Prayer Essentials

For the week ending 11 January 2014 / 10 Shevat 5774

Precious Words

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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Due to the length of organized prayer, many find it difficult to concentrate the entire time on the words one says. To stop each time one’s attention drifts can make the prayers take longer, and perhaps seem somewhat unbearable. To go back and say the prayers again will probably not help, since it will be equally — and possibly more — difficult to concentrate the second (or third) time. So, what is one to do when he finds himself amidst this dilemma?

Rabbi Eliezer Papo, one of the great Sephardic leaders, answers the above question with a parable:

A man was carrying a chest full of precious stones. He tripped and fell, and with him fell the chest. The man stood bewildered, looking at all his stones scattered across the walkway. People around began to grab whatever they could carry in their hands. The man, watching what was happening, began to panic, but then realized, that he too had better start grabbing what he could, or he would be left with nothing. And so, he began to throw as much as he could back into his chest. When the chaos ended he looked into his chest to find more than enough stones to sustain himself and his family for a long time to come.

This story teaches us what to do when we find ourselves in the middle of our prayers, unable to concentrate on what we are saying. When distractions come to a person during his prayers, causing all his precious words of prayer to become tarnished by negative intentions, he should remember that even though he has lost part of his prayer, he can still save the rest.

The solution: pause for a moment, and start praying again as though it were the beginning of the prayers. Do not consider what is lost, for the parts you will be able to salvage will outweigh them. G-d knows the inner struggles of man, and will reward a person based on his efforts. Since it takes great effort to say the words of the prayer text with true meaning, the reward for doing so is immeasurable. If one does his best, then in truth nothing is missing.

What does one do when he doesn’t understand Hebrew? Despite the fact that it is perfectly fine to pray in English, many Jews choose to pray in Hebrew. When doing so it is a good idea to add one’s own prayers in a language one understands. Although these additions are said in one’s own words, they should ideally include the following three components: Praise of G-d; one’s personal requests; and words expressing thanks and gratitude.

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