How Do We Pray to G-d?

What is the proper way in which to pray to G-d? At the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, we explored prayer as not only something to do at services but as something to make part and parcel of our practice throughout the day. Often many of us (myself included) can get bored in prayer and pray by rote. That of course is not the ideal way to pray to  G-d, which bears forth the question “what is?”

One approach is given by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav in his work Likkutei Moharan. In commenting on the verse beginning this week’s Torah portion, ואתחנן על ה בעת ההיא לאמר “and I entreated G-d at that moment saying…”[1] Rebbe Nahaman asserted דהנה אדם צריך להתפלל בדבקות גדול להשם יתברך, “A person needs to pray clinging to G-d.” Is it always possible to pray in such a state? Rebbe Nahman recognizes that it is not, continuingאך אם לפעמים יש עת, שאינו יכול להפלל בדבקות, אל יאמר: איני מתפלל כלל, מאחר שאינו יכול לכון כראוי ולהתפלל בדבקות, והתפילה אינו מקובלת, “If at times he’s not able to pray clinging to G-d, he should not say ‘Since I cannot intend myself as is proper and pray clinging to G-d, the prayer will not be received.” Rather what one should do is entreat to G-d תמיד, בין בדבקות בין אינו בדבקות, “always, whether or not he is able to cling to G-d.”[2]

Rebbe Nahman demonstrates here why Hasidut was so populist: it recognized the limitations of people. He knew that people could not always pray directly clinging to G-d, for there are far too many distractions pulling us away from G-d and toward worldly concerns. Rather than admonish his Hasidim for their lack of connection and concentration, Nahman said ‘That’s ok, no problem’[3] as he recognized that it was better to pray when diverted than to not pray at all. In so doing, he made people feel good about their efforts rather than guilty that they did not do better.

Rebbe Nahman continued describing what it is like to pray while clinging to G-d. He commented that Moses prayed before G-d בעת ההיא, at a particular time. What is that time? He writes הינו בעת שאזכה להתפלל בדבקות, שהוא בחינת שגורה תפלתי בפי, “It was a time when he merited to pray clinging to G-d, and that the words were fluent in his mouth.”[4] Have you ever had a time when words flow clearly from your mouth, when ‘it all just clicks?’ That is precisely what Rebbe Nahman is describing about Moses being before G-d. In our parsha, Moses is pleading with G-d to allow him to enter the Land of Israel, pouring out his heart onto his sleeve, begging for just one step into that special land. That level of intensity and devotion in one’s words is what Rebbe Nahman is arguing each and every one of us should have when we pray to G-d.

I know that’s extremely difficult if not impossible to do, and Rebbe Nahman does as well, for he states that when we cannot achieve such a state we should still pray and try to get there the next time. One of the fortunate things about praying three times a day is we get ample opportunities to pray to G-d and to make the words from our lips genuine and heartfelt rather than merely paying lip service to our obligation. That is what we must strive to do. We are now in the period between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah, a time of joy but also of introspection. During this time let each of us strive to make our words, our pleas and our entreaties aligned with what we feel in our hearts. In so doing, may we attempt to arrive closer to the level of Moshe and may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable before G-d.[5]

[1] Deuteronomy 3:23

[2] Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, Likkutei Moharan, 99 ד”ה ואתחנן אל ה בעת ההיא לאמר

[3] Something my teacher, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, always says in meditation when our minds wander.

[4] Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, Likkutei Moharan, 99  ד”ה בעת ההיא לאמר

[5] Based on Psalm 19:14

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