Focused PrayerHave you heard of the rabbinical student who repeatedly failed his lifeguard test? Again and again, he failed to rescue the dummy from the bottom of the pool. The instructor finally approached and suggested that he consider removing his frock and fedora before trying again.
You can’t swim with coat tails and you can’t climb a mountain while carrying a purse or attaché case. Yet, we seem to try just that every time we pray. We attempt to talk to G-d, while our minds are bogged down with worries and concerns. When you enter the synagogue, check your worries at the door. Your business, social, family and health concerns will only distract you. How can you expect to focus when you are bogged down by so much distraction?
The Torah tells us, “Abraham was laden with cattle, silver and gold. And he went on a journey from the south to (Betel) the house of G-d. Of course, the Torah is sharing a real incident that occurred in Abraham’s life, but the Torah is always sharing a deeper message too. The Chassidic masters explained the deeper message like this: If you want to enter the house of G-d, you need to let go of your worldly concerns; cattle, gold and silver.
When Abraham prepared to pray, he would first lighten the load that weighed him down. He knew that his extensive holdings, “cattle gold and silver,” would interfere with his concentration and spiritual focus. To fix his mind on G-d, he would make a journey. “From the south”, the lowest point on the map, our earthly bodily consciousness, “to the house of G-d,” the mindset of prayer.
It was only because of this that Abraham was able to rise unimpeded to the greatest spiritual heights. “And Abram journeyed, traveling unimpeded into the Negev.” The Negev is a hot climate. Abraham was able to stoke the flames of spiritual passion without restriction, entering unimpeded into the heat of the Negev, because he fixed his mind first.
This doesn’t mean that we erase all feelings of joy, love, worry or fear. It means that we channel it to G-d. If you are excited about a business opportunity, turn it into excitement about talking to G-d. If you feel remorse over something that went wrong, turn it into remorse for sin. If you feel love for a child, channel it into love for G-d. Jewish law prohibits kissing children in the synagogue. Is it wrong to feel love in G-d’s home? No of course not. It is good to feel love. When we gaze at our children lovingly and are drawn to kiss them, we should channel that love to G-d and kiss Him instead.
Turning Troubles into PrayerSometimes, try as we might, we are unable to check our worries at the door. They march into the synagogue right beside us and make themselves comfortable in our hearts and minds. What to do?
Here is what G-d directed Abraham to do: “lift your eyes and see, from the place where you are, northward, southward, eastward and westward.” In the literal sense, G-d was telling Abraham to gaze from his perch onto the entire land that G-d would grant his children. But once again, the Chassidic masters offer a highly inspiring interpretation.
If, in the midst of prayer, you catch yourself thinking about work, family, fun or play, lift your eyes from the place where you are, whether you are in the north, thinking holy thoughts, the south, thinking mundane thoughts, the east, where the sun rises and there is hope, the west where the sun sets and there is despair. Lift your eyes from that place, wherever you are, and look to me.
Turn your thoughts into prayers. If you can’t beat them, join them. If you can’t ignore your thoughts, if you can’t overcome your distractions, turn them into the subject of your prayer. If you are worried about your children’s health, talk to G-d about it and plead for assistance. If you are ecstatic over the birth of a child, thank G-d for it. Turn your distractions, into prayers. Lift your eyes, from wherever you are, holy mundane, hopeful or in despair, and climb the path to G-d’s home.
Coming Home with PrayerAnother teaching from this verse touches on something I wrote in an earlier essay. We are, where our thoughts are. If our thoughts are in heaven, so are we. If our thoughts are in the gutter, so are we. If our thoughts are in Israel, so are we. If our thoughts are in Australia, so are we.
A famous rabbi would stand by the door of the synagogue after services to bid his congregants farewell. Once, instead of saying goodbye, he greeted a congregant with the words, welcome home. When he was asked why he said that, the rabbi replied, “Look, I don’t know where you were during prayers, but you certainly weren’t with us. You seem to be back now, so welcome home.”
What should we do if, like the wandering Jew, we can’t remain in one place for any length of time? What if we begin our prayers in Canada, continue in the United States, move to Europe and end up in Australia? What if we visit our family, our business, our fears and our dreams? What if during prayer we are constantly fluttering about and never find the strength to remain rooted?
Says G-d to Abraham, “lift your eyes and see, from the place where you are,” and return to me. If you catch yourself dreaming, stop dreaming and start concentrating. What else should you do, spend the remainder of your time with G-d berating yourself over the inappropriate places you visited?
It would have been much better had you concentrated appropriately, but you didn’t, so what now? Throw away another five minutes of prayer wracking yourself with guilt over your first loss of five minutes? This is akin to losing a hundred dollars. Of course, it isn’t good to lose a hundred dollars, but should we therefore throw away another hundred to show how guilty we feel over the first hundred? It is bad enough that we lost five minutes of prayer, should we throw away another five? No! Lift your eyes, from wherever you were, no matter if it was north or south, high or low, and move back to prayer.
The Talmud teaches that the G-d of Abraham assists those who pray in a fixed place. There is a dual meaning here. Praying in a fixed place means to pray in the same place every day, which enhances our focus because we naturally associate that place with prayer. The deeper meaning is that we pray with a fixed mind. We don’t let ourselves wander and when we catch ourselves wandering we work to return.
The G-d of Abraham comes to our assistance because this kind of prayer epitomized the way Abraham prayed. Abraham was the first to establish a fixed time for daily prayer and indeed taught us how to pray. May we pray with diligence. May G-d listen with empathy. And may He respond with abundance.