Rav Elazar Man Shach zt”l, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, once asked a close talmid, “What do you think gives me the most pleasure in life?” Knowing his Rebbi’s great love of Torah, the talmid responded, “I assume it is when Rebbi answers a complicated question or explains a difficult Rambam.” “Incorrect” replied Rav Shach. “My greatest pleasure is the knowledge that I am a peh hamidaber im HaShechina– I have the opportunity to speak with Hashem every time I daven.”
Why Do we Daven?
Tefilah is one of the most precious gifts we have from Hashem. And yet it is also one of the most difficult to understand and even more difficult to perform properly. Why do we daven? Doesn’t Hashem know what we are thinking? Wouldn’t He have given it to me already if it is something I was supposed to have? These are but a few of the questions that have been asked for centuries by countless Jews, all burning with a desire to daven properly, and yet not fully grasping what their tefilos are all about.
The Sifrei Machshava give a mashal of a king who felt it necessary to send his son out of the palace and into the city to learn about the land that he would one day rule. As the prince planned his journey with excitement and enthusiasm for all the wonderful things he would see, people he would meet, and things he would accomplish, he also began to feel a deep level of sadness. While he is in the palace, he can speak with his father whenever he pleases. There has virtually not been a day in his life that he has not had the pleasure of discussing all types of matters with his father. Being outside of the palace and away from the king would make this impossible. After sharing his hesitations with his father, the two were able to come up with the solution: Each day, at set times, the prince would come to palace gates, where the king, knowing his son was anxiously awaiting his presence, would free up his schedule from even the most important worldly matters and take the time to speak with his son.
Although part of tefilah certainly entails asking for what we need, that is not the key element of our davening. Rather, it is the ability to take time away from whatever we are doing and reconnect with Hashem. Tefilah is our opportunity to speak with Hashem in a literal sense, to be a peh hamidaber im hashchina, and to feel His presence more deeply in our lives. In contrast to the other mitzvos, where the goal is to strengthen our connection to Hashem, tefilah allows us to accomplish the ultimate goal – to actualize our connection and be able to speak directly to Hashem. When a person davens, he is not merely saying words while standing in a room. When one takes those three steps forward, he or she is now directly in front of the King of all Kings. This is one of the reasons that one should not walk within four amos of a person who is davening; to do so would be disrespectful to Hashem, in whose presence the davener is standing.
Understanding the Challenges
Imagine a husband and a wife are having a conversation, sharing the summary of their day; the ups and downs, the good and the bad. During the course of the conversation, the wife intuits that her husband is not fully present in the conversation. He is saying all the right things, validating her frustrations and answering all of her questions, but he is not quite there. How close will she feel to him after that conversation?
Research has shown that the mere presence of a phone reduces a person’s ability to focus. Even if the phone is on silent and has been put away, the closer the device is to the person, the less they are able to concentrate. Further studies have shown that when two people are having a conversation, they will feel less of an emotional bond with the other if there is a smartphone being held. Being so strongly connected to our devices has limited our ability to connect to what is truly important- our families, our spouses, Hashem.
A couple of weeks ago, our city gathered together for one night to face the challenges of technology and to discuss practical steps we can take to move forward. From the start, it was never planned as a one-night event, with everyone going home afterward to fend for themselves. Follow up chizuk, education and programming are in the works and will be’H be carrying the momentum forward. As one practical, yet powerful example of this, many shuls throughout Chicago will be joining together in a commitment to have all phones turned off during davening. This is not an attempt to push an agenda or to force anyone into doing something they don’t want to do. It is our Rabbonim uniting to help us ensure that we are able to tap into the awesome power of our connection with Hashem.
Tefilah is our precious chance to speak to Hashem and to feel how close we can be to Him. Generations ago, the gemara teaches us, the pious ones would take a full hour to prepare themselves for this “visit” with their Father in Heaven. Nowadays, we do so by getting one last check on our phones and then quickly putting them on vibrate, just in case something happens during davening we can at least know to check immediately afterwards. If another person will feel slighted knowing that our minds are being occupied by our phones during a conversation with them, how can we stand in front of the Melech Malchei Hamilachim- The King of all Kings- without doing everything we can to be fully present. Imagine the message it would send to our children if we would leave our phones in the car when we go into shul, taking those last few minutes not to send one more quick email, but rather to clear our minds and contemplate the awesome opportunity in which we are about to engage. Imagine the Kiddush Hashem we can all accomplish if not a single phone can be found in a shul throughout our entire city!
It is fascinating that most commentaries understand the status of peh hamidaber im HaShechinah is one reserved for Moshe Rabbeinu, a rank he achieved with his high-level clarity of prophecy. Rav Shach though, has instilled within us an inspiring perspective of this phrase- it is referring to every Jew. Each one of us has this priceless opportunity to talk to Hashem, to be close to Him. Let us take advantage and experience the true beauty of tefilah.