Prayer is such a hard mitzva. We’ve gotten to the point where Shabbat is easy (can’t beat those Kosher Lamps!), kashrut is a breeze (anything short of pork is under hashgacha somewhere), and we’re even tackling lashon hara (thanks to the ubiquitous print presence of the Chofetz Chaim). But davening….. we need think no further than the noisiness of our shuls to recognize that we still don’t have a handle on davening.
There are of course no magic bullets, but I am happy to share something that sometimes works for me, and maybe can work for you. Whenever I can, I set out not to have a “spiritual” davening, or a “kavvanah-laden” davening, rather simply a “successful” davening, specifically a “successful” amida. What do I mean by “successful”? I mean that over the course of the davening something happens. A dilemma I am facing is solved. Or a decision I had made, is reversed. Or the way I’m thinking about a problem is changed or refined. Because through the simple act of facing God honestly, I could no longer avoid the truth of how He expects me to act.
Of course, the first step toward this kind of successful davening is to be willing to consciously and deliberately bring our problems into our davening. I’ll sometimes bring a conflict I’m having with one of my kids, or a disagreement I’m having with my wife (rare as that is). Or a situation in the shul community that I’m just not sure what to do about. Or a feeling of having been offended, or a feeling of anger that I need to process.
And then, I focus on one particular word of the davening. The word “ata”, You, as in “Baruch ata”, Blessed are You. On the one hand it’s such a risqué, presumptuous word. Who are we to speak to God in second person? But our Sages formulated our prayers and blessings very deliberately in this way. I’d even submit that it was for the word “ata” that the Sages created the practice of prayer to begin with. To grant us a personal, intimate encounter with God on a regular basis. So that we could, without embarrassment or shame, lay our most pressing dilemmas, struggles and challenges at His feet, and submit them for His guidance.
When the davening is working, I find that the right way of thinking about things, the right course of action slowly begin to emerge. It starts at the outset of the amida, as I list God’s attributes of “gevura” (the strength to be generous), and of loving-kindness. And it continues as I recall God’s ways of behaving - gracing people with insight, forgiving people for what they’ve said or done, loving tzedaka and justice, blessing His people with His peace. By the time I’m taking my three steps back at the amida’s conclusion, the upright path has often become illuminated. And it’s been a successful davening.
Sometimes, the process isn’t even connected to any particular words of the davening. The words become simply the familiar background music for the simple recognition that God is seeing right through the rationalizations and the stories I am telling myself as justifications for particular courses of action that I know aren’t noble or good. It happens just through being there, being close enough to say “ata”.
I suppose then, that one of the things that may make davening better for us is focusing less on speaking to God, and more on hearing Him. Just as when God spoke to Avraham, and Avraham said, “here I am”.