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The Avodah of Davening in Light of Chassidus

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Esther Rochel Elkaim, Bal Harbour, Florida
MyLife Essay Contest 2018 

Davening (praying) is something Yidden (Jews) do every day, multiple times per day. Yet, it is something that is often misunderstood and treated as an obligation to fulfill in the quickest manner possible and not given much thought. This is sad because the art of prayer is one of the most beautiful gifts in Yiddishkeit (Judaism), and something that should be appreciated and looked forward to every time with joy and vitality. Although far from an exhaustive exposition on the monumental amount of Chassidus (Chassidism) on the subject of davening which would require volumes, this essay will attempt to illuminate this critical aspect of Jewish life through its teachings, most notably from the Rebbe Rashab’s Kuntress HaAvodah and Kuntress HaTefillah, as well as from the Rebbe’s Maamarim, and hopefully inspire readers to stop viewing prayer as a boring obligation and start seeing it as a journey full of self-introspection, personal growth, character building, joy, and vitality that passes through their souls en route towards communion with the Divine.

What is Davening?

Davening is a very special activity, and it is more than anything an avodah shebalev (a service of the heart). Davening times are oases sprinkled throughout a Jew’s day when he or she is ushered into a private audience with the King of kings, who listens and responds to each of his or her requests and appreciates hearing His praises from each and every one of His children, no matter who we are or how low spiritually we have sunk, G-d forbid.

Biblically, a Jew is obligated to daven (pray) every time he or she feels a need for something that is presently lacking in his or her life1. As a child turns to his or her loving father when in need of something, a Jew turns to Hashem (G-d) to request the satisfaction of his or her need. It is a critical axiom of Yiddishkeit that a Jew does not require a messenger in order to reach Hashem, Who is always ready to hear and acquiesce to His child’s prayer. Nevertheless, the prayers of a Tzadik (holy person) have special powers due to his closeness to Hashem, which is the source for the age-old custom to request prayers from a Tzadik. However, any Jew has the power to pray for anyone, and there is a Chassidic teaching that a Jew’s prayer is even more powerful than that of malochim (angels).2

Blessing vs. Prayer

In addition, prayer has a special power that a blessing does not. A blessing draws down Hashem’s Will and helps in a case where the recipient was intended to receive the contents of the blessing in a physical manifestation, but for some reason did not merit to, so the blessing was stuck somewhere en route in the Heavenly realms. A blessing assists in drawing down its contents so that they are able to complete their journey and be revealed in our material world. Prayer, however, is even more powerful as it creates a Will for Hashem—where none existed previously—to send down directly to this world.

Jewish Needs Are Holy

Although we pray for our needs, the most important aspect of prayer is communication with Hashem. Tefillah, the Hebrew word for prayer, means attachment. The Baal Shem Tov told a parable of a king who allowed all of his subjects to come to him, and that any request they would have would be granted. They all asked for riches or power, except one, whose request was that every day he should be granted an audience with the king. The king was overjoyed to see that this subject, unlike the others, was interested in the king himself, and not just what he could provide. Thus of course he was granted his request, as well as more wealth and honor than all of the other subjects.

On a deeper level, even our material requests are a reflection of our desire to get closer to Hashem and fulfill the unique mission with which he entrusted us in this world. We learn from Chana’s prayer3 for a son that it was indeed appropriate for her to daven for a child—a seemingly material need, on one of the holiest days of the year, in the holiest place in the world—something that Eli HaKohen eventually recognized, as when a Jew requests from Hashem material bounty, such as health, wealth, marriage, children, joy, success, etc., it should not be with the intent of personal pleasure, but to enable one to have all what to serve Hashem with in the best manner possible4.

Prayers Are Always Answered

Additionally, our prayers are always answered.5 Even in the difficult times when we do not see a material manifestation of the answer to our requests, on a spiritual level our prayers have been acquiesced to. Also, Hashem sees the big picture, while we are limited in our view and understanding. If it appears to us that the answer is “no”, we should rest assured that that is the answer that will lead to our biggest benefit, even if we currently do not understand it. Sometimes, we are privileged later on to realize that “no” was indeed the best for us, but even if we never understand, G-d forbid, until Moshiach comes, we can rest assured that Hashem, as our loving Father and Creator, gives us all what we need at exactly the right time in order for us to successfully carry out our Divine mission. Had we had it any other way, it would have detracted from our ability to fulfill our purpose in this world.

The Origins of Davening 

We learn about Shacharis (the morning prayer) from Avraham Avinu (Abraham our Patriarch), Mincha (the afternoon prayer) from Yitzchok Avinu (Isaac our Patriarch), and Maariv (the evening prayer) from Yaakov Avinu (Jacob our Patriarch). Later in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and in the Beis HaMikdosh (Temple), the korbanos (sacrifices) were offered at the times of the daily prayers, in particular the daily tamid sacrifices during the morning and afternoon, which correspond to our Shacharis and Mincha, and the Musaf sacrifice on Rosh Chodesh and festivals, which corresponds to our Musaf service. We also read a description of many korbanos daily before Shacharis and Mincha, as although the Shemonei Esrei is the main replacement for the korbanos, there is an opinion that holds that we should also read the description of the korbanos, and this is our minhag (custom).

From the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah to the Alter Rebbe’s Siddur

Although the Biblical obligation to daven is only when in need of something, Yidden throughout the ages have always prayed daily, often multiple times per day, talking to Hashem directly in their own words. However, as time passed and Jews no longer spoke Hebrew as their native language, it became increasingly difficult for them to express themselves appropriately. Consequently, the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah (Men of the Great Assembly), who were the ruling Halachic authorities of the era, canonized the nusach (ritual) of Tefillah we have until this day and instituted the three daily prayers as a mitzvah (obligation). Over the generations, it has spread into slightly varying versions, compared to the different Gates of the Beis HaMikdosh used by each tribe. Our Chabad nusach, authored by the Alter Rebbe and based largely on the Arizal’s Nusach Ari, is compared to the Thirteenth Gate in the Beis HaMikdosh by which every Jew could enter, regardless of tribal affiliation. Similarly, the Chabad nusach is appropriate for every Jew regardless of origin.

Davening in Chassidus

Chassidus teaches that davening is the time for a Jew to work on his or her middos and gather his or her kochos hanefesh (soul powers).6 It is also a time of war when the davener summons his or her Nefesh HaElokis (G-dly soul) to go to battle against the Nefesh HaBehamis (animal soul)7. Davening enables the davener to awaken his or her love and fear of Hashem, by meditating on the intellectual concepts of Chassidus learnt prior to davening.8 This is one of the reason why Chassidim go to the mikvah (ritual bath) before davening, as additional purity will facilitate the davener’s ability to then learn Chassidus, meditate upon one or more of its concepts, and attempt to internalize them during davening by an emotional awakening born from the intellectual meditation9.

Achieving an emotional awakening from an intellectual contemplation is no easy feat for most people, yet it provides one of the sweetest feelings of self-discipline and closeness to Hashem in all of Jewish life. As the vast majority of people identify with their Nefesh HaBehamis, they often view davening as a repetitive ritual devoid of feeling and meaning. This could not be further from the truth. Davening is a ladder10 leading ever closer to Hashem as each step is navigated successfully, no matter how low one started in their journey of self-refinement in approaching the Divine11. As in every journey, none is ever exactly the same. Also, as a Jew’s growth and self-development increases, so does his or her depth of communication increase, as well as his or her ability to awaken feelings for G-dliness happen more rapidly.

Davening throughout the Day—an Example in Meditation

The Talmud mentions that when we wake up in the morning, our neshama (soul), which had gone up to its Heavenly abode for the night, returns to our body but stays in the nose. It is only during Shacharis that the neshama spreads in stages into the entire body once again. When done right, davening has the power to cleanse a person’s spiritual garments—thought, speech, and deed—as well as rectify his or her emotions and elevate all the Torah and Mitzvos that he or she performed.

Chassidus teaches that there were four rungs to Yaakov Avinu’s ladder which correspond to the four spiritual worlds of Atzilus (Emanation), Briya (Creation), Yetzira (Formation), and Assiya (Action). These four rungs correspond to the four main parts of the Shacharis prayer: Pesukei DeZimra, Birchos Keriyas Shema, Shema, and Shemonei Esrei.

A Jew starts his or her day by reciting Modeh Ani, a prayer thanking Hashem for His faithfulness in our ability to do His Will. At this stage, the connection to Hashem starts off on the basic though important level of emunah (faith) in Hashem. We then say the Morning Blessings, thanking Hashem for everything we have. Later, we give Tzedaka which opens the channels for blessings12, go to the mikvah, learn Chassidus, and begin praying Shacharis, preferably in Shul (Synagogue) with a minyan (quorum of ten adult men over the age of Bar Mitzvah, thirteen). Our meditations prior to prayer should cause us to realize our lowliness compared to our Creator, blessed be He, and also even some merirus (bitterness) at our distance from Him, which we only increase by our misdeeds. However, we should start praying only with joy, as upon the culmination of our meditation, we should have regretted our misdeeds and made good resolutions to improve our conduct, in thought, speech, and deed, and thus we embark upon the journey of prayer with the joy of going to meet our loving Father in purity and holiness.

After the introductory korbanos and other prayers, we say Pesukei DeZimra, which corresponds to Assiya, during which we praise Hashem and concentrate on His Might and having created our world and all its myriad contents, all of which praise His Glory, from the sun bowing majestically in the sky towards the west which is the abode of the Shechina (Divine Presence), to each and every stone, plant, animal, and human serving Hashem in their distinct ways. We come to the realization that however grand, beautiful, and awe-inspiring is the work of Creation, in comparison to the Al-Mighty it is truly non-existent, as if G-d forbid He would stop re-creating the world ex nihilo for an instant, all of Creation would immediately revert back to nothingness. At this stage, our emotions get refined and illuminated by our neshama which excites them to love and fear Hashem.

We then proceed to Birchos Kriyas Shema which corresponds to the world of Yetzira. We meditate on the fact that so many levels of angels praise Hashem, and yet it is our avodah that He seeks and values the most, because only we have free choice to serve Him. We also realize how all of these holy angels are as nothing compared to their Creator. At this stage, our intellect becomes a vehicle for our neshama and we understand the greatness of Hashem with our minds.

After all this preparation, we are ready to say the Shema, which corresponds to the world or Briya, with full concentration, and during that first sentence think about how nothing truly exists besides the Oneness of Hashem in all seven firmaments and in the four compass directions: North, South, East, and West. Subsequently, we are ready to speak with Hashem in a private yechidus (audience) during Shemonei Esrei, which corresponds to the world of Atzilus, and ask Him for our needs and those of others in order to fulfill His Will in the best manner possible.

Following this, we attain such a level that we realize our lowliness and how our mistakes separate us from Hashem, G-d forbid. We thus say Tachanun on those days that it is said, and read from the Torah on certain days, after which we say a few more prayers and complete Shacharis. We are then ready to learn some Torah and navigate whatever the day will bring according to the Torah’s principles.

During the day, we interrupt our occupation in order to daven Mincha. This is the special quality of Mincha above the other two prayers because it comes in the middle of the day when we have to stop and daven to Hashem.13 In the evening, we daven Maariv, the extra prayer Yidden took upon themselves to recite out of their love for Hashem, learn more Torah, and before going to sleep we forgive anyone who has hurt us during the course of the day in order that Divine Judgement not be unleashed too forcefully against them and also take stock of our day, so that the next day we can improve what was good and rectify what needs rectification.

Practical Application: Davening Chart

Below is a chart summarizing meditations in davening based on Kuntress HaTefillah from the Rebbe Rashab that will give practical advice on the general meditations that are appropriate for each phase of Shacharis. Of course, throughout one’s life as one grows, his or her meditations will change and numerous meditations will be used, often from a Maamar (Chassidic discourse) studied before davening or a concept taken from the Alter Rebbe’s Siddur im Dach (Siddur with Chassidus). Numerous Maamorim are especially suited to be pondered prior to or while davening, and are therefore called avodahdike (lit. service, i.e. emotional) Maamarim, in contrast to the more haskolohdike (intellectual) Maamorim.

It is important to note that the Rebbe encouraged even children to daven while meditating on Chassidic concepts14, of course on their level, and the same can be applied to adults just starting out on their journey towards increased religious observance.

Before Davening Pesukei DeZimra Birchos Kriyas Shema Shema Shemonei Esrei
Contemplate on One’s Lowliness Praising Hashem and realizing how even all of the miracles in our world and all of its contents’ continuous creation ex nihilo at every moment is nothing compared to Him How even the highest malochim who praise Hashem are nothing compared to Him The Oneness of Hashem, in the seven firmaments and on Earth, as well as in all four compass directions Unity with Hashem—just the davener and Him—and how He is our Creator and the only Source of the fulfillment of all of our needs

Conclusion

It is the author’s hope to have shed some light onto the immense privilege that is davening through exploring its avodah as illuminated by the teachings of Chassidus, and that every person who took their time to read this essay will come away with a renewed enthusiasm to daven every day with additional vitality and joy. May Hashem always answer all of our prayers speedily and with revealed good, most importantly our deepest prayer for Moshiach NOW!


Sources

  1. Rambam’s Mishne Torah, Hilchos Tefillah, Chapter 1.
  2. Chassidic adage: “The power of a Chassidic farbrengen (gathering) is greater than that of Malach Michoel.”
  3. Shmuel I, Chapter 1
  4. Maamar A-donai Sefasai Tiftach 5712
  5. MyLife: Chassidus Applied, Episode 188
  6. Kuntress HaAvodah, Chapters 1, 3 and 6
  7. Tanya, Chapter 28
  8. Kuntress HaAvodah, Chapter 2
  9. Kuntress HaTefillah, Chapter 1
  10. Bereishis, Chapter 28, verse 12
  11. Maamar Zeh HaYom, p.282
  12. HaYom Yom, 2 Tammuz
  13. HaYom Yom, 22 Adar I
  14. Igros Kodesh, vol.14, p.319
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