As I write this article, I am half-way through a six-week course titled "With all My Heart: The Jewish Art of Prayer and Spiritual Experience." Our first assignment seemed simple: Set aside 60 seconds before the next class for a brief prayer during which we were to focus solely on seeking to connect with G-d.
I left that first class thinking, "What's sixty seconds when I already say little snippets of prayer throughout my day—when I wake, when I wash, when I eat, and so on? What's sixty seconds when I regularly enjoy three to four hours in synagogue on Shabbat and Festivals?
Sixty seconds. One minute. Easy. Or so I thought.
It turns out that I found it difficult to focus solely on spiritual matters for one full minute. Each time I tried to focus on connecting with G-d through prayer, one of two things happened: my body needed my attention (e.g., an itch to scratch), or my mind became busy with other thoughts that had nothing to do with my prayer.
Why does this happen? If I can lose myself in a novel, movie, or computer game for hours at a time, why is it so difficult to focus for one-minute on connecting with G-d, especially when I believe G-d continually creates this wondrous world where we all reside? What is it that stops me from consciously choosing to put all other thoughts and needs aside for such a short time?
You, dear reader, may also have discovered this frustrating phenomenon of being distracted during prayer. I hope this explanation, from the Jewish perspective, gives you some understanding and comfort. Who knows, you may even smile the next time you find yourself daydreaming when you worship.
Let's start with the concept that within us we have two souls who have very different aims: The animal soul wishes to take care of our physical needs and stay connected to the earth; the G-dly soul yearns for spiritual experience and to be close to G-d. In fact, the Hebrew word most often used for prayer is tefilah,which translates as "to connect."
When we pray, the G-dly soul seeks to elevate itself and the animal soul towards the spiritual world where they may both get close to G-d. As the G-dly soul strengthens its spiritual connection, the animal soul struggles to keep its connection with the physical world through our minds and our bodies. We suddenly get random thoughts about mundane or fantastical things; we feel an itch or a pain; our mouth gets dry or our stomach gurgles (loud enough to distract others, too). In short, our animal soul will do anything to distract the G-dly soul from its mission and to keep both souls firmly attached to the physical world. It's an ongoing struggle that never ends.
To acknowledge this struggle, Rabbi Shne'ur Zalman (1745-1812), founder of the Chabad movement, wrote: "The time of prayer is a time of war." As a further explanation, The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) wrote, that the Hebrew word for war is keravand the Hebrew word for closeness is kiruv.In war, both sides need to get close to each other in order to triumph over the other. The same thing happens when we pray: our two souls struggle for who will be the victor.
So, the next time you find yourself distracted during prayer, smile and acknowledge that your animal soul is a little nervous about giving up control, then ask it to soar to new heights with the G-dly soul, even if it's just for sixty seconds.
Fiona Prince, MA is a coach, facilitator and teacher who provides fundamental communication and writing skills to help people succeed in their professional and academic lives. She worships at the Chabad Family Shul where she volunteers teaching children and adults how to read Hebrew. Sign-up for weekly communication tips at www.princeheron.com. To learn to read Hebrew, contact her at email@example.com. (Morah means teacher and Faiga is her Hebrew name).
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This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, June 8th 2019