Praying for a Better Future
Last week and this week, in preparation for Elul, we are reviewing some of the first segments from the start of the Shemoneh Esrei series.
At the start of Elul, rather than plunging ourselves into cheshbon ha’nefesh (accounting of one’s soul), many advise to begin by strengthening the core areas of our avodas Hashem. Since we are involved in tefilah in this program, and since tefilah is certainly one of the core areas of our service to Hashem, we are reviewing four segments in particular, between last week and this week, since they speak about the purpose of tefilah, and arguably the three most important words of tefilah and of all of our brachos, which, in Elul, is another area we must work on strengthening.
How Can I Maintain Focus?
Practical Tips for Maintaining Focus
The Sifsei Chayim1 quotes the Rambam who states that maintaining focus during the entire Shemoneh Esrei is a realistic long-term goal and it is within our reach. He tells us that this can take many years and we should not give up hope and settle for less. Each person is different in the amount of time it will take, but if we are persistent in our efforts, Hashem will assist us and we will succeed, b’ezras Hashem.
As with any other long-term important goal, we must begin with small steps and make consistent but manageable efforts, building brick upon brick, until we have built a magnificent structure, bonding with the Sh’chinah daily during our Shemoneh Esrei. Here are some practical tips to assist us in our efforts:
1. Our approach leading into the Shemoneh Esrei is crucial. For two out of the three daily recitations of the Shemoneh Esrei, we have recited Ashrei, and our efforts in garnering and enhancing our emunah through Ashrei should place us in the right frame of mind. During Maariv, we have recited the Shema, and that should help us in the same way. We then have the items discussed in the previous two Shemoneh Esrei segments, especially the pasuk “ה’ שפתי” that we recite in all three Shemoneh Esreis, immediately prior to the Shemoneh Esrei. The key to all of the above for men who daven with a minyan, especially Minchah, is to make it a habit to come (at least a couple of minutes) early, to contemplate some of these things and get into the proper frame of mind.
2. Regardless of where in the world we are, Siman 94 in the Shulchan Aruch instructs us to envision ourselves in Eretz Yisrael, in Yerushalayim, in the Beis HaMikdash, inside the Kodesh HaKodashim, before each Shemoneh Esrei. “דע לפני מי אתה עומד–Da lifnei Mi atah omeid” (Know before Whom you stand) is a short phrase worth recalling as we step into the Shemoneh Esrei.
3. Selecting one of the many s’farim available on davening in general or the particular segment we are working on, as well as reviewing that week’s focus piece for two to five minutes before one of the daily tefilos each day, provides a focused entry into that tefilah, which can provide a boost for that entire tefilah.
4. Rav Chaim Volozhin provides guidance on how to concentrate and feel reassured that the words will hit their intended mark (as discussed in our introduction). He tells us to focus intently on looking at each word in the siddur (or for those who have better kavanah with their eyes closed, to mentally picture each word). Pointing with our finger can help achieve this focus. Remember that regardless of how basic (a simple translation) or complex our kavanah in a particular word is, the 120 Elders (אנשי כנסת הגדולה), which included a number of Prophets, formulated these words with ruach ha’kodesh. If we focus on seeing each word, it will go up and accomplish what was intended when they formulated it.
5. Personalizing our tefilos is a very powerful method to enhance focus. In fact, Rav Chaim Volozhin, in Ruach Chaim on Avos 1:2, tells us that when the Shemoneh Esrei was formulated by the 120 Elders, everything each of us includes in personalizing our tefilos was actually included in that formulation through their ruach ha’kodesh.
We must daven for our own personal spiritual and physical needs. If we truly believe that our fate is controlled by Hashem and that tefilah has a great impact on whether we receive that which we desire (if in our best interests), that alone should keep us focused. Remembering that our Avos and Imahos and many others before us had to daven for many years before their requests were granted should provide us with the strength to persevere and continue to consistently pour our hearts out in tefilah for ourselves and others.
Davening for klal Yisrael and for other individuals is one of the highest forms of chesed we can do for others. We may think that chesed is limited to physical acts, listening to others unburden their troubles, or providing financial assistance. However, if we remember that Hashem produces all results, then we understand that davening with heart for another in need is at least as much a chesed as any kind action taken, which, though absolutely necessary, will not produce results without Hashem. Both the physical efforts of chesed and tefilah are vital. We stress the tefilah here because, perhaps to some, it is less obvious.
6. The Chofetz Chaim, in his sefer Sheim Olam, suggests that we should daven from a siddur and that, before each brachah, we should think very briefly about what we are going to praise Hashem about or what we plan to request in this brachah. (Note: some siddurim contain a one-word introduction before each brachah in Shemoneh Esrei.)
7. Using our own siddur, writing notes inside our siddur, and perhaps even alternating siddurim periodically, also can help to increase focus.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. We are all unique, and some techniques will work for some and not for others. Some of us will do best to focus on seeing the words and the basic translation. Others will prefer deep meanings and associations. Yet others are pulled more by emotion and will prefer personalization. Each person knows himself or herself and understands what will work and what will not. Consider trying some of these suggestions that you have not tried yet, to see which may help you. The key for all of us, though, is to ask Hashem to help us succeed and to put forth a consistent and persistent effort. Never give up. We can and will, b’ezras Hashem, succeed.
Please let us know what other ideas work for you and we can, b’ezras Hashem, compile a list and send it out to others at a future time.
שפתי חיים, מדות א’ 1
Which three words do you say most often?
Over the course of your lifetime and even daily, which three words do you say most often? Men are obligated to recite at least 100 brachos daily (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, siman 46:3). Whether women share this obligation is subject to dispute. Even if they are not obligated, women also certainly recite many brachos daily. Therefore, the three words “Baruch Atah Hashem” are probably the three words that we utter most frequently, and they are arguably amongst the most important. We begin our Shemoneh Esrei with these words as well. If we focus our hearts and minds when saying these words (Men will make at least 35,400 brachos annually!), we possess the potential to infuse ourselves with emunah and yir’as Shamayim, to bring a constant flow of blessing to the entire world, to increase Hashem’s rachamim upon His people, and so much more – multiple times a day.
A) Hashem is the source of all brachah; brachah flows from Him to all. The word brachah comes from the words “breichas mayim” (a wellspring of water), where the water flows constantly without interruption. Just as a wellspring is the source of the constant flow of water, so too is Hashem the (exclusive) source of the constant flow of all brachah. (Rashba, Rabbeinu Bachya)
Hashem does not need our brachos. He wanted us to make brachos for our benefit. When we testify and internalize that He is the source of all brachos and recognize His hashgachah pratis (Divine providence), we merit to cause more brachah to flow to the world and to ourselves. “כל המברך מתברך–Kol ha’m’vareich misbareich” (Gemara Sotah 38). (Avudraham and other Rishonim)
B) Some Rishonim state that in fact reciting a brachah is (as if) for Hashem’s “benefit.” They point to a pasuk in Sh’mos where the word means to increase. Hashem wants to bring a constant flow of brachah onto the world. He designed the world to allow us the privilege to be the intermediaries to cause that flow to come down through our brachos and tefilos. This “allows” Hashem to fulfill His will of showering us with good. Thus, when we recite the word “Baruch,” we are asking that Hashem increase the flow of brachah to all the worlds and to our world, and fulfilling Hashem’s desire by facilitating His “ability” to flow brachah into the world.
Some offer a combined approach for “Baruch”: Hashem is the source of brachah, and it should be the will of Hashem that He increase His influence on the world so that He can be recognized to a greater extent.
While we have seen alternate meanings of the word “Baruch,” the word “Atah” is clear and unambiguous. It has only one meaning: Each and every one of us has the ability (and privilege) to turn directly to Hashem each time we say “Atah” (Chofetz Chaim, quoted in the sefer Tal’lei Oros). This word indicates an unusually high level of closeness since, although a rav must be spoken to in third person, we may address Hashem in second person.
Someone once approached HaRav Shmuel Auerbach shlita to ask him about the different meanings of “Baruch.” He was told that more important than which meaning we have in mind is to remember “Da lifnei mi atah omeid–Know before Whom you stand.” This is the most important kavanah in tefilah, the most important kavanah in brachos, and one of the most important principles by which to live our lives. In fact, in the Gemara in B’rachos 28b, when Rabbi Eliezer was ill, his students asked him to teach them the ways of life that would lead them to Olam HaBa. Knowing before Whom we stand was one of the three lessons Rabbi Eliezer taught them.
When Hashem’s name is in its form that we do not pronounce as written, the proper kavanah is [Hashem] “was, is, and always will be.” A deeper understanding is that He created something from nothing (was); He causes all to exist, since without Him nothing truly exists (is); and He is everlasting and eternal (will be). When Hashem’s name is spelled the way we pronounce it today, as it is in the words “Hashem s’fasai,” the proper kavanah is “Adon HaKol,” Master over all. (Shulchan Aruch, siman 5)
We have also seen the additional thought of “HaAdon sheli” – my Master (indicating a personal relationship with Hashem).
The Vilna Gaon, quoted by the Mishnah B’rurah (in siman 5) states that with the exception of Shema, even when Hashem’s name appears in written form, we may have only the kavanah of “Adon HaKol” in mind. For Shema, one is also required to have in mind “was, is, and always will be.”
May we be zocheh to succeed in our mission of bringing a constant, plentiful flow of blessing and compassion to the world, and to ourselves and loved ones, by focusing on knowing and feeling before beginning any brachah that we are standing before the source of all brachah, and may our brachos also succeed in becoming vehicles through which we come closer to Hashem with each heartfelt and focused brachah we recite.