Prayer in an Age of Distraction

by Zach Truboff

As early as the Talmud Yerushalmi, we find accounts of the struggle to be mindful while praying. Rabbi Matanyah proclaimed that he would thank his head for bowing of its own accord when he reached the modim section of the shemoneh esreh, implying that his prayer was an unconscious act, lacking the ideal spiritual focus.

In the ensuing centuries, prayer hasn’t gotten any easier, and in recent years new problems have emerged. Ask any shul rabbi what is one of the things they most detest, and they will probably say it is the sound of a cell phone ringing during the silent amidah. Cell phones, long seen as an anathema in the Haredi community, have recently come to be viewed by the Modern Orthodox community as a potential danger to spiritual life. It recently made the news when a prominent Modern Orthodox synagogue banned all cell phones from daily minyan, requiring those attending to place them in a secure container during services.

The problem with cell phones, however, is more pernicious than the distraction of their constant beeping and vibrating. The real danger lies in the ceaseless allure of social media beckoning from the digital screens of today’s smartphones. At its heart, prayer requires a sense of penimiyut, or inwardness. In order to pray, one must turn to an inner world where the words of prayer are transformed from a collection of ancient texts to the authentic outpourings of the soul.

Though often done in the presence of others, prayer requires us to look inward to focus solely on God and ourselves. Unfortunately, many of us utilize our smartphones to place our inner world on display for all to see, thereby lessening its value. In the words of one cultural critic:

The self is increasingly located in its various identities rather than in the internal world of its passions and desires … The self-fashioned internet activist is shallow, not in the same sense as the consumer of celebrity gossip, but in that she is completely consumed by the outward, the political. She is all externality—surface without depth, that is to say, without inwardness.

By its very definition, penimiyut is not subject to “likes” or dependent on the validation of our peers. This can easily be seen, for example, in Hannah’s prayer. Though her silent beseeching of God eventually becomes the paradigm for authentic, heartfelt prayer, she is initially perceived by Eli, the high priest, as drunkenly violating the sanctity of the Mishkan. For our own prayer to be successful, we must find ways to escape the incessant need for social acceptance and recover the sense of inwardness that allows for kavvanah. Two unique books recently published by Koren, The Rav Kook Siddur and Tikkon Tefillati, can help guide the way.

The Rav Kook Siddur, edited and translated by Rabbi Bezalel Naor, offers a detailed commentary on the text of the siddur drawn from Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook’s voluminous writings. As would be expected from his past works, Rabbi Naor’s translations and comments are masterful, capturing the depth and sophistication of Rav Kook’s mystically inflected theology of prayer.

Particularly noteworthy are the repeated descriptions of the inner experience of prayer. Rabbi Naor poetically explains it as follows: “Prayer is an incessant internal monologue. ‘In truth, the soul constantly prays.’ In the inner recesses of the soul, there is an uninterrupted flow. What we observe in the formal prayer uttered at the prescribed time is but the eruption of a hidden babbling brook, the surfacing of subterranean current” (xiv).

Though this phenomenon is rooted in the Jewish mystical tradition, which perceives the soul as constantly striving to unite with God, scholars have also noted that Rav Kook’s writings are a remarkable example of what contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor describes as the “expressive turn” of the modern era. This concept has two critical components.

First, it is characterized by a focus on the inner self. In the modern period, individuals look less to external structures and traditions to provide meaning and instead turn to their own subjective experience. Yehudah Mirsky explains that, for Rav Kook, “the expressive turn” becomes an opportunity for a renewed focus on the soul, for “the inner self is ultimately grounded in the divine … Kabbalah plays a key role here in that the inner motions of the subjective self come to be taken as the manifestations of divine forces coursing through both the material and spiritual universes and in particularly modern ways, such as an emphasis on individual freedom” (24).

According to Taylor, the second feature of the “expressive turn” is the act of articulation. To discover our inner voice, we must find a medium through which it can be expressed. To demonstrate this, he points to the changes that took place within art during the modern era. For millennia, art was primarily concerned with imitating the external world. Only in recent centuries did artists begin to see themselves as creating something fundamentally new from their own inspiration. These same ideas make up Rav Kook’s philosophy of prayer. Whereas premodern kabbalistic prayer was primarily focused on the divine sefirotof the Godhead, Rav Kook’s understanding of prayer turns inward to find God. Furthermore, the soul, one’s authentic self, can only be discovered and made manifest through the act of articulated prayer.

Several examples of this can be found in the commentary of the siddur. In an adaptation of one of Rav Kook’s most famous essays regarding the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden, Rabbi Naor explains that by violating God’s command and eating from the Tree of Knowledge, “he [Adam] was alienated from his essence; he turned to the opinion of the Serpent, and lost himself.” Naor further clarifies that this primordial sin recurs in all future generations. Nonetheless, “Our ‘I’ we shall seek; our self we shall seek and we shall find” (196, 199).

Though we may have become closed off to our inner selves due to our errors, the act of prayer helps us begin the journey of self-discovery, for “Prayer brings light, to life, that which is concealed in the depths of the soul” (xxvi). Prayer enables one to know and eventually become one’s true self by freeing the soul from the obstruction of sin. Rabbi Naor is to be commended for creating a commentary replete with so many teachings that beautifully capture the inner experience of prayer. Those who use the siddur and carefully read the commentary will not be disappointed with what they find.

If the Rav Kook Siddur paints a picture of what kavvanah can and should look like, it is Tikkon Tefillati (May My Prayer Be Pleasing) by Rabbi Dov Zinger that provides the tools to achieve it. Rabbi Zinger is not particularly well-known in America, but he has played a significant role in the hasidic revival that has taken place in Israel within the Religious Zionist community. He was a close student and friend of Rav Shagar, and founded the innovative yeshiva high school Makor Chayim along with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. In recent years, Rabbi Zinger initiated the Beit Midrash L’Hitchadshut, an organization dedicated to helping individuals focus on their avodat Hashem by creating small informal groups devoted to spirituality and prayer.

Tikkon Tefillati is given the unusual subtitle of “Recipes for Prayer,” rendering it a literal prayer cookbook. At first glance, it earns this description because the book is a collection of short yet substantive reflections in elegant yet accessible Hebrew, offering specific advice to the reader on how to achieve a deeper and more authentic prayer experience. Each reflection opens with a rabbinic or hasidic teaching followed by a commentary by Rabbi Zinger, and concludes with a writing exercise or meditation intended to assist in deepening one’s kavvanah.

In the introduction, Rabbi Zinger clarifies that the concept of a prayer cookbook was not meant to be ironic; it simply points to the fact that prayer and cooking share common elements. Just as cooking is a creative activity which requires the integration of different ingredients, so is the act of prayer. Just as two people may follow the same recipe yet inevitably produce different results, so will two people speaking the same words produce different prayers. Because prayer is dependent upon the subjective inner experience of the individual who is engaging in it, the prayer of two people can never be the same. Additionally, it is easy to forget that cooking and prayer are each a skilled practice. A failed attempt at a recipe is no excuse not to try again. Prayer, too, requires the same perseverance.

The essential purpose of Tikkon Tefillati is “to offer a language for engaging in prayer not as a part of Torah study … but rather a language of service, a language of the heart. To pay attention to the soul, to give it words and to offer paths to reach it” (ix). According to Rabbi Zinger, prayer is not purely an intellectual exercise. To discover the soul, one must be willing to engage one’s emotions and imagination in order to let the heart speak authentically. Like Rav Kook, he too sees prayer as an act that reveals the inner depths of who we are. Poetically, he writes:

There exists inside a person a constant of moaning, whispering waves that ebb and flow. Cries, desires, requests, expressions of gratitude. Many times in one’s life, whether he is aware of it or not, he stands opposite them. He seeks his soul. He yearns. He longs (xiv).

In addition to Rav Kook, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov also serves as a primary influence on the work. His writings repeatedly emphasize the absolute centrality of prayer to religious life, and he even encouraged that his extensive teachings be turned into prayers. (See Likkutei Moharan Tenina 25 where he is recorded as saying that, “It is also good to make prayers from Torah.”). Rabbi Nahman’s student, Reb Noson, achieved this very goal with the composition of Likkutei Tefillot, and a similar thrust can be seen throughout Rabbi Zinger’s work. He cites a variety of rabbinic and hasidic texts while offering his own soulful commentary that vacillates between prose and poetry. Rabbi Nahman is also well-known for his concept of hitbodedut, a spiritual practice that transcends the traditional framework of prayer and encourages the individual to engage in a direct personal relationship with the Creator.

Similarly, much of Tikkon Tefillati is dedicated to showing the reader how to rediscover their own inner depths in order to connect authentically with God. Many of the reflections utilize various writing exercises to help achieve this. It is interesting to note that journaling in the way Rabbi Zinger suggests has often been used in the modern era as a critical tool to develop and articulate the self. Spiritual diaries are a rarity in Jewish history, but eventually come to be utilized by Kabbalists and even the Musar movement. Rav Kook himself spent much of his life keeping spiritual diaries to record his intellectual excursions and innermost feelings. What makes them unique is that, unlike the spiritual writings that populate blogs and other social media, these were not initially intended for the public but rather for the writer’s own spiritual growth and development. The same is true for the exercises that appear throughout Tikkon Tefillati. They are designed to help the reader cultivate an inner life from which the act of prayer is a natural outgrowth.

An excellent example of what makes Tikkon Tefillati an exceptional work is found in the reflection “Yehi Ratzon,” where Rabbi Zinger combines the teachings of Rabbi Nahman with elements of Rav Kook’s expressivist notions of prayer. He opens the section by citing a teaching from Rabbi Nahman that, “The essential aspect of prayer is the revelation of desire, as expressed by, ‘May my prayer to you, God, be at an opportune time’ (Psalms 69:14).” In this excerpt Rabbi Nahman is engaged in creative wordplay and interprets “May my prayer to you” as “I am prayer.” In other words, the expression of our innermost desires is itself an act of prayer. Recognizing our inner depths and needs is an act of great spiritual authenticity. Rabbi Zinger then writes the following:

“All of us move about in this world and our desires are hidden within us

desires that wait for prayer.

Prayer is the opportunity

to dwell in the world of desires

without forcing them

without searching for ways to draw them into the world of action

just to be in the world expressing desires

to tell to the Holy One Blessed be He about our dreams

about what we want today:

I want to be joyous

I want to truly speak

I want for Jerusalem to be built once again” (10-11).

He concludes the section by imploring the reader to take a few moments to imagine their various desires cascading over their head like the waves of the ocean. They should then take time to write them down, fleshing out the details and implications. The final step is to grab hold of one or two desires and use them as a foundation for genuine prayer.

Forty years ago, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote that “What man fails to comprehend is not the world around him, but the world within him … the needs of which he is supposed to have clear awareness” (p. 62). He acknowledges that many would find this notion absurd in a world where human beings appear to be driven purely by the pursuit of their selfish desires. However, like Rav Kook, Rabbi Soloveitchik understood that man loses himself all too often in the needs and desires put forth by others, a process that modern technology only intensifies. In a world where nearly everyone feels the pervasive influence of social media, it is extraordinarily difficult to know one’s true identity and desires. According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, authentic prayer offers an antidote to all of this. He writes, “through prayer man finds himself … It tells man the story of his hidden hopes and expectations. It teaches him how to behold the vision and how to strive in order to realize this vision, when to be satisfied with what one possesses, when to reach out for more … he becomes a redeemed being” (66).

Authentic prayer has always been hard, but in today’s day and age it has become a genuinely countercultural activity. The Rav Kook Siddur and Tikkon Tefillati remind us that it is worth the effort.

Originally Posted on The Lehrhaus on April 19th, 2018: https://www.thelehrhaus.com/timely-thoughts/prayer-in-an-age-of-distraction/

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