וְתַחֲנוּנִים לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (יואל ב, יב) כִּי חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם הוּא אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וְנִחָם עַל הָרָעָה. וְאַל תְּהִי רָשָׁע בִּפְנֵי עַצְמָךְ:
(13) Rabbi Shimon says: Be careful in the reciting of the Shema and the Shemoneh Esrei. When you pray, do not make your prayers routine, but rather a plea for mercy and supplications before God, as is written (Joel 2:13), "For [God] is gracious and merciful, He is slow to anger, and abundant with kindness, and relents from punishment." Do not be wicked before yourself.

ר' אליעזר אומר העושה תפלתו קבע וכו': מאי קבע א"ר יעקב בר אידי אמר רבי אושעיא כל שתפלתו דומה עליו כמשוי ורבנן אמרי כל מי שאינו אומרה בלשון תחנונים רבה ורב יוסף דאמרי תרוייהו כל שאינו יכול לחדש בה דבר א"ר זירא אנא יכילנא לחדושי בה מילתא ומסתפינא דלמא מטרידנא

ת"ר המהלך במקום גדודי חיה ולסטים מתפלל תפלה קצרה ואיזה היא תפלה קצרה ר' אליעזר אומר עשה רצונך בשמים ממעל ותן נחת רוח ליראיך מתחת והטוב בעיניך עשה בא"י שומע תפלה ר' יהושע אומר שמע שועת עמך ישראל ועשה מהרה בקשתם בא"י שומע תפלה

R. Eliezer says : If one makes his prayer a fixed task [keba'], his prayer is not supplication. What means keba'? R. Jacob b. Iddi said in the name of R. Osha'ya : Anyone whose prayer seems to him a burden. The Rabbis say : Anyone who does not recite it in language of supplication. Rabbah and Rab Joseph both said : Anyone who is not able to add something new thereto. R. Zera said : I am able to add something new, but I am afraid that I may become confused.

Our Rabbis have taught : He who journeys in a place of herds of wild beasts or bands of robbers should offer a short prayer. Which is the short prayer ? R. Eliezer said : "Do Thy will in Heaven above ; grant tranquility of spirit to those who fear Thee below, and do that which is good in Thy sight. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, Who hearkenest unto prayer."

Why do we need fixed prayers? Why not just pray from the heart?

Why do we need to pray from the heart? Why not just have fixed prayers? Don't they cover everything?

(ב) עָזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָ֑ה זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ אֱלֹקֵ֥י אָבִ֖י וַאֲרֹמְמֶֽנְהוּ׃

(2) The LORD is my strength and might; He is become my deliverance. This is my God and I will enshrine Him; The God of my father, and I will exalt Him.
-my God first

Rav Barry's Suggestions:

  1. Know before whom you stand—be aware that you are in God’s presence…God is everywhere.
  2. Enter two doors into the synagogue before praying—give yourself the time to separate from physical / material concerns and distractions before praying.
  3. Focus your attention before each prayer or act—putting on tallis or saying Shema to fulfill the mitzvah.
  4. Pray out loud.
  5. Use words or phrases as reminders to stay focused…”Baruch ATA,” Blessed are YOU, remember you are talking to God.
  6. Go at your own pace: “a little with intention is better than a lot without.”
  7. Add something from your own heart, in your own words.
  8. Learn more about what’s in the siddur.
  9. Do it daily…or better yet, 3x a day!