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In this week's parashah, we are commanded by Hashem to build Him a sanctuary; a Tabernacle in the Desert and a Holy Temple in Yerushalayim.
One of the main purposes of the Sanctuary is to have a central place for prayer to Hashem. Although Hashem is everywhere and one can approach Him wherever he is, the place of the Beis Hamikdash is the "Gate to Heaven," and all of the prayers from around the world ascend through it. This was made clear in the prayer which King Shlomo recited at the dedication of the Temple: "And when they return to You with all their heart, and with all their soul, in the land of their enemies, who led them away captive, and pray to You toward their land, which You gave to their fathers, the city which You have chosen, and the house which I have built for Your name. Then hear You their prayer and their supplication in heaven Your dwelling place, and maintain their cause" (1 Melachim 8:48-49).
Prayer is not just a ritual which must be performed by reciting the words. Prayer is communication with Hashem. In communication between any two parties, the most important element is concentration. If someone speaks without paying attention to what he is saying, he could cause some major damage. Certainly someone standing before a king, petitioning him for what he needs for himself and his family, must be very careful of his words.
One of our main problems is that we think that since the words of the prayers have been institutionalized and recorded in the prayer books, all we have to do is read them aloud, and it doesn't take much concentration to do that. But that is totally wrong. First of all, imagine someone standing before a king and reading a prepared statement, but it is obvious that his heart is not in it. He is mumbling words, at lightening speed, often not even pronouncing them properly or even skipping many of them because his mind is preoccupied at the moment with his business and his other affairs, and perhaps he even shmoozes with his friend in the middle! Would the king acquiesce and grant his request or evict him from his palace for the farce he is performing which is an insult to the king's honor?
But besides that, the whole assumption is wrong. Before the siddur was written, everyone would compose his own prayers. But not everyone was able to do that properly so the Sages wrote the basic prayers down for all of us. However, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov writes that that which was written was merely meant to be an outline form of ideas, to be a springboard for us to add our own thoughts and words to. And even today, he says, one should add his own prayers and supplications, and talk to Hashem in the language that he would normally talk to his father and friends. This, Reb Nachman says, is the essence of prayer.
But of course, our formidable enemy, the Yetzer Hara, works very hard to inundate us with foreign thoughts during davening. The moment we begin to pray, we find ourselves thinking about our business affairs and everything else under the sun.
A story is told about someone who was cheated by a non-Jew. Some time later, that same non-Jew bought a large amount of merchandise from this Jew, and the Jew found a way to write the bill ambiguously so that he could get his money back. But later he regretted what he had done and was afraid that the client would examine the bill scrupulously and realize that he was cheated, and it wouldn't help the Jew to explain that he was just taking back what was rightfully his. In despair, the Jew consulted with his rabbi. The rabbi comforted him and told him not to worry. He assured him that the non-Jew would never find the inaccuracy. "But Rabbi," the Jew argued, "How can you be so sure? If he does find it, he won't just ask for his money back. He'll beat me up and perhaps even kill me." "Don't worry," promised the sage. "He'll never realize it. He is not like we are. He has no time to go over his bills. He doesn't daven Shemoneh Esrei!"
Another story is told of someone, a few days before his vacation, who finished davening Minchah in shul, and, much to his surprise, the rabbi walked over to him and said "Shalom aleichem." "Why do you say that?" asked the surprised fellow. "I haven't even left yet." The Rabbi responded, "It was obvious from the way you were davening that you just returned from a virtual tour of the United States, so I greeted you with shalom aleichem as is customary!"
Of course we have to work very hard to fight these distractions and concentrate with all our might upon our prayers to the Almighty. But, on the other hand, one should not lose his self-respect simply because of the battle he finds himself in. In the wonderful sefer, Mishlei Ba'al Shem Tov (Parables of the Ba'al Shem Tov), it is brought that sometimes one is shocked at himself when he contemplates what horrible, even lewd, thoughts he sometimes has during davening; sometimes even during the actual Shemoneh Esrei itself. He may think to himself, what kind of terrible person am I to have these terrible thoughts when I am standing before the Almighty Himself.
However, the Ba'al Shem Tov encourages this fellow with a simple parable. A king usually sits in his palace, which is well guarded by his soldiers. To get an audience with the king, one has to pass through lots of sentries. Once, a fellow wanted to speak to the king. The guards knew that, although he gave some excuse, his real intention was to speak badly to the king about them and to beg him to have them removed from their posts and, perhaps, even executed. Will they let him through?
The Ba'al Shem Tov says that it depends on what kind of a guy he is. If he is a lowly, non-influential person, to whom the king will surely pay no attention, then the guards may say to him, "Go right in. Tell the king whatever you want. We are not afraid of your slander. You can't harm us at all."
But if he is someone who has influence with the king and to whose words the king will pay attention, then they will do everything in their power to prevent him from seeing the king, lest they pay a bitter price for letting him through.
The moral is: the Yetzer Hara knows that when we daven to Hashem, we beg Him to purify the world and destroy the forces of evil including him. Will he let us pray in peace? It depends. If he knows that we have no power in our prayers to influence the Almighty, then he will leave us alone. However, if he knows that we have the potential to daven well, and Hashem may, possibly, hear our prayers, then he will do all in his power to prevent us from concentrating and he will bombard us with foreign thoughts, even those which are shocking and embarrassing to ourselves, in order to prevent us from influencing Hashem to destroy him and the hosts of Satan.
Therefore, concludes the Ba'al Shem Tov, if one finds himself being distracted by terrible thoughts during davening, rather than be discouraged and fall into despair, quite the contrary, he should find encouragement in the situation. He should say to himself, if the Yetzer Hara is fighting me so hard, that only proves that I must have a great power of prayer which he is afraid of. I didn't know that myself, but, if that's the case, then I will muster all of my strength to put these thoughts aside and I will concentrate on my prayer with everything I have!
May the Ribbono Shel Olam accept all of our prayers, for good, for the benefit of all of Klal Yisroel and us among them.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network