By Zale Newman, as told to Binyamin Ehrenkranz
It is hard to speak to God since we cannot physically see Him. In his sefer, Darchei Noam, the current Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Berezovsky, points out that just because you are unable to see someone does not mean you cannot speak to him. When you speak to someone on the telephone, for instance, you may not know what the individual looks like but you can certainly speak with him. So why can’t you talk to Hakadosh Baruch Hu even though His presence is hidden?
The truth is that we really can talk to Him. It’s a quintessential Jewish activity and is one of the pillars of Jewish life. But unfortunately it’s a skill that so many people have struggled with since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. To a great extent, the art of tefillah has been lost.
Davening requires the power of concentration more than the power of imagination. To truly concentrate, you may need to close your eyes or keep them focused solely on the siddur, limiting your peripheral vision. Do whatever it takes to really feel that you are speaking to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Find a corner, cover your head with a tallis, go out to nature or go to a place in your mind.
People often daven with intensity when there is a crisis—when they want someone healed, when they are crying to Hashem to have a child or when they are experiencing financial distress. They plead with Hashem for their needs and genuinely feel like they are talking to Him. But why is it so hard to pray that way when we are not in such pressing circumstances?
We can. We just have to practice doing it, beginning with a few minutes at a time and then expanding from there.
The best daveners I have seen may be physically in the room, but they are really not there at all. You could try speaking to them and they won’t answer; they are in a deep, meditative state. During Shacharis I often see “the holy man of Toronto,” Rabbi Shea Fuhrer, the rosh kollel of the Bobover shul, daven like this. I like davening in his minyan because his kavanah is like the engine of a train; it pulls you along.
Daveners like that are in the midst of a deep, intense conversation and you can see it on their faces. Their eyes are closed. Sometimes they are smiling and sometimes they are pleading. But it’s not dramatic—they usually aren’t moving and they aren’t waving their hands or yelling. They are having a deep, intense conversation. They are really in another place. And that’s what kavanah is. It means to aim, to focus your brain—and when you do so, davening on an ordinary day can become a life-changing activity.
Obviously, it takes time to become this kind of davener. You can start by focusing on just one or two lines. Take either the first line of Shema or one of the berachos of Shemoneh Esrei. I often suggest starting with Modim because one can easily think about all the things for which he or she has to be thankful.
That’s what kavanah is. It means to aim, to focus your brain—and when you do so, davening on an ordinary day can become a life-changing activity.
Once you have practiced this exercise you can use it anywhere. I was in the airport in Munich recently. It was the last place on earth I wanted to daven, but my Shacharis lasted over an hour and a half. I said to myself, “I am in Germany. I have to be here for whatever reason. They are all staring at me, but I will pay them no attention. I am going into another zone.” And I went into a deep davening zone, and that was that. It was a wondrous, inspiring experience for me and likely a kiddush Hashem for those who were observing the swaying, praying Jew wearing tallis and tefillin.
It is worth noting that learning how to focus intently is an especially important skill in an age when we are constantly distracted by so much communication of one kind or another. It can assist you in other areas of life that require your full attention as well, like being there 100 percent with your spouse, children or grandchildren. Or being fully present with a friend celebrating a simchah or a neighbor sitting shivah.
Real tefillah is about connecting Heaven and earth. It is very spiritual and otherworldly, but it is also practical. You might be the most successful businessman, musician or teacher. But spend a few minutes every day reminding yourself that Hashem is with you every step of the way, and that He is there to guide you and help you when you need Him. That is an awesome experience.
For years, I taught a class entitled the “Soul Spa,” because that is what real davening is. It is like being in a spiritual spa—rejuvenating and relaxing, intense yet invigorating.
Reb Zale Newman has been teaching about davening for over thirty years, including at hundreds of NCSY and kiruv programs, and at the Village Shul in Toronto. He is the author of Stairway to Heaven: A Novice’s Guide to Traditional Jewish Prayer (Maryland, 2015) and is a frequent speaker in shuls and organizations across North America.
What Is a Berachah?: The Tangerine Experience and the Impact of Davening
By Zale Newman, as told to Binyamin Ehrenkranz
A berachah is an attempt to “catch” Hashem in the moment.
Take a tangerine, for example. First, look at the orange color. (Incidentally, there are very few orange things found in the natural world: an orange fruit, flowers and the rare bird, and that’s about it.) Look at its protective skin and think about where the orange came from. Our fruit tends to come from faraway places like Morocco. Imagine all the work that went into getting the orange to your home—from a decaying seed growing into a full-fledged tree, the nutrients provided by water, the earth and sunlight, the fruit developing from the blossom and then the harvesting, packing and shipping required to bring the fruit to your local supermarket.
When you open up the orange, you find these cool little wedges filled with hundreds of fruity pellets. Bite into a wedge, and you taste refreshing, tangy, sweet juice laden with vitamin C—a unique flavor all of its own.
With this little piece of nutritious fruit, Hashem is sending you a gift. It’s love in a little ball. Hashem is saying, “I could have fed you like a cow. I could have fed you like a bug or a fish. But I didn’t. Look what I sent you from Morocco: little wedges, filled with pellets of flavorful, refreshing juice containing vitamin C to help protect you.”
If before eating a tangerine, one reflects on it this way and then says the berachah, suddenly it is no longer just an act of eating. It’s using food as a way to relate to Hashem.
And what are the results of reciting berachos this way? Not only do you begin to recognize Hashem more intensely, but you also become a more appreciative human being. You start to be more aware of what other people do for you. It makes life so much richer and so much more pleasurable.
This is also how davening can affect you. The Baal Shem Tov’s measure of whether one davened or just mumbled words is: “Are you different post-davening than you were before? Are you at least a little more aware and a little more appreciative?” The key is being “more than”: more welcoming, calmer (and less angry), more tolerant, more sensitive, more giving, happier. A true davening experience should bring more balance and a genuine spirituality to your life.