Most teaching on Jewish prayer seeks to familiarize people with the structure of the prayer service or to explain the meaning of the various prayers or the theology of prayer, why we pray and so on. This booklet has another purpose -- to teach you how to pray so that prayer works as a spiritual practice, so that it moves you spiritually. The goal is for you to achieve during prayer an elevated state of mind so that you actually taste and experience the nearness of God. That is what I mean by "real davvening."
Hasidic literature particularly contains many techniques to achieve this kind of davvening. Most of these techniques are fairly simple, such as controlling one's glance in order to concentrate better. These hasidic davvening practices are the basis of this booklet. If you follow them your praying will be immeasurably higher than before. You will get deep satisfaction from davvening and will experience the profound pleasure and joy of the nearness of God.
Many people today find prayer difficult. Somehow prayer doesn't seem to provide enough reward or satisfaction for them to see it as their pathway to spiritual fulfillment. But this lack of enthusiasm for prayer is primarily due to the fact that most people have not been taught how to pray. The rote praying that many people are accustomed to and that fails to provide powerful results is not the same as real davvening.
Prayer is a form of meditation and to benefit from any meditation you have to learn and apply the proper methods. Only by knowing how to pray can you really davven and progress spiritually by davvening. Sometimes this takes time; you can't expect to reach the final goal in your first attempts. Because you find no pearls the first time you dive in the ocean you must not conclude that there are no pearls there. You must dive again and again to find them. You can find God by prayer, but you must persevere. If you try even a few practices from this booklet, you will be encouraged to persist in your effort when you experience the life and vitality they infuse into your davvening.
Both beginning and experienced davveners, men and women can benefit by using the many traditional meditation techniques for prayer. Once people realize that there is something to learn about davvening as a spiritual practice, we will be on the path to a renewal of Jewish prayer. The following parable helps to explain the situation today:
There was once a king who so loved music that he directed his musicians to play before him each morning. The musicians came to the palace and performed, to obey the king's command, but also because they loved and respected the king and valued their chance to be in his presence. So every morning they played for the king with enthusiasm and delight. For many years all went well. The musicians enjoyed playing each morning for the king and the king enjoyed listening to their music.
When, at last, the musicians died, their sons sought to take their places. But, alas, they had neither mastered the art of their fathers nor had they kept their instruments in proper condition. Worse still, the sons no longer loved the king as did their fathers. They just blindly followed their fathers' custom of arriving each morning at the palace to perform. But the harsh sounds of their music were so offensive to the king's ear that after a time he ceased listening. But then some of the sons developed a renewed love and reverence for the king, however pale compared to the love and reverence of their fathers, and they realized that the king had stopped listening to their uninspired music. Although they wanted to perform to honor the king, they recognized that their inadequate skills made them unworthy to play before him.
So they set about the difficult task of relearning the forgotten art that should have been their inheritance from their fathers. Every day, before coming to the king, they spent time tuning their instruments. Upon entering the palace concert room and hearing the racket of the other musicians, they sought out an obscure corner for themselves where they could play undisturbed. They also remained long after the other musicians had departed, so that they might improve their skill. And in their homes they continued to practice and to struggle with their instruments as best they could.
The king was aware of their efforts and was pleased, for even though they did not play with the same talent as their fathers, still they strove, to the best of their abilities, to once more bring pleasure and joy to the king. Thus was their music received by the king with favor.
One lesson of this parable is that if we want to progress spiritually by davvening, we must develop our davvening skills. But an even more important lesson is that we must davven with devotion, for only devotion wins God's favor.
Real Davvening to Reach God
There are many goals in praying, but the primary one is to draw close to God. His nearness and intimacy should be felt and experienced. Our relationship to God must not remain a mere concept, but must be fulfilled in reality. Judaism's fundamental teaching about prayer is that a person can communicate and speak with God and feel His answering presence.
Let us begin then to consider how you can achieve real davvening. First and foremost, you must understand that davvening is a form of meditation. One of the main times we focus and concentrate our attention most fully in daily life is when speaking to another person. Therefore, speech can be a way to meditatively focus attention on the Divine Person.
Because davvening is a form of meditation, focus and concentration are essential to its practice. One aspect of that concentration involves removing external and internal distractions that prevent you from directing yourself to God. One of the advantages of praying in a synagogue is that it is a holy building set aside for worship and, ideally, isolated from worldly influences. As you remove distractions and -- this is the other main aspect of davvening -- concentrate more and more on God, you will gradually begin to feel His presence. Most of the prayer techniques that we will discuss are simply ways to concentrate and focus more and more on the davvening and on God until you alter your state of mind, enter the spiritual world, and actually experience God's nearness.
It is said that Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, attained his exalted spiritual level because he prayed with fiery intensity. A parable, which he sometimes told to his followers to instruct them specifically about prayer, contains the essence of his teachings about the mystic quest for God and God- consciousness (d'vekut).
A king, by magic, surrounded his palace with many walls. Then he hid himself within the palace. The formidable walls were arranged in concentric circles, one inside the other, and they grew increasingly larger as one approached the center. They had fortified battlements and were manned by fierce soldiers who guarded from above; wild animals -- lions and bears -- ran loose below. All this was so that those who approached would have proper awe and fear of the king and so that not all who desired to approach would be allowed to do as they pleased.
The king then had proclamations sent throughout the kingdom saying that whoever came to see him in his palace would be richly rewarded; he would be given a rank second to none in the king's service. Who would not desire this? But when many came and saw the outer wall's awesome size and the terrifying soldiers and animals, most were afraid and turned back.
There were some, however, who succeeded in scaling that wall and fighting past the soldiers and animals, but then the second wall loomed before their eyes, even more imposing than the first, and its guards even more terrible. Seeing that, many others turned back.
Moreover, the king had appointed servants to stand behind the walls to give money and precious stones to whomever got beyond each wall. Those who had crossed one or a few walls soon found themselves very rich and satisfied with what they had gained from their efforts; so they too turned back. For one reason or another, either from fear at the increasing obstacles or satisfaction with the accumulated rewards, none reached the king . . . .
Except for the king's son. He had only one desire: to see the face of his beloved father. When he came and saw the walls, soldiers, and wild animals, he was astonished. He could not understand how his dear father could hide himself behind all these terrifying barriers and obstacles.
"How can I ever reach him?" he thought. Then he began to weep, and cried out, "Father, Father, have compassion on me; don't keep me away from you!"
His longing was so intense that he had no interest in any rewards; indeed, he was willing to risk his life to attain his goal. By the courage of his broken heart, which burned to see his father, he ran forward with reckless abandon and self-sacrifice; he scaled one wall and then another, fought past soldiers and wild animals. After crossing the walls, he was offered money and jewels, but he threw them down in disgust. His only desire was to see his father.
Again and again he called out to him. His father the king, hearing his son's pathetic cries and seeing his total self-sacrifice, suddenly, instantaneously, removed the walls and other obstacles. In a moment they vanished as if they had never existed. Then his son saw that there were no walls, soldiers, or animals. His father the king was right before him, sitting on his majestic throne while multitudes of servants stood near to serve him and choirs sang his praises. Gardens and orchards surrounded the palace on all sides. And the whole earth shone from the king's glory. Everything was tranquil, and there was nothing bad or terrible at all.
Then the son realized that the walls and obstacles were a magical illusion, and that his father the king had never really been hidden or concealed, but was with him all the time. It was all just a test to see who truly loved the king.
The simple meaning of this profound parable is that we are always in God's presence. The "walls" and obstacles that seem to separate us from Him are illusory. If we don't see Him, if we don't have the divine vision of the Godliness of all reality, it is because of our own spiritual deficiencies. But if we yearningly seek our Father in Heaven, we will find Him.
It is not accidental that the one to succeed in reaching the king is his son. We must realize that we are children of God, His sons and daughters, and that God is ever with us and does not intend to keep us separate from Him. The son in the parable succeeds because his love overcomes his fear. So must we increase our yearning and love for God, until all barriers fall before us. In the parable, the son's forlorn cries of "Father, Father!" represent prayer. His readiness to die in his quest teaches the need for self-sacrifice (mesirat nefesh) for spiritual advancement -- and specifically for prayer. This parable undoubtedly depicts the Baal Shem Tov's own mystic quest, his fervent praying, and his moment of revelation.
When praying, you must yearn, even desperately, to reach God. You must be determined to go forward and not be deterred, either by obstacles and distractions or by secondary pleasures, even the satisfactions of davvening. Like the son in the parable, you must be single-minded in prayer, to go forward, to go deeper and deeper, overcoming all barriers until you reach your goal -- God's presence. The promise of the parable is that if you pray sincerely, from the heart, with self-sacrifice, God will reveal Himself to you.
All the teachings about davvening in this booklet have only one purpose: to help you to meditate deeply in prayer until you arouse your devotion and ignite your fervor for God. Remember that you will get back what you put in: The davvening techniques only work if used. The more of them you actually put into practice and perform, the better and more fulfilling your davvening will be.
Your attitude to davvening should be like that of a craftsman, who is interested not in theory but in getting the job done. The "job" during davvening is to somehow get close to God.
The Jewish Spirit Online/Excerpt from The Jewish Booklet Series
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