Davening on Hot Coals
Written by Rabbi Yehoshua Karsh
I want to thank my mentors and colleagues who took time to look over earlier versions of this book. Their many comments and suggestions are apparent in the final draft. They are: Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz, Rabbi Mordechai Becher, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Rabbi Avraham Edelstein; and for his painfully direct and meaningful criticism, and for devoting more time than he had to for this, Rabbi Menachem Nissel. Thanks to Jacob Brudoley for suggesting that I write the original essay and to Jacob and Sherri for providing initial funding for its production. Thank you to Sheldon Mazor, Janet Cohen, and Alysa Hoffman for their thoughts and comments. Thank you to Rivka Lev for her very professional proofreading of the original manuscript. Thank you to Rabbi Pinchas Langer for hiring me to teach Tefillah at Shayara. It was there that much of the material in the essay was developed. Thank you to Miriam Shreiber, publisher of Jewish Image magazine, for publishing much of my writing, and for publishing an early version of this essay. I would like to thank Jemsem.org, Jerusalem Seminary Connection, for sending this essay to their subscribers for criticism and comment. I would like to thank my mother and my father for many things and specifically for editing this essay. Thank you to Hashem Yisborach.
For Tzippy, A.Y., Sruli, Moishe and Shauli
Twenty years ago I began teaching the ideas that make up this essay. My purpose then was to help my students experience meaningful tefillah and not just understand the words or the history behind it. I once polled a class of mine, asking the students to raise their hands if they had ever studied tefillah before. They all raised their hands. Then I asked if they had enjoyed the study, and many hands were lowered. I learned, over time, that first people had to experience meaningful davening, and only then would they have the drive to go deeper.
Imagine for a moment that you are a teenager, and at every family gathering your mother tells you to go over to your Uncle Leo and say hello to him. Your Uncle Leo is in his eighties, doesn't talk much, and is the last person on earth you would like to make conversation with. But, to please your mother, you end up going over to say hello to him; and whenever you do, he smiles, asks you how you are; then follows an awkward silence.
Then one day your parents sit you down and explain the facts of your family finances. You have never lacked for anything in your short life, but that was not because your parents were wealthy. It was because Uncle Leo never married and never had children. When you were born, he told your parents that whatever you wanted, he would pay for. You went to private school, you went to summer camp, and you had all of the most up to date clothing and electronics all because of the generosity of Uncle Leo. You can be certain that the next time you see Uncle Leo, things will be different. You will no longer need to be told to go over and say hello, you will do it on your own; and during those awkward silences, you will be the one to make conversation. You will want to know every detail about this man, whom you have now, come to love.
This became my model for teaching tefillah: first help the students experience a connection with the Divine; the sublime joy and awakening of love that comes with making intimate contact, and the gratitude that comes of receiving. And only then, teach the how's, the why's, and the history of davening.
One of my personal rules when teaching this subject was to only teach things I, myself, experienced. That was important for two reasons: First, if the goal of my teaching was to actually pass on meaningful practices, I had to know that they were in fact meaningful. Even more importantly I knew that my students would learn from what I did, not necessarily from what I said. It is in keeping with that rule that the tone of this book is candid, forthright and simple. This is not a scholarly work; it is a practical guide to meaningful davening, based on my own experience.
What are my qualifications for writing this? I rarely looked forward to davening. In fact, I often dreaded it. It was a source of secret embarrassment and shame. There, I said it. I feel like I'm standing up at a "Never liked Davening Anonymous" meeting.
My early experience with tefillah was sort of like "The Emperor's New Clothes." I looked around at my friends and teachers davening and assumed they were all blissfully engaged, that I was the only one whose mind was wandering. I couldn't tell anybody about it or get any tips on how to make things better because if they found out that I was spending my time daydreaming, I would be the laughing stock of the school. I do remember asking one of my teachers how he managed to daven with kavannah. I must have been in eighth grade, and I remember him telling me it wasn't easy for him. His expression made it clear that it was an issue he thought about often. It took me a long time to realize that if I was in a room with a lot of people davening, very few of them were actually concentrating on their davening. I'm not saying that to judge others, just to put the problem in perspective.
What is the problem? For the sake of clarity I've chosen two issues to focus upon. The first is the feeling that I'm actually doing something important. I know that if I really experienced davening that made a difference, I would do it with gusto. The second is paying attention. We're supposed to pay attention to what we're saying, but I found that I couldn't focus for more than a few seconds without my mind wandering.
I hope you're ready for change. Because once you apply the ideas in this book, your life will not be the same. Hashem is going to be front and center, and the texture of your days will be vivid and full of color. At the same time, you will discover that davening happens in the context of a relationship. When it comes to relationships, you have to be willing to take chances. You have to be open to the possibility that you'll be hurt or disappointed. If you insist on always playing it safe, what you end up with will be static and unsatisfying.
Over the years I've asked many groups of people to raise their hands if they thought Hashem loved them, only a few have. Then I asked them to raise their hands if they thought Hashem liked them, and even some of those lowered them. What if you think Hashem doesn't like you? What if you think He hates you? How can you expect to find davening meaningful? How can you be motivated to improve the experience when the end result will be spending intimate time with a Being who hates you?
It is axiomatic that Hashem loves, us, that he treasures us. And It's not just theology; it's our everyday experience. You experience a benevolent order in every aspect of your life. It is what allows you to make plans, to drive amidst other drivers, to send your children on an airplane, and the like. There is not, as a rule, randomness in your life. It is true that sometimes unexplained phenomena occur. They can be painful, evil, terrible, but they are only that when compared to the norm. You are confused by painful events only because they stand in stark contrast to the general experience of your life. Your life is continuously moved by an Order in the Universe, and that Order is primarily benevolent. You don't simply know about it, you rely upon it.
How many things had to go right for you to have a great day? Hundreds, maybe thousands of good things had to happen. The water pressure in the shower was good, the water was hot, the sun was shining, your family was safe, and so on. How many things must go wrong for you to have a crummy day, two, maybe three? If four major things went wrong you would be on the News. Your everyday experience of the Order of the Universe is that it is primarily benevolent, and yet for many of us, that is not what we see.
One of the main culprits in this deception is low self-esteem. Chances are, if you don't like yourself, your world looks pretty bleak. We tend to project what we are feeling on a screen, which is the world around us. If you don't feel good on the inside, the world doesn't look good on the outside. And if you aren't feeling good about yourself, you are going to assume that Hashem doesn't like you either.
If this is how you're thinking, don't give up. You can change how you feel about yourself; and as you do, your assumptions about how He feels will change as well. Davening can actually help make that happen, but you have to give Hashem some space to show you His love. You have to let Him show you how much He cares for you, how much He does for you.
Maybe you're afraid of the intimacy implied in a relationship with Hashem. You fear you won't have a life. You will have to give up everything you enjoy. Not just enjoy, but need. And what if you open up and give yourself over to the relationship, and He doesn't respond in kind? The bottom line is, you aren't asking Him to get involved in your life; He already is. You're just opening your eyes to the fact that He's there, that He's involved in all of the details of what you're doing; and when your relationship with G-d gets deeper, your life will become more meaningful. You will discover that you enjoy more, not less; and that what you really need, Hashem alone can provide. The other stuff was just that - stuff. Yes, it's true that sometimes a close relationship with Hashem can leave you vulnerable to more pain; but along with that risk, comes the certainty that your life will be more purposeful.
We are going to be focusing on that aspect of tefillah that is "supplication." We are going to be asking for things. There are also "thank yous," and "praises," and tefillos that teach us what we should strive for. However, we've got to begin at the beginning, and the beginning is asking for things. The love of a child for his parent is founded on the gratitude he has for what he has received. The first thought in all loving relationships is: "What will I get out of this?" As we mature there is sharing, and when we've really matured, each side gives, no longer concerned about receiving. A relationship with Hashem is no different. First we need to experience receiving and develop gratitude. Once we've practiced asking for things, then we can apply our experience to the other more sophisticated aspects of tefillah, which are more about giving and sharing.
I'm going to introduce to you two techniques I've been using. They all involve practice, but they show results immediately.
The first technique is simply to ask Hashem for something. Not only will you ask Him for something, you will get it - whatever you want. Yes, you read that correctly, whatever you want. He's ready to do this at any moment; you just have to ask.
"I've done that zillions of times and I hardly ever get what I asked for," you say, incredulously. You might think you did, I know you think you asked Hashem for things, but did you really? Did you ask like someone who really believed he was going to get what he requested, or like someone who, if he received it, would feel like he won the lottery? Imagine going to your boss and asking him for a raise the way you ask Hashem for things, with no feeling and no expectation of receiving it. Do you think for a minute that you would get that raise?
Also, much of the time we ask Hashem for things we don't really even want. What I mean by that is, we think we want these things; but if we were really honest with ourselves, we would realize that we don't want them that bad. For instance: if, when I ask Hashem to end the suffering in the Sudan, I measured the intensity of my feeling with some kind of an intensity detector; on a scale of one to ten, my tefillah might register a four. If I asked for tickets to a sold-out ball game or some very popular, state of the art, electronic device, it would measure off the scale. The problem is that I don't ask for the tickets because I think it's petty, and I ask for the end of starvation, but I don't feel strongly about it. So my experience with davening is that I ask for things that I really don't care that much about, never really expecting to get what I ask for. I'm embarrassed by the reality of my wishes and desires, and therefore live in yawn-filled denial.
This is now going to change because we're going to ask for things that we really, really, want. We're going to expect to get them; and finally, we're going to get them. When we've done this a few times, our relationship with Hashem will change forever. Our lives will change forever.
This is what you do. Find something that you want. It can be something small, like tickets to something, or it can be big like a shiddach, or the healing of a loved one. All that matters is that you really want it. I mean really want it, so intensely that you feel the need burning in your gut.
Step two: you must believe that Hashem will give this to you. He certainly can give it to you. He can do anything. He loves you, and He wants you to be happy.
I know that you're thinking: "What if it's something He doesn't want me to have?" First of all, who do you think gets you those things? Do you think you're getting them on your own? He's getting those things for you anyway. Secondly, we aren't doing this just to get things. This isn't about things; this is about a relationship with Hashem. This is just the way we're going about making it happen. Again, think of the bond of a child to his parent. It begins with the child asking (demanding, really) and receiving what he asked for. That is the basis of what later becomes a love defined by and founded upon gratitude. Sure, we should want more sophistication than that. We shouldn't have to get new things in order to have gratitude. We should be able to feel as profoundly about other people's needs as we do about our own. But the reality is, most of us don't. And if we wait until we do, we'll be waiting forever.
There are some of you who are wondering, what if the answer is no? What if I want something, and He is determined that I shouldn't get it? I have guided many people, including my sons, in what I'm suggesting you do. The experience has always been deep and meaningful. No one has regretted embarking on this journey. Be wary of getting too philosophical when you daven. There's a time for tefillah and a time for learning; when you daven, you have to be focused and motivated; your tefillos need to be simple and meaningful. If you start dissecting them as they emerge, you interrupt the flow and stifle the passion of your expression. Leave the philosophy for later. I assure you, that when you work through your experience later on you will come to the conclusion that your tefillos were answered. While you are davening, be assured of that, and let it flow. And don't hesitate to ask for something huge. If you have a child who is ill, ask Hashem to heal him. He is the source of healing, not the doctor. Don't hold back.
A common piece of advice that many will offer you is to be careful with what you ask for because you might get it and then regret it. This is a self-defeating thought for you at this stage. Yes, it is possible that what you ask for might not be good for you, but never asking for anything would be much worse for you. You must take some risks. And why are you certain that you're so out of touch with yourself, that you can't be trusted to ask for what you want? You must go for it.
So, here's what you're going to do: You're going to find something that you really want. And you're going to ask Hashem for it, once a day. The best time for this is at the end of the Shmoneh Esreh, before you take your three steps back. A wise man told me that if you insert your tefillah there, the Shmoneh Esreh fuels the tefillah and gives it power. Of course, you don't have to do it then, you can ask for it any time you want and wherever you are. Be sure to ask for it in your own language, in a way that expresses your feelings most honestly.
Hashem's response is immediate. It just takes time for us to see that. I suggest you keep a diary for the next week or two. Write down anything that seems related to what you asked for. If you asked for tickets to the Super Bowl and a friend called to tell you he knows someone who has tickets, write that down, along with any other related phenomena. If you're davening for a shiddach and someone calls you with an idea, write that down. You'll see an immediate increase in activity, and shortly you will receive the answer to your tefillos. Remember, you aren't doing this to test Hashem; you're just paying attention to something that is going on all of the time.
When you start seeing all of the activity in response to your tefillos, it can be scary. You may get so frightened that you want the whole thing to stop. Don't! Just pull yourself together and let it happen. The fear is momentary and passes quickly. When it happens, write that down too, so that later on, when you need a boost of faith, you can look back at it.
Warning: talking about your results with too many people takes away from the effect. When your tefillos are answered, you're so excited that you want to tell everybody. There's nothing wrong with doing that, but when you talk about things that have the potential to affect you, it diminishes their power. Just as it is therapeutic to talk about things that hurt you because talking about your issues lessens their impact, so too talking about something sweet and wondrous can also lessen its impact. So maybe the first time you'll tell everybody about the results of your tefillos; but you'll see what I mean, and then the next time, you'll start paying attention just for the sake of the relationship and keep it quieter. Keep on doing this. Ask for things, watch them for a while, keep a journal, get them, and then ask for some other things until you've built up a reserve of experience. Once you feel you have a good reserve, you can slowly move to the next level and incorporate some of the more sophisticated techniques mentioned in the Gemara or other seforim.
Now, after all of that, some of you are wondering, what does that have to do with tefillah? Well, my friend, that was tefillah. The best metaphor I can find to explain the difference between what we just talked about and what you find in a siddur, is the difference between a musical novice playing a simple song and a professional musician playing a symphony. The tefillos were written by nevi'im and chachomim and were exquisitely composed. If you sat at a piano and played something like chopsticks, you played music. It wasn't Beethoven, but it was music. You will never play Beethoven if you don't first play something like chopsticks. Someday, with practice, you'll be able to daven with the sophistication that is available in the composed tefillos; but first, you have to cut your teeth on the core of tefillah. And believe me, when you practice asking Hashem for things, you will see an immediate improvement in the intensity you experience during the composed tefillos.
We are now moving from a technique that brings a sense of meaning to your tefillos, to one that will help you focus, and stay focused on them. And while the previous section dealt with teffilah that can be done outside of the formal structure of composed tefillah, the following technique is specifically designed to enhance your experience during formal dovening. This technique involves relaxation and full breathing, both before and during, your davening. Some people call this "meditation;" I call it "paying attention." The minute you mention "meditation" or "breathing" to people, they get apprehensive; it sounds strange, and mysterious. It isn't. It is simply applying stuff you have done many times; you just didn't call it meditation.
In the past when you read something interesting and realized only an hour later that your leg fell asleep, you were meditating. Women who practice Lamaze use it when they deliver their babies. People who suffer anxiety use it to relax. Some people call it self-hypnosis and use it to deal with pain or to remember lost moments. You're going to use it because with a little practice, you'll be able to deeply concentrate on anything you want to, for a significant period of time.
The key to this process is taking relaxed, full, breaths. Exhale all of the air from your lungs (without straining), pause for a moment, and then fill your lungs completely. Exhale again and remove all of the air from your lungs. Remember not to strain; empty them the best you can. Pause for a moment and then fill your lungs again. Don't pause after you inhale. Once you fill your lungs, begin to exhale. Don't rush. Breathe fully and comfortably.
After just a few moments you will be more relaxed, alert, and focused. The longer you keep up your breathing, the deeper and more pronounced, the effect.
Relaxing your body
This is best done sitting comfortably, but can also be done standing. Close your eyes and silently ask your body to relax. Imagine waves of relaxation rippling from your head to your toes. Focus on your toes and relax them; they might tingle as they relax. Next, your feet; focus on them and they will relax as well. Move step by step through your body, relaxing each part as you come to it. Pay special attention to your stomach area, your back, your shoulders, your neck, your face, and your forehead. These muscles gather tension and often require more attention before they fully relax.
If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to relaxation. Don't worry if it wanders. Don't struggle to focus. When you notice it wandering, acknowledge what you're thinking about, go back to where you wandered from, and continue.
Eventually you'll develop your own breathing and relaxation techniques. There aren't any fixed rules when it comes to breathing and relaxing; do whatever works for you.
You have five to ten minutes to spend in a quiet place before davening.
You have a moment to spend before davening.
You are in the middle of the Shmoneh Esreh and you discover that your mind has just traveled elsewhere.
Scenario number one is the best-case scenario. Five to ten minutes is enough time to relax and focus your thoughts. In this case, you begin with your breathing and combine it with relaxation. Once you're relaxed, you can just focus on your breathing. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breathing. You can also choose to follow your thoughts and let them go wherever they want; you are simply an observer taking note of your thoughts. You can can also use that time to introduce a specific thought or visualization that will prepare you for tefillah. Rebbitzen Feige Twerski once suggested a visualization to a class of mine and I've used it many times. Just before Shemoneh Esreh, after you've taken your three steps back, you picture yourself standing in front of huge wooden doors. They slowly open before you; and from inside, someone, using your full Hebrew name, announces that you are ready for an audience with their father, the King. You then take your three steps forward, through the doors for your audience with the King. I can't describe how powerful that is.
Scenario number two is the most common; you have just a moment before davening. In this case, start some deep breaths and generally relax yourself. Ten deep breathing cycles will greatly enhance your focus. If you still have time for a visualization like the one mentioned above, go for it. If you find your mind wandering later in the davening, pause and do some more deep breathing; you should easily regain your focus.
Scenario Three is embarrassingly common. You find yourself in the middle of Shmoneh Esreh, and you're not even sure how you got there. Stop for a moment and begin your deep breathing. Do at least three cycles and try to generally relax; for the next while, daven with your breathing. You do this by saying the words during the exhalations and remaining silent while you inhale. You might need to pause in between brachos for more breathing and relaxing. During that time, you can focus on the general meaning of the next brachah. Remember, when your mind does wander, don't strain; take note of the fact that your mind wandered and then gently return to breathing and relaxing and the simple meaning of the words.
If you follow the steps outlined above, you're guaranteed to experience profound clarity in your tefillah, but not every day. In practice you will discover that you never have the same experience twice, and yes, there are some days when it's a struggle to focus on anything. Don't let those days discourage you. Keep at it, and you will experience tefillah as you always dreamed you would.