By Aliza Feder
I can’t daven. I’ve tried. I mean really tried. Not just the shutting my eyes tightly and swayed type of tried. I’ve tried charts and incentives, threats and no end of internal mussar talks. I’ve tried saying the words slowly, and then super fast as not to let myself lose concentration. I’ve tried having different things in mind for each bracha, davening for specific people, pausing for meditative breaths between each word. I’ve learned through “Praying with Fire”- both volumes one and two, “Rav Schwab on Tefilah,” ArtScroll’s ‘Shmone Esrei‘ and I am currently in the middle of “Sha’arim B’tefilah.” As an intellectual exercise, the learning’s been great. In terms of my davening, it was basically pointless. I’ve even tried completely stopping to daven for a couple of weeks, so that when I started again it would be exiting and fresh.
I heard a story about…I think it was Menachem Begin who was holding a meeting in his house. A religious cabinet member excused himself and tucked into a corner to whisper a speedy Mincha.
“What’s the point?” the prime minister asked him, “do you think a tefillah like that accomplishes anything?”
“No,” replied the fellow honestly. “But at least I’m trying. If I keep doing that three times a day, eventually I’ll make some sort of connection. But if you never even go through the motions…”
I found that story to be tremendously inspiring. See, even if I’m just going through the motions, there is a point! One of these days I’m going to make a connection! I heard that story over a decade ago. I think my lines are crossed.
I’m exaggerating of course. I have made a connection at times. There was one memorable Yom Kippur, and another time of intense personal suffering. I connected then. But out of the hundreds of hours I spent in tefillah over the past who knows how many years, I can count the meaningful ones on my fingers. Of one hand.
This is a fairly private issue, my struggle for prayer. Standing around with a group of people in the grocery, teacher’s room, on line in the bank, I find myself straining my ears as the conversation casually turns toward tefillah. I carefully gather each piece of advice offhandedly given, turning it over, examining it in my mind before mentally filing it away to try, or tossing out as impractical. We live in such scary times…better to pray before it happens, then to pray after it happens. That one always struck me as a bit fatalistic. And what kind of prayer is that- ‘hello G-d, please don’t hurt me…”. Sometimes I just need to take a break from all the structure…I just like to let the words flow, let my thoughts come naturally. That’s where the relationship is built, when you’re talking to Him throughout the day. I really liked that one. Vague, but sounded nice in a touchy-feely sort of way. Worth a shot, anyway. Turns out the only thing that flowed when I just let myself go was that day’s to do list. I like to daven outside. So much more inspirational that way. Never even tried that one. For one thing, I have a hard enough time focusing in my ten by twelve study, the last thing I needed was a wide open expanse to lose myself in. For another thing, where do I live, the Alps?!
This is a source of intense embarrassment to me. Even pain. Yesterday, a student of mine who is like a sister to me handed me an article she tore out of a Jewish newspaper on tefillah tips. I guess I must have mentioned at some point in the past my difficulties with kavanah, maybe as an example of the fact that everyone struggles with things, I don’t know. Regardless, I suppose she wanted to help me out a little. She, a kid of seventeen, davens like it’s ne’ilah two times a day. The irony was bitter and I, the teacher – of Yahadus no less-, took the article from her and shoved it into the recesses of my bag with a tight lipped smile. Incidentally, I had already read the article, and tried all of the methods it suggested, for naught.
So I take my siddur off my shelf, walk to my designated praying-place, sometimes thinking that maybe this will be a good day, most of the time thinking nothing, waving the white flag before the fight’s even begun. I take the three steps back, and the three forward, wondering where Hashem is, picturing Him in the room opposite me. I squeeze my eyes tightly shut sometimes and stand very, very still, as I desperately try to pick up a vibe, tap into a power I know is there. Other times I sway loosely, rock back and forth to comfort myself for the words that fall off my lips mechanically while my thoughts take a trip from my past to my future, from my home in NJ all the way ’round the world until the three steps back wake me up again. Some times I catch myself as I say the verses for my name, and remember our sages’ advice – now is the time to add your personal prayers, but I’m ashamed. Ignoring Hashem through the majority of my tefillah, can I suddenly remember Him to rattle off the shopping list of my needs? I close my siddur quickly, anxious to turn to the parts of my life I am better at, ketinok haboreach m’beis ha’sefer, like a child running from school. Maybe I’m trying too hard, expecting too much. My wanting to pray has become my prayer.
I haven’t stopped trying though-and don’t intend to. As a woman, I’ve learned that I have a special chush(inclination) for tefillah, my birthright as a daughter of Chana. I don’t want to give that up, and though at times I could swear I’m missing that gene, I won’t stop looking for it till the day I die. I want tefillah so badly, I can taste it. I want to feel a connection, I want to feel like Someone is listening, I want to know that my words are making a difference somewhere out there in the celestial universe. If a person’s greatest fault has the potential to also be their greatest attribute, as I’ve once heard, then when I finally defeat this thing the world better stand back, because my tefillah’s going to have the power to bring Moshiach.
There is a Chasidic thought that all of a person’s prayers that he prays without intent are piled high, creating a huge mountain of sorts. As he reaches a point in his life that he somehow creates a significant tefillah, he manages to tip over, fall over the edge of the wall he’s been scaling, entering the realm of tefillah b’kavanah. And at that point, not only does he learn the art of davening, but all of the other tefillos he’s davened comes with him over the wall, transforming them, too, into something meaningful, something necessary that was an integral part of his journey. May it happen for me soon.