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By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

How We Daven 1

By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

Rambam loses no time at the beginning of Hilchos Tefillah in placing davening in a mitzvah universe of its own. Unlike so many practical, activity-oriented mitzvos, prayer is “avodah,” a Divine “service,” albeit performed in the heart.

Rambam proceeds to dissect this unique mitzvah, but we are puzzled by some of the components. We find it difficult to understand why all of these pieces are so valuable in painting a spiritual canvas of davening. Why is the regularity so important – that we “pray and entreat each day?” Why is it essential that we “relate His praises?” And what is so spiritual and so essential about “asking for our needs…in requests and entreaties?” If and when a person needs something, let him simply go the One who can fill his request? Why do we elevate this practice into the very definition of what prayer is about?

The Ari z”l pithily observed that the holy intentions of davening bring about the union of HKBH and His Shechinah. At the heart of this mystical teaching stands the very down to earth central element of prayer. Ultimately, tefillah is about union. Davening unites us with Hashem. This devekus is so potent, that it spills over to the Upper Worlds, where it brings HKBH and the Shechinah together in a mystical union.

When this realization penetrates, we have little trouble understanding all the items that the Rambam includes. Each one plays a role in bringing us close to Hashem, in leading us to devekus.

First, Rambam tells us that a person should “pray and entreat each day.” He does not mean that we turn to Hashem for our needs – he mentions doing that at a later point. Rather, Rambam tells us that the essence of davening is pouring out our souls, from a heart full of love into the heart of the One we love. A more elevated subcategory of this emotional expression is pouring out our souls specifically about spiritual needs, whether they are born of intense longing for Hashem, or of the pain of feeling distant from Him, removed from the closeness we would like to feel.

Rambam then speaks about declaring Hashem’s praise. This, too, is difficult to grasp at first. Of what value are the praises of puny, uncomprehending Man, who cannot begin to understand the greatness of his Creator? Whatever words he offers actually diminish Hashem’s honor, rather than add to it, because he so completely understates – no matter how hard he tries – Hashem’s greatness. (The gemara [2] actually mocks the person who is lavish in his praise of Hashem: “Have you completely accounted for all His praises?”)

We can find an analogy to the value of declaring His praises in the singing of shirah. Shirah is the expression of the devekus we feel for Hashem. Its source is the longing for Him, the thirst for closeness that cannot be slaked.

Maharal explains even more. Shirah, he says, is appropriate to the Jewish people, because they are described as Hashem’s children. This is turn means that in them we sense the complete dependence of one for the other; we can see in their existence no other source other than the Divine. There is no pretense of being able to make it on their own.

Jews can be described as the “effects” gravitating to their Cause. Maharal takes up this theme to explain the medrash that at the crossing of the Sea, a nursing child turned away from its mother when it saw the Shechinah, and it, too, recited the Song of the Sea. Ordinarily, the bond between baby and mother is that of effect and cause. The child is completely dependent upon and linked to the mother that both gave birth to it and continues to supply it with all of it needs. When the Shechinah manifested itself at the Sea, however, the child discovered its more fundamental Cause, and turned towards it in declaration of that dependence. This thought gives voice to the mode of address of Klal Yisroel to HKBH in singing shirah: a declaration of full and absolute dependence.

The statement of connection and dependence is not limited to joyous declaration through shirah. In truth, it applies to the opposite as well. Feelings of pain and suffering can also be a kind of shirah, in that they too can express profound longing for Hashem. A person can sense Hashem’s love for him in the midst of, or more accurately because of, the suffering he endures. He can sense that Hashem afflicts him only to lovingly guide him in a different direction.

Succinctly put, a person cannot sing any kind of shirah with stunted, suppressed feelings, nor with a closed-up mind and heart. Shirah can only come from emotions whose restraints have loosened, so that they are developed and magnified.

When our emotions are set free in this way, the possibilities for shirah multiply. We then participate in shirah not only through expansiveness, but even in our travail. To be sure, we recite a from of shirah when we properly read from pesukei de-zimrah, the selections of praise in Tehillim in the morning prayer: “Praise Hashem from the heavens. Praise Him in the heights….Praise Him, sun and moon; praise Him, all bright stars…Praise Hashem from the earth, sea giants and all watery depths. Fire and hail, snow and vapor, raging wind fulfilling His word.” [3] There is a form of shirah, however, implicit as well in our heartfelt plea to Him: “Hashem, do not rebuke me in Your anger, nor chastise me in Your rage. Favor me, Hashem, for I am feeble.” [4] “How long, Hashem, will you endlessly forget me? How long will You hide Your face from me?” [5] is part of a section of Tehillim called mizmor, not lamentation. Even “O G-d, the nations have entered into Your inheritance. They have defiled the Sanctuary of Your holiness” [6] is part of a mizmor. For those who composed these lines, all was shirah. Dovid found himself in the wilderness, a far from the precincts of kedushah, and through it expressed his longing for Hashem: “O G-d, You are my G-d. I seek You. My soul thirsts for You. My flesh longs for You.” [7]

On Shabbos, we elevate this mode of davening to a position of exclusivity. We eliminate all the requests and petitions from the middle section of Shemonah Esrei, and instead wax lyical about the specialness of Shabbos! During the week, our prayer combines goals and means of achieving them. We spend ample time expressing our vulnerabilities, our wants and desires, and directly beseech Hashem for solutions. We also seek closeness to Hashem through the shirah of praising Him. On Shabbos, when we taste of the experience of olam habo, we elect only the more elevated of the two modes, and shift entirely to giving voice to our longing and desire for Him. We act similarly on Yom Tov, where the musaf speaks of our longing for Him in the midst of our galus, exiled without the closeness of the Beis Ha- Mikdosh. On the Yamim Noraim, we are even more focused. We spend an enormous amount of time in shirah – all of it effectively connected to one theme: our intense desire to see Hashem’s malchus fully reign over the entire world.

Rambam continues with a third element of tefillah, one we mentioned above in passing. We ask Hashem for all we need. We might think that this is self-centered and unholy. [8] Maharal [9] explains that the opposite is true. By turning to Hashem for every need, large and small, we negate our self-sufficiency and self- importance. Instead, we realize that we are utterly dependent upon Him – and therefore inexorably attached to him, as surely as a tree is attached to the ground.

The daily schedule of tefillah allows us to refine this idea of complete dependence, to experience it with all parts of our being.

In the first moments of consciousness, our basic physicality resists any suggestion of disturbing the sweetness and tranquility of sleep, or lying dormant and inactive. Rising to daven shacharis, we submit ourselves physically to His service.

Sometime at the height of our frenetic activity to wring as much productivity out of our working time as possible, we pause for mincha. In so doing, we attach our monetary interests entirely to Him.

After dark, when we contend with work-induced exhaustion, it is natural that we should want nothing more than calm, solitude, and rest. We disturb the stillness and serenity that we seek in our spirits by interrupting once more, and turning to Hashem at maariv. We thus subjugate our spirits to Him as well.

Between the different daily tefillos, then, we emphasize our complete reliance upon Him, to the point that we hold back none of the different parts of ourselves – physical, monetary, spiritual. In everything we are, we are really only Him. This understanding is what we call Elokus – His serving as the recognized, perceived power behind all of us and everything.

It is natural to look out for ourselves, to satisfy our ordinary wants and desires. Each of us is at the center of our own universe. Nothing is as real to us as our own experience, because everything we think or know or sense exists within our own experience. According to this passage in Maharal, in our quest to look out for ourselves, we come to realize that we are not so real, and not so central. We gradually understand that the ultimate reality, and the only ultimate existence, is Hashem Himself.

Paradoxically, it is the part of prayer that seems most us-centered – our laundry list of needs and wants – that leads us to the conclusion that it is not about us at all.

1. Based on Nesivos Shalom, vol. 1 pgs. 181-185
2. Berachos 33B
3. Tehillim 148
4. Tehillim 6
5. Tehillim 13
6. Tehillim 79:1
7. Tehillim 63:1-2
8. Indeed, people outside the observant community who begin to study traditional Judaism often voice their discomfort with attaching so much spiritual significance to what seems to be a shopping spree in a Heavenly supermarket
9. Nesiv He-Avodah, chap. 3

Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and