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Parshas Eikev (5770)

Tefillah (Prayer): "Bear"ly Concentrating

In this week’s Torah portion, we find the Biblical source for the obligation to pray to G-d. The Torah states: “And it will be that if listening, you will listen to My commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord, your G-d, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul …” (Deuteronomy 11:13). The Talmud in Taanis 2a explains: “‘And to serve Him with all your heart’ - now which service of G-d is performed in the heart? This must be referring to tefillah (prayer).”

By calling prayer “service of the heart”, the Torah is teaching us a very important lesson - that mental and emotional concentration is an essential component of prayer. Indeed, it has been said that “Tefillah b’li kavanah k’mo guf b’li neshamah - Prayer without concentration is like a body without a soul.”

While it is certainly important and praiseworthy to have kavanah and concentrate on the meaning of the words of all the daily/weekly prayers, it is most important to do so while reciting the Amidah. The Amidah, lit. “Standing” (Prayer), also called the Shemoneh Esrei, lit. "The Eighteen," in reference to the original number of constituent blessings, is the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy, as it is the point in the prayer service where each and every Jew actually engages in a private, one-on-one conversation with G-d. [As Judaism's prayer par excellence, the Amidah is often designated simply as tefillah ("prayer") in Rabbinic literature. Observant Jews stand and recite the Amidah at each of three prayer services in a typical weekday: morning, afternoon, and evening – in addition to the weekend services.]

In addition to concentrating on the meaning of the words that we say in the Amidah (at the very least for the first of the eighteen blessings – the Blessing of Avos) – an absolute prerequisite for fulfilling one’s obligation of daily prayer according to many Halachic authorities – one also has to have a basic awareness while reciting the Amidah that he is actually standing in front of G-d, if his prayers are to have any real meaning.

As you can imagine, it is no simple task to properly concentrate while reciting the prayers. (This assumes, of course, that we have taken the time to study the meaning of the Hebrew prayers, or, at the very least, that we say the prayers in a language we can understand. Otherwise, any talk about ‘concentration’ is a moot point.) We often just end up saying the words of the prayers without paying any attention to what we are saying or in front of whom we are standing.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, tells a story which highlights the sad state of affairs our prayers have come to these days:

A Polish Jewish peasant owes a powerful landowner, or poritz, a good sum of money. Yankel somehow convinces the poritz to forgive the debt if he, the Jew, can teach a bear how to pray.

Faced with the need to produce results, Yankel obtains a cub and hands him a prayer-book with a drop of honey on its cover and on each of the book's pages. The bear wipes up the first drop of honey with its paw and puts it on his tongue. Bright bear that he is, he opens the book and locates and eats the other drops of honey too.

The next day, Yankel gives Boo-Boo the same prayer book, this time with a drop of honey only on every other page. The bear, with a murmur of disappointment at each page bearing only words, still manages to service his sweet tooth from the others. The following day the honey is only on random pages. The bear goes through the book, wiping up what drops of sweetness he finds and licking his paw, murmuring all the rest of the time.

The Jew is now ready. Presenting the cub to the poritz, he declares the animal synagogue-worthy and hands him the here-and-there-honeyed prayer book. The bear opens it, turns a few pages, murmuring all the while, then stops a minute to lick his finger before resuming the page-turning and murmuring. The poritz is not impressed. "That's not praying," he says sternly.

"Come with me," says the Jew, leading the poritz to the local synagogue. Morning services are underway and the Jew opens the door. Lo and behold, the poritz gazes upon an entire congregation of supplicants doing an excellent imitation of the bear. The poritz has no choice but to forgive the debt.

This might be a funny story, but prayer is serious business. In fact, our Sages teach us that all the good in our lives only comes through prayer. Our Tefillos and heartfelt prayers really do make a difference. And for our prayers to be effective, we need to work on our kavanah, to at least get to the point where – as we begin the Amidah - we can focus, even for a second, on the fact that we are now standing in front of our Father in Heaven. And hopefully, over time, we can try to concentrate on the meaning of at least the very first blessing of the Amidah, so as to properly make use of this most potent tool that can bring us so much blessing.

I must add that in addition to losing the potential power of our prayers if we fail to concentrate and use them properly, it is also somewhat of a chutzpah on our part if we don’t put in the time and effort to work on being more focused during the Amidah while we stand before G-d. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoa tells the following parable:

A king wanted to reward one of his ministers for all his good work, and promised the minister that he and his entourage would be coming to the minister’s house for a special royal visit. As the day of the king’s visit drew near, the minister looked at his datebook and noticed, to his dismay, that he had already scheduled a major trip with his buddies for that very same day.

He thought to himself, “I certainly can’t give up this trip ... we have been planning it for months!” So he decided that, in order for the king not to think that he was degrading him by not being there, he would have his entire extended family greet the king on his behalf, and they would prepare for him an elegant meal, truly fit for a king.

Sure enough, the minister took off on a major trip with his friends, and the king came for his promised visit. He looked in vain for the minister among all those in the welcoming party, but couldn’t find him. The king was curious to know where he was, since he had personally gone through all this trouble planning a royal visit just to benefit his beloved minister.

When he found out that the minister had gone away on a trip, he was furious and declared, then and there, that the minister would be killed. “After all”, said the king, “I didn’t come here for the fancy meal – I have far better delicacies in my palace – I only made this visit to benefit the minister – and he didn’t even show up!”

Anyone who reads this is probably thinking that the poor minister must have lost his mind! Who goes away on a trip when the king is coming to visit him?!

But think about it for a second ... don’t we do this when we pray three times a day? When a Jew stands with his feet together and quietly recites the Amidah, G-d, as it were, comes down in all His glory from His celestial abode just to hear our prayers and grant our requests. And where are we at the time of this thrice-daily “royal visit”? We are often away on a major “trip” – with our minds wandering and our thoughts flying all around the globe – and are nowhere to be found at the time when the King of all Kings comes to personally help us with all that we need. Yikes!

So there we have another good reason why we should take a little time off from our busy schedules to look through the translation and basic commentary (for example, in the Artscroll Siddur prayer book) of at least the first blessing of the Amidah – hey, if we’re praying anyway, we might as well do it in the most effective way!

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