Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 12 June 2021 / 2 Tamuz 5781

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 9)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 9)
(Lailah Gifty Akita)

“These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world, but whose principal remains intact in the World to Come. They are: honoring one’s parents; acts of kindness; early arrival at the study hall in the morning and the evening; hosting guests; visiting the sick; providing the wherewithal for a bride to marry; escorting the dead; praying with concentration; making peace between two people; and Torah study is the equivalent of them all.” (Tractate Shabbat 127a)

The eighth mitzvah on the list is praying with concentration. Rashi, explaining how this mitzvah fits into the context of the other chessed-orientated mitzvahs listed here, writes that many of the prayers we recite daily are not only for the benefit of the individual who recites them. Rather, they benefit the entire Jewish People. For this reason, the central prayer of the prayer services — the Shemoneh Esrei — is said in the plural and not in the singular as might be expected. We are not just praying for ourselves. However, prayer is not a completely altruistic experience. Our Sages teach (Bava Kama 92a) that when a person sincerely prays for mercy for his friend, and he needs exactly the same thing, his prayer for himself will be answered first. Our Sages are teaching us something absolutely fundamental: a vital component of standing in front of G-d and successfully beseeching Him to help us is heartfelt empathy for the difficulties of others. Profound prayers require concentration and intent so that they may reach their mark.

Praying with intent is so essential that Rabbi Yehuda ben Shmuel of Regensberg (1150-1217), known as Rabbeinu Yehudah HaChasid, writes in his formative work Sefer Chasidim that one should only pray the Shemoneh Esrei in a language other than Hebrew if doing so will allow the person to pray with greater concentration and intent. But if that is not the case, it is preferable to recite the prayers in their original Hebrew, even if they are not properly understood by the person.

We are being taught that in order for our spiritual lives to have true significance, they must be imbued with meaning and focus. We must think — both before we act and as we act — and not merely do things by rote. Rote is the bane of spiritual growth, and ultimately leads a person to feel disconnected from G-d and dissatisfied with their spiritual self. So insidious is rote that it can lead a person to make the most ridiculous mistakes.

Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam, the twentieth century spiritual leader of the Klausenburg Chassidut, was revered by all for his saintliness andoverwhelming love for each and every Jew. He once related that the very first question he received upon becoming the rabbi of a community was from one of his congregants, who approached him while wearing his arm tefillin and holding his head tefillin in his hand. He told the Rebbe that he had no idea if he was putting on his tefillin for the beginning of the morning prayers or if he was taking them off after having finished the prayer service! What was he to do? The Rebbe answered that he should put on the head tefillin and pray the morning service. Why? Because even if he had in fact already prayed that morning, it was crystal clear that he had not done so with any concentration whatsoever.

In the blessing before the recitation of the Shema in the morning, we entreat G-d to, “…instill in our hearts to understand and elucidate…and fulfill all the words of Your Torah’s teachings with love.” In a very sharply worded critique, the Chofetz Chaim explains that very often our prayers are answered and G-d grants us the ability to “understand and elucidate.” But, due to our obliviousness, we don’t even realize that. We aimlessly continue living our lives with the same uniform regularity — not even stopping for a moment to realize that the priceless gift we requested has been bestowed upon us. However, when we pray with concentration and intent, we are emphasizing to ourselves that every day is a new entity, replete with countless new opportunities to help us reach a heightened awareness of who we are. And to help draw us closer to G-d.

  • To be continued…

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