Parshas Shoftim (5774)
The Amidah (lit. “The Standing [Prayer]"), also called the Shemoneh Esrei (lit. "The Eighteen", in reference to the original number of constituent blessings; there are now nineteen), is the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy. As Judaism's central prayer, the Amidah is often designated simply as Tefillah ("Prayer") in Rabbinic literature.
The Amidah is the climax of the thrice-daily prayer service - the time when we get to have an intimate, “one-on-one” conversation with G-d. It is therefore extremely important to have kavanah – concentration on the meaning of the words – while reciting the Amidah. The rabbis teach us that a prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul.
Ideally, one must concentrate on the meaning of all of the words in the entire Amidah. Sometimes, however, it may be difficult to maintain that level of concentration and focus. Minimally, one should have kavanah for at least the first blessing of the Amidah.
One who recited the Amidah but did not have kavanah during the first blessing has not fulfilled his obligation of daily prayer. Interestingly, the Halachah (Jewish law) teaches that he may not, however, repeat the Amidah, since there is a strong possibility that he will not have the proper kavanah the second time either.
The scary thing is that it is possible for someone to go through his entire life praying three times a day in the synagogue and never once have fulfilled his obligation of tefillah – because he stood in front of G-d and recited the Amidah yet he didn’t have a clue what he was saying to Him. How tragic!
However, all is not lost. The Chasam Sofer in his commentary to this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shoftim, tells us an amazing thing about the spiritual power of prayer which should give all of us hope. He writes: “The power of prayer is so great, that if a person were to pray one single prayer with perfect concentration and the purest intent, that single prayer has the power to gather together all the other prayers that one may have cast away and prayed without the proper thought throughout the year, and bring them all up to be accepted in front of the Heavenly throne.”
We are now in the Hebrew month of Elul, a month of prayer and reflection in preparation for the upcoming High Holidays. This is a good time for us to reflect on our prayers and to make sure the next time we pray that we have proper kavanah for at least the first blessing of the Amidah. This way, we will fulfill our tefillah obligation and will hopefully be able to gather together all our previous prayers that were lost due to a lack of concentration and send them all Heavenward.
To this end, I bring you the Complete Idiot’s Guide to the First Blessing of the Amidah – a compendium of meanings, explanations and meditations [based almost entirely on the writings of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his book Jewish Meditation] that you can think, feel, and focus on while reciting the first blessing of the Amidah. [Please note: The transliterated Hebrew words are in bold; the English words following them in parentheses represent the bare minimum meanings one should focus on while reciting the Hebrew words.] Enjoy!
Here are some key points to remember when reciting the Amidah:
1. Prayer is a private and intimate conversation with G-d
2. Focus and meditate for a few seconds on the meaning of each (Hebrew) word
3. It’s best to remain relatively still while praying
[Opening prayer] Adonai Sefasai Tiftach, U’fi Yaggid Teheelasecha (My L-ord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise.) Think: G-d help me pray to You properly, and remove any blocks and inhibitions that would stop me from experiencing this Divine encounter the way I should.
Baruch (Blessed) Think: G-d’s Immanent Presence is the Source of all blessing. Feel: G-d is very close, permeating the very air around me, wants me to be close to Him. [We bow when we say Baruch to indicate that we are aware that G-d is immanent, and we are bowing to this Presence.]
Atah (are You) Think: I am speaking directly with G-d. Feel: The Divine is directly in front of me and I can feel all His love, strength and awe.
Ado-nai (L-ord) Think: (when focusing on G-d’s written but ineffable Name - Yud-Hey-Vuv-Hey) He is above Space and Time and totally different from anything else in creation; (and when focusing on the way G-d’s name is read - Ado-nai) He is Lord and Master of all creation. Feel: I am speaking to an Absolute Other Who I can also relate to as a Being.
Elo-heinu (our G-d) Think: As far above us as He is, G-d allows us to address Him as “our G-d”, as if, in a sense, He belonged to us, and He wants us to experience His closeness. Feel: What a gift that this Infinite Being allows us to call Him “ours” and experience Him for ourselves.
Vei’lohei Avoseinu (and the G-d of our forefathers) Think: This experience of G-d is not something we are inventing, but rather it is part of a tradition that goes back to our earliest ancestors. Feel: I am a link in an unbroken chain of tradition going all the way back to our Patriarchs.
Elo-hei Avrohom, Elo-hei Yitzchak, Vei’lo-hei Yaakov (G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob) Think: The Patriarchs attained the ultimate experience of G-d, each in his own way; Abraham’s primary experience of G-d was that of His greatness, whereas Isaac experienced G-d’s strength and Jacob experienced His awesomeness. Feel: Our forefathers experienced such a high level of closeness to G-d that they were willing to change their lives because of it.
Ha’Eil (G-d) Think: The powerful force that we know as G-d is …..
Hagadol (the great) Think: G-d is immensely great; compared to Him, the universe is less than a mote of dust. And with all that greatness, He is still ready to listen to the voice of an infinitesimal creature, so there can be no greater love. Feel: Dwell on the concept of greatness in its purest form, and let this feeling of greatness reverberate through your entire being, until you can catch a glimpse of what it means in relation to G-d.
Hageebor (the mighty) Think: G-d is incredibly strong, stronger than anything we can imagine. Feel: Concentrate on strength in its pure form, then apply it to G-d.
V’hanora (the awesome) Think: When you become aware of G-d’s greatness and strength, you are overcome with a feeling of awe. Feel: The awe of the Al-mighty is not a frightening experience, but a sweet and beautiful awe, the awe that comes from standing in the presence of the Infinite.
Eil Elyon (the supreme G-d) Think: Even though we have described G-d as being great, strong and awesome, we must realize that G-d is above all these, and transcends any thought that we can possibly have. Feel: G-d is beyond the sky, beyond the stars, beyond the heavens, and even beyond the spiritual realm.
Gomeil Chasadim Tovim (Who bestows beneficial kindnesses) Think: Although G-d is higher than any thought can conceive, He still does things that we can perceive as being kind and good. Feel: Become aware of G-d’s infinite goodness and kindness in all He does for us individually even though He is so high and elevated above us.
V’konei Hakol (and owns everything) Think: All creation is G-d’s property, and He can do with it as He wills. Feel: We are G-d’s possessions, and, as such, are cherished by Him.
V’zocheir Chasdei Avos U’meivee Go’eil Livnei V’neihem (Who recalls the kindnesses of the Patriarchs and brings a Redeemer to their children) Think: G-d shares our memory of the Patriarchs who brought G-d consciousness to the world, and looks at their love for Him as a reason to remain close to their descendants no matter what happens. Feel: G-d loves us and considers us special because he loves the special people from whom we descend, and whose special qualities are embedded within us.
L’maan Shemo B’ahavah (for His Name’s sake, with love) Think: G-d will bring the Redeemer for all of us so that His consciousness and goodness – as represented by His name and essence – be spread to all humanity – which is the ultimate act of love. Feel: All G-d wants from mankind – and steers all of history to that end - is our ultimate perfection through being close with Him. There is no greater act of love. We should feel that love and be totally saturated by it.
[The following four words are the key to the entire Amidah. Even if one has said the first parts of this paragraph without proper concentration, if these four words are said properly, they will bring the worshiper to such a closeness to G-d that the rest of the Amidah will be perfect.]
Melech (O King) Think: G-d is our king, and we are His subjects. Feel: G-d is majestic but distant. Help is available from Him, but not closely available.
Ozeir (Helper) Think: G-d is really much closer than a king. He is a “helper” Whom we can readily approach. Feel: G-d is so close to me that I can call on Him at any time and He will be there for me.
U’Moshee-ah (and Rescuer) Think: G-d is much closer than even a helper – He is a rescuer – meaning that He is available to save me when I am drowning in a river; He is right there to jump in and pull me out. Feel: G-d is always close enough to rescue me, just when I need it.
U’Magein (and Shield) Think: A shield is even closer than a rescuer. When an arrow is flying at me, there is no time for even the rescuer to intercept it. The shield must be there in place – right in front of me. G-d is that shield. Feel: G-d is all around me, surrounding me like a suit of divine armor. I feel that I am being protected by G-d on all sides, so that nothing in the world can harm me.
[At the beginning of the blessing, we were aware of G-d’s presence, but only in an abstract sense. At the end, our consciousness of G-d’s presence is such that it is as tangible and palpable as a shield. To indicate our new awareness, we say Baruch and bow a second time.]
Baruch (Blessed) Think: G-d’s Immanent Presence is the Source of all blessing. Feel: G-d is very close, permeating the very air around me, wants me to be close to Him.
Atah (are You) Think: I am speaking directly with G-d. Feel: the Divine is directly in front of me and I can feel all His love, strength and awe.
Ado-nai (L-ord) Think: (when focusing on G-d’s written but ineffable Name - Yud-Hey-Vuv-Hey) He is above Space and Time and totally different from anything else in creation; (and when focusing on the way G-d’s name is read - Ado-nai) He is L-ord and Master of all creation. Feel: I am speaking to an Absolute Other Who I can also relate to as a Being.
Magein Avraham (Shield of Abraham) Think: The one person who reached the level where he could constantly see G-d as his shield was Abraham. He was always aware of G-d being very close to him, surrounding him on a most immanent level. Feel: We aspire to reach the level of Abraham and to feel G-d as part of our lives at all times.