The topic of prayer, which we have been discussing over the last few months, is particularly relevant at this time. During this period of the year we spend much time praying in shul, beginning with the Selichot leading up to Rosh Hashanah, through the Selichot during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and culminating with the prayers of Yom Kippur. Praying to Hashem is one of the main aspects of these Holy Days, and so our discussions about the mitzvah of prayer and connecting with Hashem through davening are pertinent to our preparations leading up to these special Days of Awe.
The Gemara notes that there are devarim she’omdim berumo shel olam, certain things that are so important they “stand in the loftiest heights of the world,” and yet they are not appreciated; people are disparaging toward them and don’t give them their due respect. One such thing, says the Gemara, is tefillah – davening. Tefilla is one of the loftiest things we do and yet people do not fully appreciate how truly amazing it is to be able to stand before the King of all Kings and have a private audience with Him.
Uplifting ourselves, uplifting the world
Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, known as the Alter of Kelm, one of the great Sages of the Mussar movement, comments on this passage that the word berumo, “at the heights,” comes from the same root as the word lehitromem, which means “to be uplifted.” There are certain things that stand at the loftiest heights of the world – berumo shel olam – namely, they uplift the world. The Alter of Kelm comments further that when the Sages of the Talmud use the word olam, “the world,” it does not refer only to the world but also to the human being. A human being is called “an entire world,” as evidenced by the well-known Mishnah (Sanhedrin, 4:5), “Whoever destroys one life it is as if he has destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves one life it is as if he has saved the entire world.”
Every human being is an olam katan, a microcosmic world. We attest to this in the Rosh Hashanah davening when we say Hayom harat olam, “Today the world was created.” According to our Sages, Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary not of the creation of the world, but of the creation of Adam and Eve. When we say “Today the world was created,” we mean the human being was created, for every person is a world unto himself.
Thus, the Alter of Kelm interprets this passage as follows: there are certain things that uplift the world, meaning the human being. And what is it that uplifts the human being? Tefillah – davening to Hashem. Davening is not just about asking for what we want, but about undergoing a spiritual transformation. When we communicate with Hashem and are focused on Him, we are actually uplifting ourselves. The very act of prayer is transformative for the human being.
There are things which uplift the olam katan, the small world, namely, every human being; and that, in turn, uplifts the world around us. The Alter of Kelm quotes from the beginning of Messilat Yesharim, one of the classic works of Jewish philosophy, which says that a great person has an impact on the world around him. G-d created this world for us to achieve greatness, and when a person really achieves greatness, the whole environment is uplifted by him. Prayer has the power to uplift us and everyone around us, and that is why it is such a powerful mitzvah.
But as we saw earlier, the Gemara points out that although prayer has tremendous spiritual power, people don’t appreciate it enough. How can we come to a greater appreciation of prayer and what can we do to make it better, so that we can get more out of it?
Getting the most out of prayer
The Alter of Kelm addresses this question. The way to really unlock the incredible life-changing spiritual energy buried deep within this mitzvah is by enjoying it. This is an important lesson for life in general: only when human beings enjoy something can they derive the maximum benefit from it. G-d has created us in such a way that we avoid pain and pursue pleasure. Naturally we pursue those things which we enjoy, and so the more one enjoys prayer, the more one can unlock its spiritual power.
But how can we find that enjoyment?
Finding joy in prayer has to be our focus and goal, because enjoying the prayer experience is the best way to unlock its spiritual energy. When we daven, we have to enjoy the fact that we are standing in G-d’s presence and communicating with Him, and appreciate the serenity, clarity, spiritual energy and emotional fulfilment that comes from bonding with Him.
This requires effort; as with anything truly pleasurable, one needs to put in the effort and only then can there be enjoyment from it. This is true with everything in life, whether in work, relationships, or anything we are involved in; we will do it best if we enjoy it. Obviously there will be burdensome days, even if we enjoy what we do; but overall it has to be something enjoyable if we want to do it well, and that is our task in tefillah.
The secret to enjoyment: structure and commitment
Interestingly, the secret to enjoying Judaism’s mitzvot is structure and commitment. This may seem counterintuitive; generally we think that enjoyment is linked to spontaneity. But if we look at our own life experiences, we will see that the things we enjoy most are not necessarily the things which are done once in a blue moon and are spontaneous. Certainly those can be enjoyable experiences; but it is the long-term structure and commitment to the things we value, which generate pleasure and fulfilment. True enjoyment comes from the time, commitment and effort we have invested.
This is our task in prayer. We need to put effort into understanding the Siddur, into concentrating while we are in shul; we need to focus on the incredible feeling of being close to Hashem. If we can enjoy the prayer experience, our prayers will become even more powerful from a spiritual and an emotional point of view.
Joy in learning Torah
This is similar to the mitzvah of learning Torah, another one of the mitzvot where the enjoyment of it is connected to the mitzvah. In the blessings we say every morning before learning we say, Veha’arev na Hashem Elokeinu et divrei torat’cha befinu, “Hashem, please make the words of Your Torah sweet in our mouths,” so that we can enjoy the learning experience.
This should be the guiding principle when we approach learning. Learning Torah is one of the most important mitzvot because it opens our minds, our hearts and our eyes to every aspect of Judaism and is the engine that drives our whole life. Therefore we must make the enjoyment of it our focus and goal, and to this end we must learn from someone who inspires us, together with a learning partner, a chavrusa, or from books that we enjoy. We must learn the subject matter that speaks to us, in a way that we enjoy, because that pleasure will enhance the experience. Of course there will be ups and downs; that is human nature. But in general the driving force in Torah learning is the pleasure we derive from the experience.
This is why the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 1:4) says, “Drink the words of the Sages with thirst.” In his commentary on this Mishnah, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky explains that one can drink water for two purposes. The first is because it is healthy, and it is vitally important to drink; the body needs fluids to survive. The second is because one wants to, because one is thirsty. Likewise, Torah learning is healthy and vitally important; it is essential to being a good Jew. But one can also learn Torah not just because one has to, but because one is thirsty and wants to. The Mishnah is teaching us that when we learn Torah, we should do so not simply because we have to, but because we are thirsty for knowledge and want to learn. The ultimate goal is that we view it as something exciting and enjoyable.
Shabbat – a day of pleasure
This also relates to the mitzvah of Shabbat. I am sure some of you have heard about the Shabbos Project which was launched at the conclusion of Sinai Indaba. It is going to take place on Shabbat the 11th and 12th of October, and we are all going to keep one Shabbat together, as a community.
At the heart and soul of Shabbat is enjoyment. It says (Isaiah 58: 13) Vekarata lashabat oneg, “You shall call the Shabbat ‘a day of delight.’” It is a day where holiness, pleasure and enjoyment intersect, where we celebrate together as families and communities, and bond with Hashem and His Torah.
G-d has created human beings in such a way that we respond most profoundly to that which we find pleasurable. We see this in the aforementioned mitzvot – Shabbat, learning Torah, and the mitzvah with which we began our discussion, davening to Hashem. Only when we find pleasure and enjoyment in what we are doing will it be something that can open our hearts, minds and eyes and transform us into better people and in so doing uplift us and the entire world around us.