One of the prime goals of your time in Israel (and some might argue THE prime goal) is to develop your relationship with Hashem. One of the ways that happens is through your learning, but that is usually indirect; it is not often that a Blatt of Kiddushin or a page of Mishna Berura leads to a direct feeling of encountering Hashem Himself. Instead, one of the primary ways to work on your relationship with Hashem is to talk to Him, just as you would build any other relationship. There are two types of conversations you can have with Him: formal (3 times a day) and informal (whenever you want to). Here are some things to think about to start improving your formal Tefilla.
The first thing you need to do is change your perspective on Davening. Until now, Davening has generally been something to do, or maybe something to get over with. In order to start gaining from Davening, you need to shift your perspective from “I have to” to “I get to.” If you can see Tefilla as an opportunity to work on your relationship with the One Who Pulls The Strings, everything ese will basically fall into place. Rabbi Menachem Penner (YU) mentioned once that he opens every Shemoneh Esrei with, "Hello, God - it's me, Marc." That's exactly the mindset we're looking to create - an open dialogue with the King who knows your name.
Another perspective on Tefilla sees it as an opportunity to reorient your compass against the objective standard, set by Hakadosh Baruch Hu and put to words by the Anshei Kneses HaGedola. Before, during, and after a day filled with activity, thrice-daily Tefilla creates a needed space to pause and check in with yourself. However you think about Tefilla, appreciate the value it adds to your day.
Without question, meaningful Tefilla doesn’t begin whenever Minyan is called to start. You need to prepare yourself beforehand. Pretend it’s a date (as much as that’s not relevant yet, granted): you need to spend a couple of minutes on your clothes, and you need to think about what you’re going to talk about. Your clothing should reflect the fact that you’re taking the meeting seriously. Dressing that way will also help put yourself in a more formal frame of mind. Preparing talking topics is also part of showing that the meeting matters to you. Planning beforehand allows you to remember everything you want to bring up at the meeting, both expressions of appreciation as well as requests for help. Trying to wing it, on the other hand, will lead to you forgetting most of what you had to say, and you won’t feel connected while casting around for the next thing to bring up. You know that horrible awkward silence that can descend on a date? That’s what you’re looking to avoid.
Once you’ve taken a few minutes to prepare, you’re ready to start Davening. One of the advantages and disadvantages of formal Tefilla is that we have a script to use for most of the conversation. On the positive side, we’re directed to focus on the ideas that matter, and given language much more eloquent and expressive than we’d come up with on our own (especially at the earlier morning Minyanim…). The downside is that we can get so used to the words that we just shoot them out without any idea of what we’re saying. (There’s also a chance that we won’t connect to the content of the script, feeling like it’s not expressing feelings we really have; informal Tefilla is one essential way to remedy that situation). Take a few minutes to look through the Siddur outside of Davening time. If you find that you can’t fluently translate most of the words, you should fix that. A short seder before davening just going through the English of each Tefilla has two immediate benefits: you’ll learn the meaning of what you’re saying, and you’ll have something to focus on during that day’s Tefilla. You might want to take a week for each Tefilla, focusing on the words and meaning each day of that week before moving on.
At the same time, think and learn about the structure of each Tefilla. How does Pesukei D’Zimra lead into Birchos Kriyas Shema? How does Birchos Kriyas Shema transition into Shmoneh Esrei? Taking a big-picture view of each Tefilla helps locate yourself at each point in Davening: even if you’re not thinking about the exact words you’re saying, you can still think about the general theme.
Once you know what the words mean, you have to give yourself time to appreciate them. Slow down! Try this just once, next time you Daven: take a breath in between each word of Shmoneh Esrei. At least try it for the first Bracha (I guarantee you, at the very least, you’ve never looked frummer). It’s not surprising that the words aren’t doing anything for you if you’re going too fast to realize what you’re saying and how it all fits together. If you do this for parts of Davening outside of Shmoneh Esrei, as well, you will get through much less of Davening than you normally would. Fortunately, the Shulchan Aruch is clear that saying less of Davening with Kavana is better than saying more of Davening without; I’ve heard that one of the Roshei Yeshiva in YU divides long Tachanun into thirds and says only one each Monday/Thursday to allow time to focus on the words. Just slow down.
Get a small notebook to keep at your Makom. Every day, answer the following questions:
It will take a couple days of answering these questions to start feeling results. Pretty quickly, you’ll find yourself thinking about them during Davening, helping you focus and tap into whatever you’re saying. After all, who wants to keep writing “No, no, no, nothing, nothing, nope, nope?” Even though no one else will see your answers (your relationship with Hashem is private, after all), it still helps concretize things by writing it down.
Don’t bother trying to implement every tip at once. Choose one that you think you have the most chance of succeeding at, and start there. After it becomes second nature, add another one. Start as soon as you can; Hashem is looking forward to hearing from you!Return to Blog