Feelin’ Groovy in Prayer

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In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel released their third studio album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. The final song of Side A entitled “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” begins with the now famous lyrics “Slow down, you move too fast / You got to make the morning last…” What’s so eternally important about the morning, that they felt the need to admonish us to slow down because we’re moving along too fast?

Before we answer this question, let’s ask another one. Where do we grow? Normally, we would expect to read, ‘How do we grow’ not ‘Where do we grow,’ but R’ Nachman describes in Likutei Moharan 65:1 that a ‘place’ actually exists where we grow: דַּע כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂדֶה וְשָׁם גְּדֵלִים אִילָנוֹת וַעֲשָׂבִים יָפִים וְנָאִים מְאֹד. וְגֹדֶל יְקַר יֹפִי הַשָּׂדֶה וְגִדּוּלָיו אִי אֶפְשָׁר לְסַפֵּר אַשְׁרֵי עַיִן רָאֲתָה זֹאת. וְאִילָנוֹת וַעֲשָׂבִים הֵם בְּחִינַת נְשָׁמוֹת קְדוֹשׁוֹת הַגְּדֵלִים שָׁם (You should know that there is a field where very beautiful and pleasant trees and plants grow. It is impossible to describe the extent of the precious beauty of the field and its growth. Praiseworthy is the eye that has seen it. The trees and plants are an aspect of the holy souls that grow there).

The ‘we’ that we’re asking about in our question isn’t the ‘we’ about which we normally think. It’s the soul that resides (at least partially) within our physical body. Although it is a deeper and more hidden aspect of the real ‘we’, it is much more real than the ‘we’ that we and others often think about or see.

Now that we know what we’re focusing on, we can ask the more obvious question: How does that ‘we’ grow? At least three times every day—morning, afternoon and night—we pray the Shemoneh Esrei, a prayer so important to our faith that our Sages of blessed memory call it just ‘prayer’ [תפילה, tefillah]. We pray it over 1000 times in the course of a year. Do your own calculation to estimate the number of times you’ve prayed the Shemoneh Esrei throughout your lifetime. It’s a lot. That being the case, is it any wonder that many of us tend to pray it without much concentration or focus, G-d forbid? And if that’s not bad enough, what about when we’re just trying to get through it as quickly as possible so that we can move on to other ‘more interesting’ activities, G-d forbid? Considering that these words were penned with Ruach ha-Kodesh [Divine Inspiration]by the last of the true prophets, the Men of the Great Assembly, headed by such luminaries as Ezra, Nechemyah, Mordechai, Malachi, Chaggai, Zecharyah, etc., this tragedy is multiplied many times over. But if we understand what tefillah can accomplish, we will make progress on reversing this trend.

If the world runs exclusively on the so-called ‘laws of nature’, why pray? R’ Nachman explains (Likutei Moharan 7:1): דַּע כִּי עִקַּר הַגָּלוּת אֵינוֹ אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל חֶסְרוֹן אֱמוּנָה…וֶאֱמוּנָה הוּא בְּחִינַת תְּפִלָּה…וְזֶה בְּחִינַת נִסִּים לְמַעְלָה מֵהַטֶּבַע כִּי הַתְּפִלָּה לְמַעְלָה מִטֶּבַע כִּי הַטֶּבַע מְחַיֵּב כֵּן וְהַתְּפִלָּה מְשַׁנָּה הַטֶּבַע וְזֶה דְּבַר נֵס וְלָזֶה צָרִיךְ אֱמוּנָה שֶׁיַּאֲמִין שֶׁיֵּשׁ מְחַדֵּשׁ וּבְיָדוֹ לְחַדֵּשׁ דָּבָר כִּרְצוֹנוֹ (You should know that the fundamental cause of exile is because of a lack of emunah…and emunah is an aspect of tefillah…and this is an aspect of miracles that are above nature because tefillah is above nature, because nature is something that ‘has to be the way it is’, but tefillah changes nature, and this is a miraculous thing, and for this, one needs emunah, that he should believe that there is One who renews everything, and it is in His power to renew a thing according to His will). Nature is just a description of the ways that Hashem normally and regularly renews a thing daily, moment by moment. In other words, ‘nature’ and the so-called ‘laws of nature’ are really nothing at all. They’re all just part of the mask that Hashem hides behind, so to speak. And it’s our job to peel back the mask and to realize that Hashem is doing everything Himself, literally. Fundamentally, everything is a miracle. This is why we say these words in the first blessing before the Shema each morning: הַמְחַדֵּשׁ בְּטוּבוֹ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית: כָּאָמוּר לְעֹשֵׂה אוֹרִים גְּדֹלִים כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ (The One who renews everything in His goodness every day, continuously, the work of creation, as it says [Tehillim 136:7]: He makes [present tense] the great lights, for His loving kindness is eternal). Once you’ve internalized this reality, everything changes. Since there is no such thing as ‘nature’, then nothing ‘has to be’. Everything can be recreated and renewed according to His will. What an opportunity! What possibilities!

But how do we tap into this unlimited potential? It is as R’ Nachman said—through tefillah with emunah. But if we feel trapped, praying in a rut with little or no focus, how can we rise to the level of tefillah with emunah? He continues to explain (Likutei Moharan 7:2-3): אֲבָל אִי אֶפְשָׁר לָבוֹא לֶאֱמוּנָה אֶלָּא עַל־יְדֵי אֱמֶת…וְאִי־אֶפְשָׁר לָבוֹא לֶאֱמֶת אֶלָּא עַל־יְדֵי הִתְקָרְבוּת לְצַדִּיקִים וְיֵלֵךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ עֲצָתָם (However, it is impossible to come to emunah except through truth…and it is impossible to come to truth except by drawing close to the tzaddikim and walking in their counsel). This is an aspect of what is taught in Pirkei Avot 6:6 that one of the 48 aspects by which Torah is acquired is through אֱמוּנַת חֲכָמִים (emunah in/of the Sages).

To what is tefillah likened? It’s like walking through a beautiful field of wildflowers (Likutei Moharan 65:3): כִּי כָּל דִּבּוּר וְדִבּוּר הוּא עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וּכְשֶׁאָדָם עוֹמֵד לְהִתְפַּלֵּל וּמְדַבֵּר דִּבּוּרֵי הַתְּפִלָּה אֲזַי הוּא מְלַקֵּט צִיצִים וּפְרָחִים וְשׁוֹשַׁנִּים נָאִים כְּאָדָם הַהוֹלֵךְ בְּשָׂדֶה וּמְלַקֵּט שׁוֹשַׁנִּים וּפְרָחִים נָאִים אַחַת לְאַחַת עַד שֶׁעוֹשֶׂה אֲגֻדָּה אֶחָת וְאַחַר־כָּךְ מְלַקֵּט עוֹד אַחַת לְאַחַת וְעוֹשֶׂה אֲגֻדָּה אַחֶרֶת וּמְחַבְּרָם יַחַד וְכֵן הוֹלֵךְ וּמְלַקֵּט וּמְקַבֵּץ כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה אֲגֻדּוֹת יָפִים וְנָאִים (For every word is an entire world. And when one stands to pray and utters the words of the tefillah, then he is picking beautiful blossoms, flowers and roses, like someone walking in a field who picks beautiful roses and flowers one after the other until he makes a bouquet, and after that he picks more and more and makes another bouquet, and then he combines them together, and he keeps on walking and picking and gathering many, many beautiful and lovely bouquets). That is what tefillah is really like.

And what are the flowers that we pick? R’ Nachman continues: כְּמוֹ כֵן הוּא הוֹלֵךְ בִּתְפִלָּה מֵאוֹת לְאוֹת עַד שֶׁמִּתְחַבְּרִים כַּמָּה אוֹתִיּוֹת וְנַעֲשֶׂה מֵהֶם דִּבּוּר וְכֵן עוֹשֶׂה בְּתֵבוֹת שְׁלֵמוֹת וְאַחַר־כָּךְ נִתְחַבְּרִין שְׁתֵּי הַתֵּבוֹת וְאַחַר־כָּךְ הוֹלֵךְ וּמְלַקֵּט יוֹתֵר עַד שֶׁגּוֹמֵר בְּרָכָה אַחַת וְאַחַר־כָּךְ מְלַקֵּט יוֹתֵר וְיוֹתֵר וְהוֹלֵךְ מֵאָבוֹת לִגְבוּרוֹת…מִי יְפָאֵר גֹדֶל פְּאֵר הַלִּקּוּטִים וְהַקִּבּוּצִים, שֶׁאָדָם מְלַקֵּט וּמְקַבֵּץ בְּדִבּוּרֵי הַתְּפִלָּה (Just like this, he progresses in tefillah from letter to letter until he combines many letters and makes them into a word, and so he makes complete words, and after that he connects the two words, and after that he keeps going and picks more until he completes the first blessing, and after that he picks more and more and keeps going from the first blessing to the second blessing…Oh, that one could extol the extent of the beauty of the pickings and the gatherings [into bouquets] of the one who picks and gathers with the words of tefillah!) R’ Nachman then describes how each letter begs the soul, i.e. the ‘we’ that we are talking about, not to leave it. “Don’t leave me, I beg you! We are connected. How can you separate yourself from me? How can you tear yourself away from me? I’m a part of you. You gave birth to me. I came from the very depth of you. Let’s stay together.” But, in reality, we have to move on. We need to complete all the blessings. Nevertheless, we could linger a little longer on each letter and on each word and on each sentence and on each blessing.

We need to have this image in our heads when we take our three steps forward. We are literally walking into a field of the most beautiful wildflowers imaginable. The beauty of the field is staggering beyond our comprehension, so why are we in such a hurry to leave? Sadly, we have turned the field of wildflowers into a field of tears (see Likutei Moharan 65:2, Oholot 18:4 and Moed Katan 5b). And seriously, who wants to spend time in such a miserable place? But this explains why some have stopped praying altogether, while others pray but do so only because it’s required as per the Shulchan Aruch. We’re not falling in love with the words of tefillah because we don’t see how our tefillot change anything.

But we can end this personal and national tragedy. Here are a few simple suggestions: (1) only lead tefillah when there is an absolute need, (2) pray in a corner or in some other out-of-the-way location, (3) don’t look around when praying, (4) don’t look at the clock, (5) picture yourself walking through a field, picking flowers and making bouquets for Hashem, (6) whisper into Hashem’s ear, and (7) smile and sing a little tune as you pray. And above all, be happy and really believe that your tefillah can change nature, because ‘we’ (the ‘we’ that we have been focusing on) are above nature. So if we really need healing for ourselves or for a loved one, we should spend more time picking flowers and making beautiful bouquets in רְפָאֵנוּ [Heal us…], or if we have a special need for livelihood, then we should spend extra time picking the flowers in בָּרֵךְ עָלֵינוּ [Bless for us…], etc. It is guaranteed that our whole approach to tefillah will change. How come? By praying this way, we are making a pipeline from ourselves upward, a pipeline which gets widened from heaven downward, a pipeline able to accommodate more of the flow of heavenly abundance that is waiting to come down to us. After all, this is what the Men of the Great Assembly created with the words of tefillah. This was their purpose. They infused power into the words of tefillah to accomplish this very thing.

Perhaps Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics ring true (just a bit); we just need to tweak them a bit: “Slow down, you pray too fast / You got to make the morning last…” And that morning is the tefillah of Shacharit. Slow it down and make it last because we’re moving way too fast.

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