Why do so many people find davening so challenging? Unfortunately the rate of our youth who skip davening is increasing. Even those who don’t skip davening, many of them nevertheless hardly ever make zman Kerias Shmah and Tefillah. I don’t believe that the probable reason for being lax in this mitzvah is because they stay up too late at night wasting their time in senseless unproductive chills and they are too tired and exhausted to get out of bed. Rather, it is more because davening doesn’t speak to them so why should they speak to it.
Davening doesn’t appeal to them and appears irrelevant because they do not understand 85% of the words they say even though they graduated Yeshiva. For them, every morning getting up to daven is a hated activity since to them it can be compared to arising from bed to read a book in Chinese. Who in their right mind would want to say what appears to them as these same meaningless words day after day, week after week, month after month, together with the realization that you are fooling yourself by reading a foreign language of which you have no clue about its message. What a waste of time!
It is one thing to get tired of repeating the words daily that you do understand and nevertheless you still have to fight to daven because it has already become a mere rote and mechanical exercise and it is very boring. But words that you haven’t the slightest idea of their meaning, forget it! Especially, if the recital of all these words is addressed to some omnipotent and omniscient force that is invisible, whom you cannot see, hear, or feel.
But I find that tefillah is a challenge even for those of us who do understand at least 80% of the words and we do make kerias shma and tefilla on time. Yet it is still a time of struggle where we find the davening in match with the Indianapolis Speedway. With such a lightening speed we cannot digest the words that dash out of mouths 100 miles per hour. It is almost as if we unconsciously run with the rapid tefillah because deep down we really do not want to digest the words and their meanings. It is more comfortable for us just to glide over them superficially without any thought. What are we afraid of by always using the EZ Tefillah Pass running through the toll booth of obligation? I would like to suggest a new insight to this problem.
The Steipler Gaon asks (חיי עולם ח”א כו) that many times we see a very peculiar behavior exhibited from individuals that we have benefited. They begin to become antagonistic to the benefactor to the point that they start hating and avoiding him. The Chasam Sofer once remarked about an individual who was harassing him constantly, I cannot at all fathom his animosity to me. I don’t remember doing for him any favors so why does he act like this to me? To hate one’s benefactor seems to be irrational since the middah of Hakaras Tov should automatically kick in and play a major role in your relationship with the recipient.
However, some people have an emotional blockage through which they cannot express gratitude with words or with conduct. They are arrogant and cannot see themselves admitting they had to come on to someone outside of themselves even though they know that the proper response is to demonstrate thankfulness. As the Pachad Yitzchak writes, everyהודאה , thank you, is a הודאה an admission that you owe a Hakaros Tov. If one doesn’t fulfill giving gratitude to his benefactor then he is left with the feeling that he owes his benefactor something. By not outwardly acknowledging his benefactor, his situation becomes likened to one who borrowed a large sum of money and he has no money to repay the lender. Every time he sees his benefactor he tries to avoid him because it makes him feel guilty. Soon he begins to despise and hate him, for his relationship with him has turned sour. If only he would have some humility and show gratitude which is “the return of the money he borrowed”, everything would be fine.
This concept can be applied to Davening which is the window of opportunity to be thankful to Hashem for all His daily miracles and tovos that benefit our lives. On the passuk כל הנשמה תהלל יה Chazal say that on every breath that one takes he must praise Hashem. The more we acknowledge the daily presents of our benefactor, the greater the responsibility of Hakaras Tov falls upon us. If we borrowed with no interest 50 million dollars from a wealthy person we would definitely feel an “I owe you back for your kindness” even if we had to repay it. What if he gave you a present of a zillion dollars every day, how much more so would we be bursting to show him our deep gratitude? Davening is that opportunity to deepen our relationship with the greatest benefactor in the cosmos which He created for all of us. All we have to do is to bring into consciousness details of His daily life contributions that He graciously bestows upon us.
For some people this opportunity presents a great challenge. Here’s a thought that might cross their minds. If I start to be aware of Hashem’s infinite kindness, it will make me feel that I am indebted to Him. That feeling will give me guilt when I don’t fulfill His wishes that He demands from me. Better not to recognize all of Hashem’s showering of good upon me and thereby preserves within me the feeling of self, independent accomplishments, and the freedom from guilt.
From this perspective, when one finds himself forced to daven because he is commanded to do so by Hashem who demands gratitude from us, one can chas veshalom begin to hate the very one who is benefiting him constantly. This concept is found in this week’s parsha where it writes (Bamidbar 10.33) that Yisrael travelled from the Mountain of Hashem. It does not say from the Mountain of Elokim as it is called previously. By mentioning the name of Hashem, Chazal state that they ran from Har Sinai like a child runs home from school when the lessons are over. In short they ran away from Hashem. Why? Because they realized that because of the revelation of Hashem on Sinaiאתה הראת לדעת כי ה’ הוא האלקים אין עוד they will forever feel guilty if they ever disobey Hashem’s will. This feeling caused a distancing from Hashem, coupled with the non-recognition of Hashem’s present chesed of the Aron travelling in front of them to make for them a camp, and the clouds that protected and led them in the desert (Keli Yakar). They did not acknowledge these miracles lest they make Yisrael even guiltier and more indebted to Hashem.
There is a story about the meshulach of the Slabodka Yeshivah who went to visit one of its former talmidim to ask him for a donation. He was known to have left Torah and Yiddishkeit over the years, but he was wealthy and the hanhalah thought that he could still give a large donation in appreciation of his years spent in Yeshivah. After the meshulach finished his fiery pitch, the talmid vehemently said, I will not give you a cent because you people ruined my life. The meshulach responded with a bewildered expression, “How did we ruin your life?” The student responded with a disdain, “Since the days of my yeshivah learning, with the Alter at the helm, I can never really fully enjoy the aveiros that I do. I am riddled with guilt.
Concerning Tefillah this can cause a reaction to chuck the tefillah altogether or to choose the AAFLT Always A Fast Lane Tefillah. So by this way one doesn’t have any time to dwell on the list that enumerates all the kindnesses that Hashem bestows upon him every second of the day and feel indebted in any fashion.
What one doesn’t realize is that AAFLT also spells FATAL which means deadly. Hashem is the source of all life energy and existence. To disconnect from Hashem is fatal. The רשעים even while being alive are considered dead. כי לא יחפוץ במות המת כי אם בשובו וחי Hashem does not desire the death of the dead. It should have written the death of those alive? However, the passuk is talking about reshahim who are considered spiritually dead and severed from their source of life..
Chazal tell us (Sanhedrin 63b)
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב יודעין היו ישראל בעבודת כוכבים שאין בה ממש ולא עבדו עבודת כוכבים אלא להתיר להם עריות בפרהסיא
Yisrael did not worship avoda zara because they really believed in it. In fact they did not believe in idolatry powers at all. So why did they worship them? They did it in order to act immorally without feelings of guilt. They made belief that they were gods but knew they could do nothing for retribution. What they achieved was that at least their immorality did not give them a guilty conscience.
In France they would punish criminals with the guillotine a mechanical device in which one’s head would be severed from his body by a falling blade. I surmise that the word guilt is short for guillotine. The “ine” at the end of the word is like trampoline, tambourine, limousine (limo), and quarantine. One does not have to be a Frenchman in order to use the guillotine. Everyone uses it to get free of guilt. When one’s head sends out an alarm concerning your wrong doing which then produces guilt feelings, the way to fix that is to guillotine it, to shut down the source that feeds guilt feelings. For the davener that means not to daven at all, or to make sure one does not have enough time to understand what he is saying,. By doing so, we can conveniently rid ourselves of feelings of guilt and unworthiness. But let us not forget that the guillotine method is also FATAL.
Hashem created a natural involuntarily reaction of blushing if one is caught lying. Animals don’t blush or get embarrassed, only humans do. Hashem wants one to feel guilty when he makes wrong choices, and blushing is a heavenly alert to reset him on the correct track of life and the pursuit of truth and spirituality. The word בוש is the same as שובto return. A little guilt is an incredible tool if one uses it properly. Davening is even a better tool than blushing for it is brought upon oneself by his act of praising Hashem for all his kindness. We stand with our feet together during Shemoneh Esrai because the Navi (Yechezkail 1,7) describes the feet of malachim as ישר feet together. By acknowledging Hashem’s chassadim to us we remain of the straight and virtuous path.
I advise to those who are illiterate in the meaning of their tefillos and are missing a deeper connection with Hashem, either to read English books that deal with the meaning of each tefilla such as Rav Schwab On Tefillah, or take an English translation and choose one small piece at a time to make tefilla more relevant for you. And to those who know basically what the tefillos mean, go once in a while to a slower minyan, or choose one beracha in Semoneh Esrai to say it slowly until it becomes meaningful to you and then do the same to the next beracha or perek of Tehillim mentioned in Pesukai D’zimrah. Remember that during the entire day one rarely thinks about Hashem. Tefillah is one’s personal rendezvous of consciousness with the Borei Olam who is your G-d and the G-d of Am Yisrael.

Rav Brazil
Gut Shabbos