Commentary

A Journey to the Land of Prayer

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Dov Singer

EDITORS’ NOTE: This article begins with an introduction by Rabbi Elchanan Nir, followed by three of the ‘Prayer Recipes’ from Rabbi Dov Singer’s book. 

Rabbi Dov Singer suggests that we view prayer as a part of the entirety of the modern human condition. Restoring one’s relationship with oneself and one’s environment is the gateway to the face-to-face encounter with the Divine.

The Essence of the Encounter

Rabbi Dov Singer is the first student of a trio of rabbis who heralded the Hasidic revival in Israel’s National-Religious community in the late twentieth century. The three rabbis – Rabbi Shagar z”l, Rabbi Menachem Froman z”l, and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz– are responsible for the change of the discourse of this community. While the National-Religious community lives according to a collective language and ideology, these three teachers sought to suggest a religious language that is gentler, more personal, a language that leaves room for dialogue. In place of exclamation points (to which great ideologues are often partial), these three rabbis, each in his own way, cultivated a more particular, more subjective language – a language that allows space for questions marks, for grappling, and draws from the awareness that life here is ever hazy and in constant search of the hidden presence, of holiness. And instead of pious and all-knowing answers, the three spiritual teachers legitimized existential questions: who am I? What do I want to do here? And mainly – what is the purpose and the goal of this world? They recognized in these questions the opening to a meeting place with the Beyond, with the Infinite.

The student, Rabbi Singer, also emphasized these points. He wrote: “When a person meets a riddle – it will remain with him his whole life. But if he meets only an answer – when he grows up, it will seem to him childish and irrelevant.” But, like his rabbis, he did not content himself with engaging with Hasidic content; he found ways to work with form and to build a contemporary, concrete toolbox whose purpose is to bring about this inner space of searching and dialogue.

Rabbi Dov Singer began his path as the head of the Makor Chaim Yeshiva High School, located in Gush Etzion, over three decades ago, a position he holds to this day. At the yeshiva, which was founded by Rabbi Steinsaltz, he developed a number of foundational principles which he would continue to strengthen in the years to come:

  1. Trust: the main role of the educator is to grow, nourish, and work towards a sense of trust and faith.
  2. Wholeness: in an atmosphere of trust, one does not have to put on a false display of perfection, but rather to accept the other where he is. The teacher is not a perfect person, a genius or a tzaddik [righteous person], but rather a believer who knows how to project his faith to the student and to others. He learns just as he teaches. The more years a person studies, the more he becomes a student, and the less he knows. This inner stance cultivates humanistic values of dignity and compassion for all human existence, arising out of a religious value of standing in the presence of God. 
  3. Speaking and Listening: speaking correctly and honestly between two, as well as listening truthfully between two, is the gateway not only to human relationships but also to the relationship between humans and God. Speaking and listening are the gateway to every relationship – between spouses, friends, parents and children, and also the relationship between humans and God. This is the gateway to prayer.
  4. Presence: People must be fully present in reality, must make space for others to be present in reality, and must make room for the hidden presence, for God, and be present with them.

In later years, Rabbi Dov established the Beit Midrash LeHitĥadshut (The Learning Center for Renewal), a center of Torah study for working people, where he sought to learn and to teach the foundations laid out here. It includes two major programs: First, Lifnai VeLifnim is a teacher training program that provides tools for educators to do their own inner work, with the understanding that the only possibility a teacher has of encouraging growth in students, and of building a proper relationship with them, is through the constant learning and renewal of the teacher. Lifnai VeLifnim is a program available to Israeli college and university students as a part of their undergraduate and graduate studies, which makes this unique method accessible to students across Israel. In recent years, together with the Orthodox Union and friends from around the Jewish world, the Beit Midrash LeHitĥadshut has shared this method in various forms with communities and schools from numerous countries.

The second program is the Az Nidberu prayer groups: groups of people who meet once a week for two or three hours and discuss their lives, their spiritual work, that which is truly important – a sharing that is open, personal, and genuine. In contrast to the psychoanalytic method, which asks people to turn inward into themselves, to dig and dig into their past, seeking to reach an inner catharsis, these prayer groups take people outside of themselves. They ask one to connect to a context broader than one’s own existence: a context of family and friends, of community and nation, and even of the world, and this very connection begins the flow of prayer. This book was born out of these prayer groups, and it is an invitation to all – men and women, Jews and non-Jews alike – to initiate such groups whose purpose is to learn to speak, to listen, and to pray.

A Renewed Connection with Prayer

Rabbi Dov came to his involvement with prayer through his work with couples who were experiencing marital difficulties. They would come to him to learn how to talk and to listen, to enhance their marital connection, and to improve the language of communication between them. After many conversations with couples he realized that the marital tools that can facilitate communication between a husband and wife are actually the same tools that can open the gates of prayer, and since then he has worked hard to revive and encourage prayer. Most people have never experienced a conversation in which they have felt truly heard. They do not have the inner experience of their words reaching their destination. A person who is unfamiliar with this element of listening, even if he is a person of deep faith, does not know how to pray, for this person does not know what it means to really hear. Therefore, before we prove God’s existence, we must make the Creator, the Beyond, the Universe in which we live, present. This is done through prayer.

The Mishna in Avot tells us that the world is based on three pillars: Torah, prayer, and acts of kindness. The world of Torah learning deals with the realm of Torah, the social world with the realm of acts of kindness, but no one touches the realm of prayer. Prayer is in a deep freeze: no one approaches it, no one touches it, no one engages with it. But removing it from the freezer is our chance, as humans. Prayer is the prospect of a person’s salvation from being firmly absorbed in him- or herself, from the fences of loneliness with which people surround their lives. It is the way to the freedom every human deserves. Prayer is therefore the vision of the liberation of the modern man from his inner shackles, the liberation of the person wherever he is. One can speak about prayer, or one can just pray. The willingness to enter into that experience is the opportunity to consider theological questions and to talk about God, but it does not work the other way around – you cannot talk about God without ever having a true experience of prayer.

According to Rabbi Dov, the difficulty of praying lies not necessarily in the technological environment that surrounds us, but rather in something far more fundamental – the difficulty we humans have with vulnerability, being in a position of requesting, of submission and giving in, of seeking help. To pray is to learn to speak, to listen, and to be weak. Prayer demands of me to bring my life to a place beyond myself, to convert it from the ‘I-It’ to the ‘I-Thou’ and the ‘Eternal Thou,’ to use Martin Buber’s well-known concepts. This is a redemptive vision where humans are released from their inner cage, where they arise from broken and superficial relationships with themselves and their environment and emerge to be reflected on the shore of prayer, where they learn to reach out and meet the other.

One of the main problems with prayer is that most people have never experienced true listening. Most of us have never felt heard, and we have never really heard others. If a person has merited to be truly attentive, he has a way of facing the Ultimate Listener. He knows his words are heard. The problem of communication is not a lack of concentration, but a lack of trust in the words. Words have ceased to be words that emerge from the heart and return to it, but have become merely a means of sharing information. They no longer carry within them the emotion and the soul, as they are supposed to. They must be redeemed, the trust in the words restored, to lead us to a consciousness where when I say “Good morning” my words are the blessing they are truly meant to be, rather than a hollow, dry expression, empty and lifeless. When one learns to speak, to listen, and to make space, he develops an ability to enter into a situation where sharing is made possible; he learns to stand before God and feel his ability to be someone who is heard.

You sit with a friend, looking closely at him or her and trying to experience – really experience – that there is someone here. You look deeply, noticing your friend’s presence. And now you say to your friend the most precious word in the world: “You.” This is the peak of prayer – the created man says to the Creator: “You.”

From the moment that there is “you,” there is “he,” but the “he” is other. Most people tend to see the other as something, as a function of this or that, and not as someone. In order to distinguish the other as someone and not merely something, I must first make space to meet this other as a someone, as a wonder. Inside this human creation, someone, not just something, is moving about, and when I learn to meet that someone, I learn that everything is personal. It is not an idea, it is a feeling of presence. Life itself.

Indeed, prayer is often difficult for us – we feel we are speaking but there is no answer; we speak for years and years, but there is no echo to our words or our cries. Truly, this is a debilitating condition and can even lead to despair. But it requires one to remain open to an answer that is different from what one may have expected: the ability to verbalize the secrets of the heart – this is the real answer of prayer. “A man may arrange his thoughts, but what he says depends on God” (Prov. 16:1). The very act of speech is God’s answer to humans turning towards Him, calling to Him from our place. The speech itself also functions as proof of the existence of God. But this is not an external proof of the existence of God; rather, it is a willingness to enter into the inside. This “inside” is itself the Divine Presence in the world, the understanding that in truth I am not alone here in the world, even if it is a world seemingly full of alienation and strangeness.

And what about when we have challenges with the Creator, there is resentment in the heart, the soul is constrained and refuses to continue trusting? If it is arbitrary it is one thing, but if one perceives that there are complexities and difficulties in the world, it is another, says Rabbi Dov. I do not understand what is happening, but I understand that something is happening here, that it is not injustice but a kind of calling to me that I must learn even though I may never understand. I surrender understanding and prefer to simply meet, just as I do not try to explain the other, but prefer to remain opposite and discover his or her presence.

This book is a journey to the unknown land of prayer, but no less to the land of listening and speaking, to the land of presence with the other and with the hiddenness of life, to the land of encounter. It has many trails, polar geographies and varying climates, mountains and rivers, heights and depths, streams of water and arid deserts, and each and every time a person can choose their own route. And like any good trip – one never knows what the road will bring, what will happen there and how it will end.

Because the journey is the secret of this life, here.


תפילת הציבור

The Community’s Prayer

אשר יחדו נמתיק סוד, בבית אלקים נהלך ברגש

That together we would devise counsel; 

In the house of God we would walk with a multitude.

-Psalms 55:15

For in mind and intellect people’s consciousness is not equal. Therefore from the side of mind and intellect even when they are together they do not become one. A community which is as one person is only from the side of the heart, for all of Israel has only one heart towards their Father in Heaven.

-Rebbe Shmuel Bornshtein of Sochatchov, Shem MiShmuel, Parashat Va’ethanan 

In community prayer, in a habura of worshippers 

We come together to God

We step out of our isolation, our separation,

 and connect.

We move from ten individuals, to a minyan, a quorum of prayer.

From twenty legs standing one next to the other- to ten hearts beating together. 

In our prayers for one another, we raise the level of love that exists among us

The responsibility and the connection.

This wondrous connection between us is what allows us to open our hearts

And to pray for one another.

  • When praying in a habura, we can invite, at the prayer’s outset, anyone who would like to ask for the help of the group: 

To express a request

Or mention the name of another who is in need of prayer 

To give their own name to the group,

And the entire group together can repeat the name out loud and pray. 

  • Another possibility is to have everyone sit together in a circle and everyone writes down their own requests, all of these notes are then collected and placed in the middle of the circle.

Each one then reaches out a hand and randomly chooses one of the notes, and reads out the request written before him with focus.

Sometimes you might receive your own prayer. Sometimes you might receive a prayer similar to your own, like a sort of wink from Above. 

And at times, only once we have begun praying we may find that the prayer of another, that had at first seemed distant and strange to us, has unearthed in us a new desire, revealing how the root of all prayer is one. This is what it means: “One who prays for a friend is answered first”: Answered with a new prayer. 

Afterwards, in the midst of our prayer, we will recall the same request, and pray about it in the appropriate places. 

The knowledge that someone in the room is praying for me, while I am praying for another, ties us together with invisible strings, brings us closer. 

העלאת מחשבות זרות

Raising Up Stray Thoughts

For man is required to believe that the world is filled with His

blessed glory, and there is no place empty of Him, and all man’s

thoughts have within them the reality of God, and every thought

has a complete stature. And when, while engaging in prayer, there

arises in one’s thoughts an evil foreign thought, it comes to him

in order to be fixed and raised up.

-Rebbe Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, Keter Shem Tov 39

We all know the feeling

Of standing in prayer when thoughts arise,

Sometimes bad thoughts, or annoying, or embarrassing ones,

Sometimes just strange, disconnected thoughts.

What can we do?

We can relate to these thoughts not as a disturbance,

But rather as voices, as desires, as sparks gathering around our

prayer,

Asking to cling to me, wanting me to be a mouthpiece for

them,

To fix them, to raise them to their source,

To transform them into prayer.

Don’t be afraid. Don’t fight. Don’t push back.

Just turn, redirect the energy upward.

Turn the distractions into prayer, alienation into closeness.

  • When a thought arises in prayer that is unconnected, bothersome, or strange, notice it, consider its source, what it might be coming to fix, and how we can transform it into prayer.
  • For example: If while praying a troubling thought comes to mind about livelihood or money, ask: 

What is this troubling thought? 

Why am I troubled by money? 

Perhaps for the welfare of my spouse and my children? 

And on top of this we can also ask: What is this desire in me to see to the welfare of my family? 

And through this it might become clear that there is actually no disturbance or stray thought, but rather a deep prayer: 

Please God, I am asking of You, give me the necessary means, 

Help me make it possible for my family to free themselves from external constraints, 

So that they are able to do what their heart truly desires, 

So they are able to freely express their own voice in this world. 

And so in the merit of this stray thought, I find myself praying out of love for my spouse and my children, 

Asking for their light to shine, for their voice to be heard.

הכרת הנוכח

Perceiving the Presence

שפכי כמים לבך נוכח פני ה’

Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord.

-Lamentations 2:19

If you prepare your heart and spread out your hands to Him.

-Job 11:13

What is intention?

That one should empty his heart of all thoughts and see himself

as if he is standing before the Shekhina.

Therefore one should sit a bit before prayer in order to direct

his heart.

Rambam, Hilkhot Tefilla 4:16

Prayer

Even before it is a request,

Even before it is an expression of gratitude,

Even before it is praise,

Is an encounter.

Standing in the presence,

Before the Shekhina, God’s indwelling presence.

Therefore, the first step we take as we enter into prayer

Is the opening of consciousness to presence,

To the sense that God is here

Above me, in front of me, around me, inside of me.

To the knowledge that all things I see around me are not only

inanimate objects,

Rather they hold within them deep desire and yearning.

To the sense that each and every person surrounding me truly

exists,

Present and full of longing.

And the Source of Life is also here,

Reachable, close, touching.

The awareness of another’s presence can be felt on the simplest level by working in pairs:

  • Define roles at the outset – one is present, the other gives presence.
  • Sit together for a few minutes.

The present one is present,

Focusing on the very essence of their existence.

Breathing deeply and slowly, relaxing the body, letting go of all thoughts.

The one who gives presence is aware,

Trying to feel the very presence of the other,

Not their thoughts, not their desires,

Not who they are, or what they are.

Rather to sense their actual presence,

To let this presence impact, pass through, envelop.

  • When ready,

The one giving presence should turn to the present

one and say:  YOU.

Once, twice, three times, ten times.

  • The addressing of the other as “you”

Is not what creates their presence,

But is rather an acknowledgment of the realness of it,

An awakening to their very existence.

Even prior to the addressing of the other,

It connects the present one and the one who gives

presence.

  • The present one allows the calling out of  YOU to

permeate their bing, to penetrate their heart, until

they open their mouth and answer I.

  • At a more advanced stage, alone or with a partner, we

progress to sensing the Divine Presence surrounding

us, peering at us from every object, from every tree,

from every breeze.

We allow it to encircle us, to embrace us, to wrap itself

around our being.

  • In this way we will build within us the primary  YOU,

the most basic, the one we will use each time we say

“Blessed are  YOU” in our prayer.

The existing, the present  YOU, that fills all worlds.

  • It is important to realize that we can’t force this feeling

of presence, and we can’t know when it will come.

Yet the intention opens the gates of our heart to it, and

enables its existence.