By Moshe Schonbrun
A response to Ben Shapiro
In a raw moment of a recent episode of the legendary Meaningful People Podcast, guest Ben Shaprio admitted to a personal struggle in the area of Davening, stating he “is not a big fan of the idea that God is a gumball machine that gives you stuff”, and that the structure of davening creates barriers to connection, and that he finds himself mumbling and stumbling through the siddur. Ben humbly agreed to look at some sources and ideas that delve into the depth and profundity of prayer. Tefillah, prayer, is one of the most potent aspects of Judaism. Yet influenced by a multitude of external and internal factors, it is incredibly difficult to connect to. Why pray? How does prayer work? Is it a giant gumball of a shopping list? Can one change Hashem’s mind? Why pray with fixed times and texts, and is there room for flexibility and individuality?
Part 1: The Philosophical Platform
A depth lies in the difference between the vernacular ‘prayer’ and ‘Tefillah’. The Hebrew word his-palel [prayer] is the reflexive form of a verb meaning “to judge.” It denotes an inner attempt to evaluate oneself; a step out of active life to gain a true judgment about yourself. It is an attempt to gain true knowledge about your ego, your relationship with Hashem and the world, and the relationship that Hashem and the world have with you. It strives to infuse the mind and heart with purity, strength, and sublimity. This process is called tefillah. In the vernacular, we speak of this as prayer, but the vernacular word is an incomplete expression of the concept. In short, prayer is connected to intellectual activity. To pray means to distinguish, to evaluate, to understand; in other words, to seek understanding.
The word his-palel is also related to the root balal, which denotes bringing a fresh element into a mass, incorporating this element into all parts of the mass, and thus forming a new material out of the mass. A judge’s task is to bring justice and fairness, elements of Divine Truth, into the case. This must penetrate all elements of the dispute, and by introducing true justice into angry dissension, the judge transforms it into harmonious unity. When you do this to yourself, you are being his-palel, “judging yourself”, taking the element of Hashem’s truth and making it penetrate all phases and conditions of your life. This allows your entire being to gain a degree of harmony in Hashem.
Jewish tefillah is hence very different from what is usually conceived of as prayer. It is not an expression from within or an expression of that with which the heart is already filled. Rather, it is a renewal and penetration of truth which comes from the outside. If our prayers were not tefillah then there would be no sense in having fixed times and prescribed forms for them. But our prescribed prayers are not facts and truths of which we are already conscious; they are concepts that we wish to awaken and renew in ourselves. The less one may feel inclined to recite a prayer, the more necessary it may be to say it.
We pray not simply for Hashem to fulfill our desires but in order to know what to desire. All animals act to satisfy their desires, only human beings are capable of standing back and passing judgment on their desires. Prayer changes the world because it changes us. At its height, it is a profoundly transformative experience. If we have truly prayed, we come in the course of time to know that we were made for a purpose; that Hashem, though immeasurably vast, is also intensely close; that Hashem is with us in our efforts, and that we do not labor in vain. We know, too, that we are part of the community of faith, and with us are four thousand years of history and the prayers and hopes of those who came before us.
Prayer is the education of desire. Take the weekday Amidah as an example: It teaches us to seek knowledge, wisdom and understanding – not just a new car, an exotic vacation or expensive clothes. It teaches us to want to return to Hashem when, as happens so often, we drift in the winds of time, blown this way and that by the pressures of today. It teaches us to seek spiritual healing as well as physical health. It teaches us to seek the best not just for ourselves but also for our people and ultimately for all humanity. In Birchas hashachar, prayer opens our eyes to the wonders of the physical world. It trains us to give thanks for the sheer gift of being alive. In Pesukei dezimra, we learn to see the Creator through creation. We sense the song of the earth in the wind that moves the trees, the clouds that dapple the sky, the sun that melts the snow. We hear Hashem’s praise in the breath of all that lives.
Hashem gave man intellect to function in the physical world and the responsibility of caring for all his own needs. In one respect, this lowers man and his essence, as the more he becomes entangled in worldly concepts, the more he distances himself from the highest Light. Hashem, therefore, established a remedy for this- Man must initiate all worldly endeavors by first bringing himself close to Hashem. When one subsequently engages in various forms of activity, he is no longer entangled and immersed in the physical and the worldly, having initiated all this effort by making it dependent on Hashem.
Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa takes things a step further. In Reb Bunim’s view, it would be a form of spiritual beggary to focus prayer solely on personal interests. Prayer is the path to intimacy with the Divine. Though not indifferent to the world, the occupation of prayer is spiritual- the soul humming in tune with its source. Rabbi Chanoch Henoch of Alexander explains the word vaeschanan (“And I beseeched”), noting that it is phrased in the reflexive form, based on an exquisite interpretation by Rebbe Bunim of the phrase va’ani tefillah (“and I am prayer”). Reb Bunim explained that when a person really prays, he becomes the prayer. T.S. Eliot said about listening to music: “Music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all but you are the music while the music lasts.” Prayer is therefore not a form of spiritually begging, of asking Hashem for goodies. It is rather a process by which a human being develops himself to be worthy of a more intimate relationship with Hashem.
Whereas others would see prayer as a mystical means to be used, Reb Bunim sees prayer as a mystical means to be, and what will follow will follow. Not to use prayer, but to be prayer.
A paradox remains: Either a certain good is decreed by Hashem for a particular person, or it is not decreed. If it is decreed, then prayer should not be necessary. If it is not decreed, how can prayer help to change Hashem’s will and cause Him to grant good to this individual?
Influence from Hashem is granted to a recipient when she is on a given level and has a certain degree of readiness to receive it. If a person does not prepare herself to receive that bounty, she is the one preventing herself from receiving it. Thus, for example, it may be decreed that an individual’s harvest be successful in a given year, but if she does not plow or sow her harvest will not be successful. Everything depends on the individual’s level of preparation. If her level of preparedness is changed, then the degree must also be changed. This is like a king who decrees that anyone in his land who remains uncircumcised will be killed and that all who circumcise themselves will receive gold and silver. When a person circumcises himself, he is not changing or annulling the decree. The decree is conditional, depending on the individual’s action. There is therefore no question regarding Hashem’s will being changed as the result of our prayers, as from the very beginning it was Hashem’s will that His decree is contingent on a person’s level and readiness.
Why do we need to verbally articulate our prayers? Surely Hashem, who sees the heart, knows our wishes even before we do, without our having to put them into words. What we wish to happen is either right or wrong in the eyes of Hashem. If it is right, Hashem will bring it about even if we do not pray. If it is wrong, Hashem will not bring it about even if we do. So why pray? The Maharal of Prague gives a profound answer. Without a vessel to contain a blessing, there can be no blessing. If we have no receptacle to catch the rain, the rain may fall, but we will have none to drink. If we have no radio receiver, the sound waves will flow, but we will be unable to convert them into sound. Hashem’s blessings flow continuously, but unless we make ourselves into a vessel for them, they will flow elsewhere. Prayer is the act of turning ourselves into a vehicle for the Divine.
On an inner note, the Zohar states “He is called loving and merciful so that He might make Himself known.” When Hashem acts merciful to us, He constricts His essence into the word “Merciful,” into the lights and vessels of the letters making up the word. Hashem granted the men of the Great Assembly wisdom to compose an order of davening containing all the words and letters necessary to transmit this essential lifeforce.
Man is filled with lifeforce and breath, but it is diffused inside him. When he wishes to speak, he must constrict this breath through his larynx, modulating it with his throat, palate, lips, tongue, and teeth. Only then can his speech, desires, and wisdom be communicated. When a person prays, he certainly attaches his thoughts and lifeforce to the Infinite Essence, which is absolute formless Unity. When he begins to speak, he transmits the Creator’s lifeforce into his words and speech. As these leave his lips, they are strongly bound to his breath and lifeforce, constricted into the sounds that he expresses. Then it is as if the Infinite Essence is bound to this person’s breath and lifeforce, and so is modulated and constricted in his expression of words.
Part 2: Authenticity
The siddur is not a pre-filled shopping cart; it is the book of Jewish faith. Scholars of Judaism, noting that it contains little systematic theology, have sometimes concluded that it is a religion of deeds not creeds, acts not beliefs. They were wrong because they were searching in the wrong place. They were looking for a library of works like Rambam’s’ Guide for the Perplexed. They should have looked instead at the prayer book. The home of Jewish belief is the siddur.
The fact that Jewish faith was written into the prayers, rather than analyzed in works of theology, is of immense significance. We do not analyze our faith: we pray it. We do not philosophize about truth: we sing it. Even Rambam’ Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith – the most famous creed in the history of Judaism – only entered the mainstream of Jewish consciousness when they were turned into a song and included in the siddur as the hymn known as Yigdal. For Judaism, theology becomes real when it becomes prayer. We do not talk about Hashem. We talk to Hashem.
While this pertains to the dynamic words of the siddur, you should daven to Hashem in your native language. The main form of davening is an expression of the heart before Hashem in each individual’s own words. The Rambam says that this was originally the main form of Tefillah before it was formalized. Halachically, the original form of davening is the most important. Though we follow the order of the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah, personal davening as it originally existed is still the most powerful. Daven to Hashem from the depths of your heart, using your own words, in whatever language you know best. Ask Hashem to make you truly worthy of serving Him. This is the essence of davening.“
Set aside time each day to meditate and pray alone in a room or in nature and express your innermost thoughts and feelings and personal prayers to Hashem. Use every kind of appeal and argument. Plead with Hashem to draw you closer. Hold these conversations in whatever language you speak best, to give expression to all your innermost thoughts and feelings, so your heart is drawn after the words, making it more natural to pour out your heart and say everything you want. No matter what you lack, even if you feel totally remote from His service, tell Hashem everything. You can even make a prayer of this. You can cry out to Hashem that you are so far from Him that you cannot even speak.
Though one may not connect to davening, “Hashem’s desire” is only for us to desire; to constantly long to be attached to Him. It is not an outcome or result-based task, but an expression of yearning. You will sometimes try very hard, and still not be able to pray. Never become discouraged. This is the most important rule of all. Recite each word with the simplicity of a child just learning how to read, and simply say the words. In most cases, Hashem will then touch your heart with a flame, and it will be aroused to pray with feeling.
Often, our relationship with Hashem defaults to a transactional give-and-take, attempting to master some kind of Divine algorithm that will allow us to curry favor and earn blessings. While busy counting merit points, strikes and gutters, and ups and downs, we can lose ourselves and miss the goal of it all. Alone, without the support, the pressure, or perhaps sometimes the crutch of a congregation- we can cultivate oneness with Hashem; a private and personal intimacy with our Source. Hisbodedus is therapeutic and empowering. It is an opportunity for us to confide in the Ribbono Shel Olam and share our “everything.” We have open access to the Creator and Sustainer of the world!
“The main thing is to daven with a broken heart, study as if the words are the only thing keeping you alive, attach yourself to someone bigger than yourself, cherish faith as if this is the last moment you will have it, and be vulnerable with friends and talk to Hashem in your voice.”
Part 3: Intentions
Religious activities such as Tefillah serve to fill our minds with Hashem’s directives and free them from worldly affairs. We communicate with Hashem undisturbed by anything else. When some people pray, they merely turn their faces to the wall and make motions with their lips, but their minds are completely devoid of all thoughts of what they are saying. Such people may as well be digging in the ground or chopping wood since they do not reflect on the nature of their acts, Who commanded them, and what is their object. This is not the way to attain the highest performance.
Prayer is more than saying certain words in the right order. It needs concentration, attention, engagement of mind and heart, and the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Without devotion, prayer is like a body without a soul. The key Hebrew word here is kavanah, meaning mindfulness, intention, focus, direction of the mind. In the context of prayer, it means several different things. The most basic level is having the intention to fulfill a mitzvah, and not for social or aesthetic reasons. At a second level, kavanah means understanding the words. A third level relates to one’s conscious realization of standing before Hashem. That is why we take three steps forward at the beginning of the Amidah, and three back at the end – as if we were entering, then leaving, sacred space.
The fourth level of kavanah is not merely saying the words but meaning and affirming them. In prayer we put ourselves into the words. We make a commitment. We declare our faith, our trust, and our dependency. We mean what we say.
“From my flesh, I shall see Hashem”. The Baal Shem Tov explains that just as physical coupling cannot take place without arousal, passion, and joy, the same is true of spiritual coupling. If prayer is to bear fruit, it must be in a state of arousal, passion, and joy.
A person sometimes works himself up and actually makes himself angry. People then say, “He is working himself up into a rage.” You must do the same during prayer. Like the person working up a rage, you must work yourself up, and bring all your emotions into your davening. Enthusiasm may be forced at first, but eventually, it will become genuine. Your heart will burst aflame with Hashem’s praise, and you will be worthy of praying with real fervor.
Sometimes you may want to pray with great enthusiasm before Hashem. You make many preparations so your prayers should be just right. Still, when you are in the depths of prayer, you are disturbed by random thoughts. Know that Hashem sends you these thoughts not by chance, but so that you elevate them to their divine root. The thought itself is therefore the help given to you from Hashem.
“Praying to reach a certain level is the beginning of grasping that level” // Rav Yitzchak Meir Morgenstern
The Kuzari said that prayer is to the soul what food is to the body. Without prayer, something within us atrophies and dies. It is possible to have a life without prayer, just as it is possible to have a life without music, or love, or laughter, but it is a diminished thing, missing whole dimensions of experience. We need space within the soul to express our joy in being, our wonder at the universe, our hopes, our fears, our failures, our aspirations—bringing our deepest thoughts as offerings to the One who listens, and listening, in turn, to the One who calls.
When a person says “Baruch Atah Hashem,” those words should be like a person is speaking to his most dear and beloved friend. You need to believe that Hashem is your dear, beloved Friend, that He’s your Father and, like the Baal Shem Tov says, “He kisses the lips of a Jew as the words of tefillah come out of his mouth”.
For most of us, between the regularity of tefillah and the temperament we possess, tefillah will not become an incredibly emotional experience. Yet it can and will become a profound spiritual experience. Standing before Hashem starts by removing ourselves from man’s world. This is the reason why a shul has value apart from its status as a place where a minyan happens to be. Similarly, there is great merit in having an established spot for our prayers. By establishing and designating a spot, we have excluded the outside world. In a deeper sense, tefillah represents a counterpoint to man’s duty as the active agent in the world. This world is an interface of Hashem as the Sole Power and us as His active agents. Tefillah is a small island of “Hashem’s world” within “our world.” For this interface to happen, we must withdraw from our world. This means turning off our connection (phones, etc.), as the very connection to the world of human activity detracts from what a shul is. The same thing holds true of business talk in the shul. We cannot complain that davening fails to lift us out of our mundane world when we are the ones who bring our mundane world into shul.
Someone struggling with maintaining kavanah during davening went to consult with the Rebbe Maharash. When he told the Rebbe that he did not know how to keep his mind on the davening, the Rebbe grabbed the young man by the lapels of his kapoteh, pulled his coat to the side, pointed at his heart, and said “Oy! Rachmana liba ba’ei- Hashem desires the heart!” The Rebbe Maharash began to cry, “Oy! A Yiddishe hartz-a Jewish heart! The heart, the heart!”
Once a Jew complained to Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa that he was suffering from a headache and was unable to pray. Wishing him good health, the Rebbe asked, “But what does the head have to do with prayer?!
It makes a difference to be brushed by the wings of eternity. Davening opens our eyes to the wonder of the world. It opens our ears to the still, small voice of Hashem. It opens our hearts to those who need our help. Hashem exists where we pray. As the Kotzker Rebbe said: “Hashem lives where we let Him in.” And in that dialogue between the human soul and the Soul of the universe a momentous yet gentle strength is born.
We locate ourselves as part of the story of our people. Slowly, we come to think less of the “I,” more of the “We”; less of what we lack than of what we have; less of what we need from the world, more of what the world needs from us. Our priorities change; we become less angular; we learn the deep happiness that comes from learning to give praise and thanks. The world we build tomorrow is born in the prayers we say today. As the sea smoothes the stone, so prayer—cyclical, tracking the rhythms of time itself—gradually wears away the jagged edges of our character, turning it into a work of devotional art.
Gates of Prayer, Rabbi Shimshon Pincus
1. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb 618
2. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Bereishis 20:7
3. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren Siddur
4. Ramchal, Derech Hashem 4:5:1-3
5. Devarim 3:23
6. Tehillim 109:4
7. Chashava L’Tovah, 60
8. Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosen, The Quest for Authenticity 232
9. Rav Yosef Albo, Sefer Halkkarim 4:18
10. Nesivos Olam, Avodah 2
11. Rebbe Dov Ber of Mezrich, Maggid Devarav L’Yaakov 269
12. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren Siddur
13. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Sichos HaRan 229
14. Rebbe Bunim of Peshischa
15. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Sichos HaRan 75
16. Rav Judah Mischel, Baderech
17. Rav Joey Rosenfeld, Twitter
18. Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 3:51
19. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren Siddur
20. Iyov 19:26
21. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, Ben Porat Yosef 19
22. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Sichos HaRan 74
23. Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezrich, Magid Devarav L’Yaakov 232
24. Rav Yehuda Halevi, Kuzari 3
25. Rav Moshe Weinberger
26. Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky, Ben Torah for Life
27. Rav Judah Mischel, Baderech
28. Ramasayim Tzofim, 3:19
29. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks