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by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

I have to write an article for Torah from Dixie, but what should I write? There are a lot of topics I could c hoose from, but to single out just one is so difficult. What makes matters even worse is the fact that the deadline was last Monday.



I have to write an article for Torah from Dixie, but what should I write? There are a lot of topics I could c hoose from, but to single out just one is so difficult. What makes matters even worse is the fact that the deadline was last Monday. Monday. . there was that big rematch game on Monday night between San Francisco and Washington. I cannot believe those silly cheeseheads beat the Niners. They didn't stand a chance. Cheese. . .hmm. . .the pizza we had last night was better than usual. I think it is because they added more sauce. . ." Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya'aseh shalom. . ."

Another Shemoneh Esrei prayer bites the dust. How often do we complete our prayers and take three steps back into the realization that we have successfully spaced out for an entire Shemoneh Esrei.

When Jacob was informed that his brother Esau was approaching him with an army of 400 men at the beginning of this week's portion, Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, explains that Jacob responded in three ways. First, he sent gifts to Esau in an attempt to appease him. Second, he prayed to Hashem for protection. And third, he split up his camp in case a battle actually did ensue. The Ralbag, a 14th century French commentator, points out that even in situations of the gravest dangers, even when it seems as if there is no room for hope, we should not stop praying to Hashem for the predicament to work out. Even though Jacob knew that his brother hated him tremendously, and that Esau was approaching him right then with a sizable army, Jacob still prayed that Hashem should save him. As we know, his prayers worked, and this passage clearly demonstrates the idea that prayer is a very powerful medium.

Prayer is so powerful, in fact, that Rabbeinu Bachya, another 4th century Torah commentator, goes so far as to call it the "main strength" of the Jewish people. Likewise, the Mesillat Yesharim, the classic work on Jewish ethics, writes regarding praying for the redemption that every individual's prayers are powerful enough for Mashiach (M essiah) to come because of them. Even though redemption may be delayed for some other reason, nonetheless Hashem is happy because the supplicant has done his utmost.

From here we can begin to picture the potency of each and every prayer. For if in each prayer we have the potential to bring the redemption, imagine what we can accomplish when we pray for each of the thirteen different requests in the weekday Shemoneh Esrei, three times a day.

However, we also alluded to another issue which tends to bother many people - that a person may pray to the fullest of his ability, yet have his requests go unanswered. We can sincerely pray for the redemption, yet for some reason it does not come. Many people view this seeming lack of response as a rejection of their prayers. The Steipler Rav, a great Torah scholar in Israel of the past generation, offers two insights to explain this. On the one hand, specifically when asking for physical requests, it could be that it was determined by Hashem in His infinite wisdom that giving us what we asked for is not in our best interest. On the other hand, we can never truly be sure of what the situation would have been like had we not prayed. Our prayers may have prevented the plight from being much worse.

Aside from being an effective way to request one's desires and needs, prayer has an internal effect on the individual as well. If prayer is done properly, it can act as the ultimate lesson in character development. Our sages explain that by subjugating ourselves in prayer, we force ourselves into the mindset that the source of everything we have and will ever have is Hashem. With this in mind, there is no longer any cause for feelings such as haughtiness, jealousy, or hatred. Since we have exactly what Hashem wants us to have, who could possibly argue with that?

Although prayer has the tremendous potential to strengthen our recognition of Hashem's providence in our daily lives, in order for it to be effective it must be give n the proper devotion, thought, and concentration. To fly through a service without any thought, or to view praying as a burden, is a waste of a precious opportunity. Instead, one should clear his mind from all stray thoughts and pray from the depth of his heart with complete concentration. Although that is easier said than done, with a few ideas and a little motivation, anyone can produce a meaningful Shemoneh Esrei.

One thing that discourages many people from even beginning to try is the misconception that since they won't be able to concentrate the whole time, the Shemoneh Esrei won't count at all. It should be noted that the only part for which one absolutely must concentrate is the first blessing. With this knowledge, we can put the misconception behind us and slowly work on concentration, one blessing at a time. The method is simple: Start by making sure to concentrate on the first blessing. When you are comfortable with that, work on concentrating for the first and the second blessing. Then, when you are ready, add on the third, and so on and so forth.

The following valuable methods can help us improve our concentration. First, we should find ourselves a place which is conducive to prayer and concentration. (Praying in a synagogue and with a minyan is optimum.) Then we should clear our mind of stray thoughts and take a moment to focus on the fact that we are actually standing before the Creator. Then we can begin. At this point, there are three key factors which aid concentration: praying from a siddur, praying slowly, and understanding the meaning of the words.

Our eyes should not be wandering around the room during prayer. This can be prevented by either reading from a siddur or by keeping our eyes closed. The words should be recited slowly, one at a time. By flying through, we won't be able to pronounce the words properly, and very probably we won't have the best concentration either. Knowing the translation of the words will add some insigh t and meaning to the prayer because now we will actually understand what we are asking for. A possible way to gain this understanding is to spend just a few minutes each day reading through a reliable translation until one eventually becomes fluent in the text. This knowledge can also help if we pause for a moment before beginning each blessing to contemplate what it is that we are about to ask for.

Even we catch ourselves "spacing out", we shouldn't give up. Instead, we should pause for a moment to muster up as much concentration as we can and then continue where we left off.

We have learned many things: the power hidden within prayer, what an apparent "rejection" of prayers could actually mean, the effect a meaningful prayer can have on an individual, and a series of methods by which we can enhance our concentration during prayer. With these ideas in mind, it should be much easier for us to pray effectively, instead of dwelling on ideas of business, dinner, or the Washington Redskins. By putting in a little effort, may we all be granted divine assistance in our concentration and may all of our prayers be answered.


Special thanks to Betzalel Karan for his help with this article.

Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is attending the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Jerusalem.

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