HOW TO FOCUS ON PRAYER
We all want to pray with full concentration, yet our minds wander so often. This makes prayer pretty frustrating. The truth is that today, more than ever before, staying focused is a difficult goal for much of humanity. Is there any effective technique that will help us to stay focused when we pray, and keep us from thinking about the things on our minds?
I would like you to focus for a minute and observe minute details. Go ahead and focus.
Of course, you are probably having trouble since you were not asked to focus on anything in particular. It turns out that this is very largely the difficulty of focusing in prayer as well. Unfortunately, we often forget to focus on communicating with G-d, and focus instead on the next word in the siddur. We try to focus on the words, but this is like trying to communicate with someone when you are thinking mainly about which words to use rather than the topic of the conversation. In order for us to understand and appreciate what is really being said, we have to be able to focus in on the conversation. Allow me to elaborate.
Our Forefather Avraham was the first person to come up with the concept of praying to G-d on a daily basis. He conceived the Morning Prayer. Furthermore, the Talmud (Berachot 6b) tells us that Avraham had a set place for prayer. In its discussion, the Talmud also tells us that the word standing (amidah) is a synonym for the word prayer. Why is this so? The answer is that the word amidah actually has a double meaning. It means standing, but it also means standing still – as opposed to moving. And this is central to the idea of prayer: standing still and stopping in order to focus. This means realizing that we are standing in front of G-d, and we are addressing our Maker as “You” (אתה). Thinking about other things, such as items on our “To do” list, is simply not appropriate at this time. That is not standing still, but rather being on the way to do something else.
In the episode in which Avraham prayed for the people of Sedom, we also find our great Forefather standing: ואברהם עודנו עומד לפני ה’ (יח, כב) (Avraham was still standing in front of G-d).. Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik deduces from the Rambam that forgetting that we are standing in front of G-d at any time in prayer actually disqualifies the prayer. It turns out, then, that the requirement to be aware of standing in front of our Maker is much more strict then the requirement to concentrate on the words we are saying in prayer: missing concentration disqualifies the prayer only regarding the first blessing of the Shmoneh Esrei (not the other blessings), but failing to remember that we are talking to G-d disqualifies the prayer at any point. This is what the Torah is hinting at when it tells us that Avraham was still standing in front of G-d. He did not forget for a second where he was.
This insight can help us in maintaining our concentration and proper intention in prayer. The way the mind focuses is through associations. If we try to understand the words we are saying without focusing on where we are and what we are in middle of, it is much more difficult for the mind to keep focused. But if we always bear in mind that we are standing in front of G-d, and remind ourselves whom we are talking to each time we say “You” (אתה), then we have a much better chance of focusing on the comprehension as well.
LEARNING FROM OUR PATRIARCHS AND MATRIARCHS
It is naive to think that men and women communicate in a similar fashion. It is even more naive to think that we can explain the conduct of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs in terms of our own perspective on life. Allow me to expound on these two common misconceptions, and how they overlap in this week’s parashah.
The Torah and the Midrash tell us that Sarah noticed the immoral actions of Yishmael, the son of Avraham and Hagar. Among them was his new sport of shooting arrows over the head of Sarah’s son, Yitzchak. The teenaged Yishmael claimed that he was only playing, and that no harm would come of it. Yishmael would also mock Yitzchak by pointing out that he himself was the first-born, and therefore entitled to a double share of the inheritance. Sarah could not sit idly by, and requested that Avraham “send away this maidservant and her son, for this maidservant’s son will not inherit with my son Yitzchak.”
Many people misinterpret the ensuing disagreement between Avraham and Sarah about whether or not to send Yishmael and Hagar away. They see it as something personal. But the Tosefta (Sota 5) makes it quite clear that this was not the case at all. Both Sarah and Avraham were concerned about possible damage to G-d’s honor and “reputation” – what we call chillul HaShem. Sarah meant to communicate: “If my son Yitzchak learns from Yishmael’s behavior and habits, wouldn’t the name of Heaven be desecrated?” Sarah was concerned that the Name of G-d would be disgraced if her son, a future Patriarch of the Jewish Nation, would pick up any Yishmael-like traits. Avraham responded that he had great difficulty fulfilling this request: “After we upgraded Hagar from maidservant to housewife, what would people say if we drive her from our home? Avraham was concerned about their stature as Patriarchs and about possible desecration of Heaven’s Name as well. Sarah answered that since there are differences between us, Heaven should arbitrate. And, indeed, G-d ruled in her favor. He said to Avraham: “Whatever Sarah says to you, heed her voice.” Now, this terminology is a bit surprising, as Rashi notes. Why did G-d say “heed her voice,” and not “heed her words“? Isn’t a voice without words just incomprehensible sound?
G-d was hinting to Avraham that Sarah was a greater prophet than he. Her voice was her prophetic voice, her power of prophecy. However, there is a further peculiarity in this verse which actually speaks volumes if we can just tune in to the Hebrew. Avraham is told to “heed/listen to her voice” – שמע בקולה. Wouldn’t it be more grammatically correct to say לקולה שמע? By using the letter (actually a preposition here) ב, G-d seems to be suggesting more than just heeding/listening.
I think the deeper meaning is something along the following lines: When a husband or son hears his wife or mother saying something, he may tend to listen mainly to what is specifically verbalized, but be less tuned in to the emotions being communicated. He forgets that women tend to use non-verbal cues such as tone, emotion, and empathy when conveying what is on their mind. This is what G-d was telling Avraham. When listening to Sarah, listen not only to what she says, but to the way in which she says it .
Now let’s take a closer look at Sarah’s request that Avraham send away Yishmael and Hagar: “Send away this maid servant and her son, for this maidservant’s son will not inherit with my son with Yitzchak.” At first glance, it may seems that Sarah was being over-protective of her son Yitzchak and jealous of Hagar’s relationship with her husband Avraham. From the Midrashim, however, it is obvious that this is not the case at all. Sarah felt that Hagar had to be sent away as well for if she did not know how to raise Yishmael properly, she could not be a mother in the house of Avraham – a house where people were trained to serve G-d. Sarah was focused on values and morals, not personal considerations. To sanctify G-d’s Name was her highest priority. These inner feelings and sense of judgment were actually a result of her high level of prophecy. Out of respect to her husband, she still was careful not to say to Avraham that she knew she was right as a result of her higher level of prophecy. So she found a way of saying it as if it were something personal.
Going one step further, it is a fact of life that most women do not answer “Yes” or “No” to questions that men routinely handle with short answers. Women in general, and modest women in particular, tend not to state their feelings explicitly. They need a chance to express themselves. If not given this chance, they might well avoid committing themselves. And even after they do express themselves, they might still say: “I don’t know; do whatever you feel.” A man must therefore listen perceptively to a woman’s voice, and feel her feelings, and figure out exactly what she wants on his own. This is essentially what G-d said to Avraham שמע בקולה and not שמע לקולה – “listen into” her voice, not just to what her voice is explicitly saying.
The Chatam Sofer brings evidence for this concept from Lavan’s remark to Eliezer concerning giving Rivkah’s hand in marriage to Yitzchak: נקרא לנערה ונשאלה את פיה – “We will call the girl and ask her mouth” (Bereishit 24:57) . On the surface. the word פיה (her mouth) seems superfluous. The Chatam Sofer explains: Lavan was willing to do whatever possible to prevent his sister from marrying Yitzchak and building the Jewish Nation. Lavan figured that if they put Rivkah on the spot and asked: Do you want to marry him, Yes or No? – she would not be willing or able to give a direct response. Lavan would then explain that she does not want to go. Instead, a miracle happened, and Rivkah gave a clear “Yes!” to the question.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF REUVEN BEN SARA AND CHANA BAT HENYA
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