OU President Moishe (Mark) Bane discusses some of the challenges of prayer with Rabbi Binyomin Eisenberger, a prominent New York rav who serves as the leader of Khal Heichal Hatefillah in Boro Park, New York. Rav Eisenberger delivers shiurim throughout the New York area and is the author of Mesillos HaNevi’im on Nach and Mesillos Bilvavam on the weekly parashah.
Moishe Bane: Why is tefillah such a difficult mitzvah for so many?
Rabbi Eisenberger: The challenges we face with tefillah reflect a general struggle we experience in our avodas Hashem. First, some background is necessary. After Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), when Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t descend from the mountain when Bnei Yisrael expected him to, they committed what is considered one of the greatest sins of all time: Chet Ha’egel, the Sin of the Golden Calf. Upon descending from the mountain and hearing what was going on in the camp, Moshe Rabbeinu proceeded to break the Luchos, the Tablets. In response to this, Hakadosh Baruch Hu said, “Yasher koach she’shibarta, Thank you for breaking them.” Why did Moshe break the Luchos? And even more puzzling, why is Hashem thanking him for breaking them?
The Meshech Chachmah, as well as other sefarim, explains that Am Yisrael failed to realize that Yiddishkeit is all about connecting to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and all of the mitzvos are the means to achieve that. Even Moshe Rabbeinu, who reached the level of being “chetzyo ul’maalah Elokim, chetzyo ul’matah ish—partially Godly and partially of this world,” served as an intermediary between us and Hakadosh Baruch Hu. If one fails to realize that mitzvos or other intermediaries are but a means to a goal, and the means become a goal in and of itself—the rebbe or the mitzvah becomes the focal point instead of Hashem—that’s no longer Yiddishkeit. That is, in fact, a modernized version of Chet Ha’egel. Despite the fact that Moshe didn’t appear at the anticipated time, Am Yisrael should have maintained their own connection with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. When Moshe Rabbeinu saw that on some level, Bnei Yisrael deified him, he realized the potential danger in the Luchos; he feared the Luchos would be reduced to ceremonial objects that would be deified as well. So Moshe Rabbeinu shattered them, as if to say, “Let’s see if Am Yisrael can connect to Hakadosh Baruch Hu without them.” Only afterward, when the Jewish nation proved that they could bond with Hakadosh Baruch Hu directly and understand that ultimately, that’s the entire purpose of Torah and mitzvos, did Hakadosh Baruch Hu consent to give Klal Yisrael the Luchos Sheniyos (Second Tablets).
All of the mitzvos are a means toward one goal—deveikus (cleaving to Hashem). But if one’s shemiras hamitzvos is not about deveikus, about being a mevakesh (a seeker of Hashem), and one’s Torah observance is reduced to the superficial performance of mitzvos—such as Shabbos, kashrus and taharas hamishpachah—then tefillah will suffer the most. This is because tefillah is the expression of the intimate connection between an individual and Hashem.
Tefillah is essentially focusing on the concept that one is always standing before Hashem, shivisi Hashem l’negdi samid. According to halachah, one is not even allowed to pass in front of someone who is davening Shemoneh Esrei because he’s in the midst of having a conversation with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. When one manages to internalize this reality, it is only natural that he will want to pour out his heart in gratitude and beseech Hashem for all of his needs.
Moishe Bane: Is spontaneous prayer more effective than structured tefillah?
Rabbi Eisenberger: Before Ezra and his beis din established the nusach hatefillah, there was no fixed time and no specific form of prayer. Tefillah meant that every day, when one felt the urge to pray, he turned to Hashem and spoke to Him. One instinctively felt the need to thank Hashem for everything and plead with Him for that which he was missing. Subsequently, Ezra and his beis din formalized the prayers. The benefit of having a nusach is that nowadays, anyone can simply open a siddur and find an appropriate expression of his appreciation, desires and needs. As an aside, the words of the tefillos themselves have special spiritual powers as well as mystical meanings—in fact, even the number of letters contained in the words of the prayers, as well as the numerical value of the words have significance. But there’s a drawback to having a formalized text for the prayers. Suddenly, instead of being an organic way of communicating with Hashem, tefillah can now become something cold, totally external, reflecting no kesher (connection), no regesh (fervor), no awareness of shivisi Hashem l’negdi samid. You leave shul and somebody asks you, “What did you say to Hashem today?” And you say, “Oh, I didn’t realize I was talking to Hashem—but I davened!”
Our avodah (task) today is basically to regain the penimius (essence) of tefillah so that it is not a davar chitzoni, an external act. If one performs a mitzvah even without any kavanah (thoughtful intent), it registers; it’s almost like it’s bar-coded. As long as one learns Torah, it makes an impact. Tefillah, however, is different. By definition, it requires an emotional investment. “‘U’le’avdo bechol levavchem;’ eizohu avodah she’balev, zo tefillah—‘And to serve Him with all of your heart;’ what is service of the heart? It is prayer.” (Tannit 2a) There needs to be an understanding that one is conversing with Hashem.
Moishe Bane: Does tefillah have to be an emotional experience?
Rabbi Eisenberger: You don’t need to become emotional during davening. But you have to have peace of mind in order to daven. You can’t be distracted by the millions of different distractions that we have today, more so than in any previous generation because we carry the distractions with us into shul. If one has the intellectual awareness of Hashem’s presence, and focuses on the fact that Hashem is behind everything that’s going on in his life, it’s only natural for that to result in some kind of emotional experience. When one walks into shul, one should feel “I’m burdened, I’m troubled, et cetera.” But when one walks out of shul, he should feel a certain sense of relief—not because all of his questions were answered or his requests were fulfilled, but just the experience of davening and connecting should provide a sense of comfort and relief.
There’s a beautiful parable recounted by the Chofetz Chaim. A man went to a doctor and received a grim diagnosis. For months, his wife pleaded with him to get a second opinion from a top specialist, and he finally agreed to go. Upon returning home from the visit, he turned to his wife and said, “You know, I finally met the friend of a lifetime, someone who understands me, someone with whom I can really communicate.” And his wife said, “I sent you to get a second opinion regarding your illness. I sent you to get a cure. Who cares about making friends?” The Chofetz Chaim explains that the wife in the parable is, of course, right. The point of the visit was to procure a cure, not to create a relationship.
When it comes to tefillah, however, it is solely about the relationship. Take, for instance, an individual who, after praying, turns to his friend and says, “You know I feel so connected to Hashem.” His friend says, “Yes, but did you get what you wanted (a raise, a new car, et cetera)? Did you benefit in any way?” The answer is, of course, yes. The deepening of the relationship is the reward. The primary benefit of prayer is the relationship that develops—any other gain he may have achieved from praying is a bonus. The needs themselves are there to cause one to turn to Hashem and deepen his connection to his Creator.
Moishe Bane: How does a person who never experienced such an emotional connection achieve it? What steps can he take to get to that point?
Rabbi Eisenberger: I don’t think the answer relates only to tefillah; it concerns one’s general attitude toward living a Torah life. The Zohar Hakadosh refers to taryag mitzvos as “taryag ittin,” 613 different ways to connect to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Tzitzis gives you one kind of connection, tefillin a different connection, limud haTorah another, et cetera. But in each case you need to realize you’re making a connection with Hashem. When you don your tallis and tefillin, you need to realize that this is a way to deepen your relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
Moishe Bane: But those who don’t understand the words of the tefillah have an especially difficult time making the experience meaningful.
Rabbi Eisenberger: If one doesn’t understand the words in Shemoneh Esrei, for example, it’s very difficult to daven with feeling. It’s similar to telling an individual to call a friend, but to speak to him in Spanish, when his mother tongue is English and he doesn’t speak a word of Spanish. Now one could hand him a paper with Spanish words on it, which he could then read, but if he wants to converse with someone he loves and cares for, and he’s speaking a language that he totally doesn’t understand, it’s going to be difficult.
Nevertheless, davening only in one’s native tongue is not a perfect solution either. Lashon Kodesh has a kedushah (holiness) irrespective whether or not one understands the words. The Chofetz Chaim discusses this in Hilchos Krias Shema. A siddur with a translation helps, but it’s limited because there isn’t enough time to accomplish all that needs to be accomplished—you have to read the Hebrew, understand the translation and connect to Hashem all in a matter of half an hour. One suggestion is to daven the nusach hatefillah with a concerted effort to understand the words; additionally, we should actually speak to Hashem in our very own language, using our very own words where permitted during tefillah—as well as before and after. By engaging in informal conversations with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, we set the tone for a personal connection to the one and only Hashem Who loves us and eagerly awaits our tefillos. This applies to all communities—even in communites where individuals understand Hebrew and are Jewishly well-educated; talking to Hakadosh Baruch Hu in one’s own language creates a different kind of connection.
One can talk to Hakadosh Baruch Hu anywhere. A shul, however, does have a special kedushah. Every place where there’s a minyan, there’s hashra’as haShechinah, the Divine Presence is found.
Moishe Bane: What can one do to deepen his tefillah experience?
Rabbi Eisenberger: There’s no easy way. One needs to study the tefillos. And there are many sefarim out there, accessible and in English. Some help with understanding the peshat of the prayers, some offer a deeper dimension.
An example: in the siddur, there are so many different ways to refer to Hakadosh Baruch Hu—Keil, Tzevakos, Shakkai, Yud Kei Vav Kei, Elokim, Elokeinu. Why? Each time the siddur refers to Hakadosh Baruch Hu with a different “Name,” there’s a reason, a significance to that. We are so sophisticated today in our understanding of many different subjects. But when it comes to Yiddishkeit, very often our understanding remains on a pre-1A level. Some of us are still davening Shemoneh Esrei like we did when we were back in elementary school. Shouldn’t we take the time to see the depth there is? No one gets into a cockpit without going through the training. So why would you spend your life davening three times a day every day without devoting at least a little time to understand what you are saying?
Moishe Bane: Women don’t have an obligation to go to shul and daven with a minyan. Is that intended to give them a different tefillah opportunity?
Rabbi Eisenberger: Women by virtue of the beautiful nature that Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave them make good daveners. Mystically speaking, they have less difficulty acknowledging their vulnerabilities.
While women are exempt from minyan and formal prayer, they’re not exempt from having a relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu and expressing it through tefillah. There are different opinions regarding their halachic obligations, but irrespective of that, women can turn to Hakadosh Baruch Hu any time throughout the day and say, “Hashem, please make my day successful, et cetera.” Just talking to Hashem from one’s heart in one’s own language is a very high level of tefillah.
For those who have a hard time acknowledging their vulnerability and dependency on Hakadosh Baruch Hu, davening can be difficult. When it comes to tefillah, one needs to be humble. When one realizes how vulnerable he is, and how profoundly he needs Hakadosh Baruch Hu, he can connect in a very deep way. One who believes “kochi v’otzem yadi”—that he is in charge of his own destiny, and that through his own intelligence, or wealth or influence, he is pulling the strings of his life and getting things done—is going to have a hard time with tefillah.
Moishe Bane: Let’s shift for a moment and discuss children and tefillah. At what age should a child be brought to shul?
Rabbi Eisenberger: A child can be brought to shul when he or she can participate and daven; even if he’s not davening the entire time, he should not be spending the time running around and disturbing others. Parents should not push children to go to shul before they are actually ready to spend the time in shul properly. It’s also important that children have positive experiences and warm feelings about shul so that they’ll be drawn to it later in life. If young children, for example, associate shul with the candies they get from the candy man, shul is then associated with something sweet. It’s no different from the honey that we put on the aleph beis to ensure that a young child’s first experience with learning Torah is sweet.
Moishe Bane: Is it preferable for teens to daven with a teen minyan or to daven with their parents?
Rabbi Eisenberger: I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer. It depends on the shul. Some shuls can create an atmosphere where teenagers can stand side by side with their fathers and be happy about it. Other shuls can’t. I’ve been in shuls where teens are sent to the amud or serve as gabbai; in some shuls, the speed and the rhythm of the tefillah work for teenagers, and in other shuls, they don’t. A teenager definitely needs to be happy in shul. He needs to be comfortable.
Moishe Bane: How do we train adolescents to have kavanah, when teens have such a hard time focusing on anything for more than a few minutes?
Rabbi Eisenberger: I was in a shul the other day davening Shacharis and I couldn’t help but notice a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old boy, in middle of davening, continuously taking his phone out of his pocket. This is one of the spiritual challenges of our time. But this problem does not only apply to tefillah. Because of the constant distractions, it can be difficult to have an ordinary conversation with another individual. You sit in an airport and see two people sitting next to each other, but each one is in his or her own world. People can no longer embrace an individual and give him five undisturbed minutes. I once heard that one of the signs of the coming of Mashiach is when Jews will not even be able to concentrate on the words “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.” There will be a time when even those few words will require a level of concentration that we simply don’t have.
People don’t have the menuchas hanefesh (tranquility) to focus. And that’s actually the gift of Shabbos, because Shabbos forces us to disconnect; and by disconnecting, we are able to connect.
It is rare to find the word “taavah,” desire, in relation to Hashem. But Chazal say that “Hakadosh Baruch Hu misaveh l’tefillasam shel tzaddikim,” Hashem desires the tefillos of tzaddikim. In the spirit of “amech kulam tzaddikim, [in truth] all of Israel are tzaddikim,” Hashem is waiting to hear all of our tefillos.