It’s 7:25 am
…and I’m standing in the Beis Medrish, eyes closed, having just taken three steps forward. The study hall/shul of the Shapells Darchi Noam Yeshiva is silent. I’m in a deep level of concentration. I’m not always able to get here, but when I am it’s serene, transcendent. I go slowly, contemplating each word. Even as the rest of the students finish their Shemoneh Esrei and start speaking the rest of the service aloud, I’ll still be in the middle of my silent prayer.
This isn’t uncommon for me.
What is uncommon is that when I step back out of the Shemoneh Esrei, the serenity remains. Normally the heightened awareness and mindfulness fall away as soon as the service ends. But not today. Today I get to take it with me.
The best way I can describe it is an elevated understanding of everything being connected. There is appreciation that each and every person around you has been uniquely selected to affect you in some way for the better. Each situation, from the construction noises that rattle the room to the last piece of chicken being taken just before you get to the food hall, has been designed for you to grow. Everything around you can be appreciated as a gift if you’re only willing to view it that way. And not only for your enjoyment, but as a way to develop your connection with HaKadosh Bruchu.
I’ve figured out the secret and the rest of my life will be wonderful.
It’s 2:59 pm
We’ve just finished Mincha, the afternoon prayer, and I had virtually no concentration. Despite my efforts to concentrate, I blew through five prayers without even realizing I had read them. Now we’re in the middle of announcements and the rabbi keeps droning on about some Halacha lesson. I can’t follow him to save my life. A wave of tiredness hits me (as it usually does after lunch) and I’m dreading the four hours of classes ahead of me. When we finally break, I make my way to the narrow coffee station. But several students are already there, congregating, obstructing the path as they chat about… I don’t know… Bnei Brak? Yei-oosh? As I stand there, trying to hint that I want to get in, another student pushes me aside and joins them.
Needless to say, the serenity from the morning did not last.
Davening isn’t easy. It’s not easy to do three times a day. It’s not easy to do it with nine other men, at their times, at their pace. And it’s certainly not easy to do it with concentration and authentic intention. But if that weren’t enough, according to this week’s parsha, Ki Savo, we’re supposed always to do it with joy.
Curses on Curses on Curses
Ki Savo contains quite possible the most disturbing section in all of Torah. For almost a whole aliyah (and an exceptionally long one at that) the Torah lists horrible curse after horrible curse that will plague the Jewish people should they not follow the commandments. Starting with verse 16 of chapter 28 in Devarim, the curses go on for 50 verses. And if you know Jewish history, you know many of these have come true. But then, suddenly in the middle is the following verse,
“Since you did not serve Hashem, your God, with joy and good-heartedness from an abundance of everything.” (28:47)
This is a tremendous demand the Torah is making. Is God some outraged parent so who insists his children not only eat every bite of their dinner, but are going to like it too? Of course not. But it is disturbing that the Torah is commanding us to feel an emotion. Is that fair? Is that even possible?
Rabbi Noach Weinberg used to say that the natural state of a human being is joy. Where do we see this? Go to an amusement park and watch people exit from the biggest, scariest, craziest rollercoaster. After the thrill of a simulated life or death situation, patrons are all enthralled with ecstasy. But only after minutes, they start to get bogged down. The heat, the exorbitant price of a coke, the reality of the hours-long wait in the mile-long line for the next ride. It’s when we get caught up in our problems that we lose touch with our natural state.
The trick is not letting our problems get in our way. That’s where emunah comes in. When we can do something about our problems, do something about them. When we can’t, focus on what’s in front of you and trust that God will help you with the rest.
Joy as a Verb
Apart from letting things get us down, there is also a tremendous power to actively living with joy. For one, happiness is contagious. It uplifts and it inspires. But to be doing mitzvahs with joy not only fulfills the mitzvah you’re performing, it creates a ripple effect for whomever sees you do it. Because when they see you, enthusiastic and elated, they just might think, “Wow, that guy’s living right. I want whatever he’s drinking.” In short, joy glorifies the mitzvah and fulfills being a light unto the nations in the most potent way.
But it’s still hard. It’s easy to let praying become rote and let doing mitzvahs feel like a chore. So what do you do? I have found for myself three key mentalities/tactics that I try to remind myself of before I begin my Shemoneh Esrei.
- You’re talking to God
You’d think this would be a given. I’m sad to say that too many times I find myself thinking about lunch or whatever else I need to do in my day without even realizing it. But if I keep in mind that I’m actually talking to Someone, it’s a game changer. Sometimes I can talk to God, like I was talking to a friend. Sometimes God feels far away and I have to aim my prayers like arrows to Heaven. But what’s key is that the words have a destination and are being received.
- Want what you’re praying for
The prayers that I’m most likely to recite aimlessly are the ones that are vague or that I have less of a connection to; i.e. Redemption, the Temple Service, the prayer for the Righteous. But when I get to the Refuah Shlema prayer (health and healing) I suddenly snap back into full attention. Why? Because I have real names of people I know personally who I’m praying for. Why don’t I have this much concentration for these other prayers? Because I’ve not made them real. But taking the time to identify why they have a place in the Shemoneh Esrei and how I can have a personal connection is the first step necessary to make them real. Then you have to ask yourself, do I want these things? If not? Perhaps learn more about them. If that doesn’t help, then consider if this particular prayer would be good for the Jewish people as a whole.
- Know your words have an effect
It’s easy to feel like your prayers are going to the wind. Many of us have been davening for the same things for years. Money, marriage, health, Moshiach, a kosher Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles (please Hashem, someday soon!) And even though we may not always get what we want, according to the Nefesh HaChaim, our words have tremendous power. Words take thoughts from the abstract cloud of our mind and brings them into reality. Just as God spoke creation into existence, so to do we have such a power on a Kabbalistic level. As we say the words of the Shemoneh Esrei, it brings them into existence a little more and a little more. What do you want to bring into the world with your words? Blessing or curses?
These tools are great for tapping into concentration and authenticity. But from that, knowing what you’re doing is real and needed is the very definition of acting with meaning. That in and of itself should bring you to a state of joy. But if it doesn’t, and you feel that you’re still falling into rote, reading prayers without thinking, pause for a second. Acknowledge that you’ve not been on target thus far, then make the decision to continue from then on with concentration. At that point, you’ve made the decision to be present and to try. Enduring and persistence always leads to growth. And growth is always something to find joy in.