To Pray, To Daven, To Feel: So Where’s the Fire?

When I was a boy in yeshivah k’tanah, I davened with kavanah – although I cannot mean that I actually knew what I was saying. One day, someone took me aside, in Shul on Shabbat, a religious person who meant well for me, and told me that I daven too slowly. He kindly taught me how to daven faster, to keep pace with everyone else. He explained that I should move my lips, make a soft buzzing sound, and try reading the words with my eyes. Thus, I learned how to daven. . . .

In most shuls, good shuls with sincere balabatim, it is hard to daven with kavanah. Let’s do some math. In my Artscroll, Mizmor Shir Chanukat Habayit is on page 54. The Shir shel Yom is on p. 162 ff. That’s 108 pages to cover each morning, divided by 2 = 54 pages. We do not say everything – no hotza’at ha-Torah on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday. No “long tachanun” on those days either. But it is still, what, 40 pages? And add another 5-10 pages for the birkhot ha-shachar and maybe some reducedkorbanot. How long does it take to read 40-50 pages of Hemingway – or even Dave Barry?

The best of our people, in the sphere of tefilah, are those who come to daily minyan. They need some sleep so mostminyanim start, what, 6:00 a.m., 6:30 a.m., a bit later? And they have to get to work, so they need to be out by, what, 7:30 a.m.? So there are 45 minutes to read 40-50 pages. How many of us read that quickly, merely by eyes, at that clip, even Dave Barry? That would be 53-67 pages an hour.

Now, imagine you are reading the same 53-67-page chapter every weekday of your week, of your life, and you are exhausted and just waking up. You see? We begin confronting our dilemma with an inherent difficulty. We are training people, our most committed daveners, to daven wrongly. The need for speed.

Comes Mincha and Maariv during the week. The best are the ones who make the effort, no matter what, to come to minyan. But they have had an exhausting day, so they do want to get home. That speeds them up. They want to see their kids, their wives. Eat dinner. Yes, they make the time for davening b’tzibur, and yet their minds are in other places. So, again, there is the sense of “let’s get the show on the road” – even among those who never have produced theatrical productions for a national touring audience.

There is an expression in the Navy, I am told: “A convoy can travel only as fast as its slowest ship.” One might say in davening: a minyan travels only at the speed of its fastestshaliach tzibur. Comes the Shacharit and the Mincha Shmoneh Esrai – how long will the tzibur wait for the slowest davener to finish before it begins chazarat ha-Shatz? So there is pressure to daven fast.

The daily davening act is dulled for many because they do not understand the peirush ha-milim. That is one reason that I am not much concerned how Koren Publishing’s commentaries compare to those of Artscroll because, after you read a commentary once, that’s it. People barely have time to look at the peirush ha-milim, hence Artscroll’s fascinating effort to publish interlinears. Some have a deepbitachon within their kishkas, a deep connection with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and daven nevertheless with a deep and utterly sincere kavanah, even though they have no clue what they are saying, sort-of-like the stories of the person who recites the Aleph-Bet and asks HaKadosh Baruch Hu kindly to form the words for him. But for most people it is a challenge.

So we have mishigass from the FFB world that helpfully teaches young people how to daven faster, to keep up with Evelyn Woods even though she is not counted in the minyan, and we have ba’alei teshuvah who sometimes come in with the best inculcation and sometimes with mishigassof their own.

For me, it was in high school one day that I learned, for the first time, that you are allowed to insert your own private requests into the Amidah. I always thought that was “mafsik.” Who knew from Orach Chaim and Mishneh Brurah? We were too good for that in fifth grade. So we learned Gemara. For me, that revelation – that you may add your own private prayer – was my first breakthrough. So, if someone was sick, I suddenly was going to start inserting a request at R’fa’einu. So, now, I suddenly wanted to understand that paragraph more. I got very involved in Soviet Jewry, and I started to add a personal prayer at “[t]ka’ b’shofar gadol . . . v’kabtzeinu yachad mei-arba’ kanfot ha’aretz.” Well, I needed to understand that paragraph better, if only to craft my own insertion.

When the contractor who was building my home in the new American neighborhood in Karnei Shomron went bankrupt with my life’s savings, I started adding a prayer in “Bareikh Aleinu.” So I needed better to understand that brakhah – and what does wind and rain have to do with my finances? As I grew more, evolved more – and it takes many decades in my narrative – and started recovering from the hubris of my teens and college years and my 30s and a chunk of my 40s, realizing ways in which I had messed up my life, I started adding prayers to “S’lach Lanu.” People in my extended family veered from the derekh, people in my shul community would come to me crying about this or that personal tragedy, and I would pray for them in “Hashiveinu Avinu l’Toratekha.” So I wanted to know – and to feel – that paragraph better.

My life took many hard turns, very hard setbacks. Yet, each time that I felt like I was mamash bound on my akeidah, there would be some miracle to turn my life around. In time, I found that even the non-petitional prayers ofhoda’ah compelled me to pause for greater clarity to say thanks to HaKadosh Barukh Hu for miracles that are with us every day — evening and morning and afternoon. I thought of the evening when I received a phone call at 12 midnight, notifying me that I had been selected Chief Articles Editor of Law Review, something that would positively change my life in many ways short-term and long-term. I thought of the morning car crash, the most freakish accident imaginable, that should have killed me and those in my car according the derekh ha-teva’ back in 1992. (The police had made a terrible, terrible mistake, waving me forward into a death trap; yet my children and I escaped with nary a scratch.) I thought to the afternoon miracles I had experienced from one career to the next — miracles that once again led to a series of toggles that changed my life for the better in ways I cannot describe.

By now, my only “problem” was the first part of the Amidah, which I still raced through in order to get to “the good stuff.” And one day it hit me like a ton of . . . light.M’khalkel chaim b’chesed. I picked a time in my life, when that builder went bankrupt and nearly bankrupted me, and thought of how HaKadosh Baruch Hu miraculously got me through, how he got me through years of yeshiva tuition while I was going to law school in my late 30s, and so many stories I have heard from balabatim who privately have told me their miracles of how they were sustained by miracles that they could not fathom. Someikh Noflim. Each Amidah I would pick another time He had raised me from the brink of real disaster. Rofeih Cholim – the time my Dad was expected to die from his leukemia. I was only age seven at the time. Had he died then, I barely would know who he was. Miraculously, he lived seven more years, and those seven years gave me a booster-rocket impact that has lived with me for a lifetime. The ten years extra that my Mother lived, despite contracting illnesses that, by natural expectations, should have brought her to a physical end a decade ago, and the impact those extra ten years had. Matir Asurim: I have seen it all – Soviet Jewry, Syrian Jewry, Iranian Jewry, Iraqi Jewry, Ethiopian Jewry. We all have experienced it.

Thus, the beginnings of my own rehabiliation in prayer. I started making an effort to understand every single word in the davening, no matter how poetically florid and esoteric. One day, a balabos came to me with a revelation: “Rabbi, do you know which commercial breakfast cereal the Siddur endorses?” Without a blink I responded: “Cheilev chittim yasbi’eikh.” He replied “I don’t know what that means, but look at this thing about Cream of Wheat, rabbi.” I knew I had started making my davening what it should have been forty years earlier.

Thus the beginnings. We do not teach people to personalize the davening, to remember their personal health miracle, their personal parnassah miracle, the miracle that literally unfolded before the eyes of a generation as He was matirmillions upon millions of asurim before our eyes this past quarter century. Nor do many of us really urge people to take a minute and to pray for a relative off the derekh, to devote an extra minute to “Bareikh aleinu” and petition for a helping hand from above.

I think books about davening are great, but the beginnings come with understanding that, like the “Twilight Zone” episode about the guy who mentally-thinks-himself into a painting on the wall, we need to think-ourselves into the prayer. We need to see our faces in that Siddur, our personal problems and needs in those words. That helps make it relevant to today. It is relevant, and it is sensible. It is personal.

But, somehow, some way, we are fighting the time element. The convoy that goes no slower than its fastest ship. The fire truck of tefilah racing through traffic. That is a challenge. Time preys on us. Can we pray through time?