Can Prayer be Meaningful? Feeling the Presence of God
Tefillah presents, for me, the most formidable challenge I face as someone trying to be a responsible and committed Jew. The sheer repetitive nature of the required text – three times a day, at least, every day, without any break – often makes it hard for me to muster even a small measure of authentic feelings. I am familiar with the three-fold division of the weekday Amidah – giving praise, stating requests, and articulating thanks – but I find it hard to express these sentiments, even on occasion, with any degree of sincerity. How is it possible to recite the same exact words thousands of times and identify emotionally with what is being recited?
The problem arises because tefillah is described by Hazal (Ta‘anit 2a) as avodah she-ba-lev. To properly fulfill this mitzvah, it is insufficient to just recite words. While, in the formulation of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, that articulation constitutes the act of the mitzvah, what he calls the ma’aseh ha-mitzvah or pe’ulat ha-mitzvah, a proper fulfillment of the mitzvah requires as well an inner, experiential dimension that involves the emotions, or the heart, what he calls the kiyyum ha-mitzvah. Prayer, for him, “consists of both experiencing the complete helplessness of man, his absolute dependence upon God, and the performance of the ritual of prayer, of reciting fixed texts.”[i] If this is the case, if feeling or experiencing is an indispensable component of the fulfillment of tefillah, the bar is set very high indeed. How many times can one recite Ashrei and find Ashrei meaningful.
No wonder the Orthodox community is struggling with finding meaning in tefillah, for both young and old alike.[ii] Different siddurim, with different size letters, fonts, colors, pictures, and translations, are being produced at a rapid pace, all with the goal of, somehow, making tefillah more personal and, thereby, more meaningful.
It is hard for me to suggest which methods of enhancing the tefillah experience are most promising at this time. Tefillah, for me, is a most personal experience, and all individuals need to determine what they, personally, would find necessary for tefillah to be meaningful for them. I can only address what I find most useful for me, and that is to focus on recognizing, as I am getting ready to pray, that I am about to initiate a private, intimate encounter with God. It would be nice, of course, to feel this way for the entire davening, but I am happy if I can achieve this state even just for the Amidah or even just for part of the Amidah. I work to try to imagine myself as if I am standing lifnei Hashem, in the presence of God, engaged in a personal conversation with Him.[iii]
The notion of tefillah as a lifnei Hashem experience is well known. Rabbi Soloveitchik repeatedly noted that prayer is an encounter with God. He even went so far as to assert that when one prays, one finds oneself in the presence of God, not just aware that one is addressing God (this is, indeed, the substance of much of the words we recite), but aware that one is, actually, in God’s presence. “Prayer is basically an awareness of man finding himself in the presence of and addressing himself to his Maker, and to pray has one connotation only: to stand before God.”[iv] There is precedent for this imagery in the Rambam’s Hil. Tefillah where he underscored this as fundamental to the tefillah experience: “What is meant by intention (kavannah)? One should clear his mind from all thoughts and envision himself as if he is standing before the Divine Presence (ke-ilu hu omed lifnei ha-Shekhinah)” (4:16); he should stand like a servant before his master (ve-omed ke-eved lifnei rabo) (5:4).
The real question is, of course, how to cultivate such a sensibility. What can one do to feel “as if he is standing before the Divine Presence,” “like a servant before his master?” I have long struggled with this but found it easier to do when I began personally to resonate with two statements of Rabbi Soloveitchik in which he described having felt this way in his own personal life. I was aware of them from the time they were both first published in 1978, but only in the last few years have I felt their force and power. One describes the influence his mother had on him: “I learned from her the most important thing in life – to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders.”[v] He portrays here how his mother taught him to experience God in a direct, personal and unmediated way. The second specifically describes an experience he had while engaged in prayer:
Eleven years ago my wife lay on her deathbed and I watched her dying, day by day, hour by hour; medically, I could do very little for her, all I could do was to pray. However, I could not pray in the hospital; somehow I could not find God in the whitewashed, long corridors among the interns and the nurses. However, the need for prayer was great; I could not live without gratifying this need. The moment I returned home I would rush to my room, fall on my knees and pray fervently. God, in those moments, appeared not as the exalted, majestic King, but rather as a humble, close friend, brother, father: in such moments of black despair, He was not far from me; He was right there in the dark room; I felt his warm hand, ke-va-kakhol, on my shoulder, I hugged his knees, ke-va-kakhol. He was with me in the narrow confines of a small room, taking up no space at all.[vi]
Regretfully, I do not know how to teach others to achieve this level of awareness of the immediacy of God’s presence. But I feel very blessed that I achieve it once in a while and it is this that sustains me, when I engage in prayer and when I don’t. Prayer is meaningful to me when I feel the closeness of the God to whom I am directing my prayers.
Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter is University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and Senior Scholar, Center for the Jewish Future, Yeshiva University
[i] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Marriage,” in Family Redeemed: Essays on Family Relationships (2000), 40. See also Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ‘Al ha-Teshuvah (Jerusalem, 1975), 41-44; Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance (Northvale and London, 1996, 1984), 71-74; Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer (Jersey City, 2003), in passing.
[ii] See “Exploring the Power of Prayer,” the cover story of the current issue of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action 78:1 (Fall 5778/2017): 18-37.
[iii] I do recognize that R. Chaim Soloveitchik famously states that Rambam requires that the awareness of standing lifnei Hashem extend for the duration of the entire Amidah. See Hiddushei Rabbenu Hayyim ha-Levi, Hil. Tefillah 4:1.
[iv] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (Lanham, 2004), 56.
[v] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “A Tribute to the Rebbetzin of Talne,” Tradition 17 (1978): 77.
[vi] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Majesty and Humility,” Tradition 17 (1978): 33. The first quote comes from a talk he delivered on January 30, 1977, the second from a talk he delivered on April 14, 1973.