Tefilah education is a topic that is very important to educators. Yet we often find that many of our students are lacking the proper Kavanah and approach to Tefilah that we as educators seek. One of the problems that we have is that if we analyze Tefilah well enough we can realize that the way we approach Tefilah education is not fully in sync with the original way it was constructed. Tefilah was constructed by our Chachamim (sages) with a national approach in mind, focusing on a level of Emunah and connection with Hashem as a group or KLAL. The goal was and is always for the Jewish nation to thrive and continue as a whole. The deep personal and individual connection with Hashem is missing from the original construct and therefore is expected to come from the individual. If our students are only presented the words of the siddur and their meanings they are essentially only receiving part of the total package of our connection with Hashem through Tefilah.
Due to the limited space in this article I’m going to be giving a balcony view for this vast and complicated topic. I want to examine the importance of a student developing a personal relationship with Hashem by understanding three essential relationships with Tefilah. The three relationships of Tefilah include: one’s relationship with Klal Yisrael through Halakha, one’s personal relationship with Hashem, and one’s relationship with “self.”
When Anshey Knesset Hagedolah put together our Tefilah it was designed as a means of connection to Hashem for Bney Yisrael, whereby we express our Emunah on a national level. As our Tefilah was written in a plural form it was the best way to proclaim our strength and beliefs as a group in a unified expression. The national level of Emunah that Tefilah allows us to proclaim is the belief that Hashem is the one that created the world, the one who took us out of mitzrayim, and the one that gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai. Hashem is that dominant powerful force that gives us an opportunity to have an open personal structured relationship with him through Korbanot, Yamim Tovim, Shabbos and many other ways. Tefilah expresses how Hashem wants to have a relationship with us and not to be distant from us. Critical components of our Tefilah include a national Hakarat Hatov recognizing the universe by saying praises and blessings to Hashem. A Sanhedrin was even created to, amongst other things, to continue looking after the oral torah and our Tefilah as our society changed through the generations. The Halachot associated with Tefilah is very much connected on a national level whereby we as a group come together and say tefilot. The focus on a unified national connection that Tefilah has, in itself does not particularly focus on the individual’s connection to Tefilah. In essence the establishment of Tefilah was meant to be an opening but not a totality to our relationship with Hashem. Where does one work on their personal expression? How does one connect to the national level of Emunah if one lacks the ability to connect on an individual basis?
One area that is important to explore is one’s inner relationship with Hashem. The Rambam describes this relationship in chapter three through ten in Hilchot Teshuva. The Rambam lays out for us what our inner Kavanot should be when relating to Hashem. Specifically the importance and necessity of Teshuva, of returning to Hashem requires us to gain a personal relationship with Hashem. The belief and connection that the Rambam describes is a personal one that comes from a strong inner desire to connect with Hashem. In R. Bachya’s Duties of the Heart, it describes in the different chapters how one can connect with Hashem and further their inner relationship with him. The steps, instructions and insights written in the different gates as he describes in this holy work are key components for the Jewish nation to understand how to develop the relationship. When describing G-d’s unity R. Bachya explains that the lowest level of understanding ones connection with Hashem is “the declaration of G-d’s unity by the tongue alone. This level is attained by the child or the simple person who has no understanding….nor is its truth fixed firmly in his heart"[i] He explains the ultimate level is “the acknowledgement of G-d’s unity with the heart and tongue after one knows how to support [the doctrine] with arguments and arrive at knowledge of his true oneness by way of analysis and correct reasonable theories. This is the highest and most accomplished level of them all…..”[ii] Texts corresponding to building this relationship don’t necessarily show up in our Tefilah from an individual standpoint. When engaging in Tefilah our student needs to find a way to explore their inner relationship, yet the text of Tefilah was not necessarily meant for this individual exploration.
Another vital relationship that is lacking from our regular Tefilah is ones deeper connection with oneself. Mindfulness, as is more commonly known as today, is a necessary component to Tefilah. In the Tractate of Brakhot we have the famous stanza that describes how when someone observed Rabbi Akiva praying on his own he would “leave him in this corner and find him in another corner.”[iii] His focus and mindfulness was so strong that one must ask, how can we achieve that level of Kavanah? Chassidut describes this as a form of Hitbodedut or self-seclusion as they value the idea of spending time connecting oneself to nature with breathing exercises that block out all distractions. If students engage in Tefilah without mastering the skill of deep connection with oneself there is little chance their Tefilah can reach the level that they ultimately desire.
A burning question then must be asked. If the individual relationship with Hashem and the self are so vital where did Chazal and Anshey Knesset Hagedolah want us to work on these relationships? In our Talmud there many examples where people did work on these relationships. One way was through Tzarchey Tzibbur (community responsibility). Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi would engage in Tzarchey Tzibbur so much so that it acted as a conduit to his relationship to Hashem. It became his personal identity and mission feeling close to Hashem with his work for the community. For our purposes nowadays people can use this national level opportunity that is our Tefilah to work on their personal relationship. When Rabbi Akiva would drift from one side of the room to the other in his Shemoneh Esrei one can assume he was davening for the nation but in addition he was forming and working on his personal relationship with Hashem. Rabbeinu Yona further explains that when he would pray in public he would shorten his additional supplications in order for the length of his prayer to not be a burden to the other congregants.[iv] The Tefilah itself can serve as a pause in our day to take the opportunity to have a secluded and personal internal dialogue that can further our relationship with Hashem.
In our schools we teach wonderful song and sometimes even meaningful Beur Tefilah (Tefilah explanation). We rarely take the opportunity to talk about what’s that personal relationship supposed to look like. We have curriculum on almost every subject but yet we do not engage our students about the personal mindfulness and connection to Hashem that is necessary to achieve full concentration in a regular curricular format. When are we teaching our students that their personal feelings and experiences are important enough to relate to Hashem? Chazal assumed and understood in their time that we as Jews are working on this relationship daily. An interesting way to appreciate this, is taking a deeper look into the holidays of Pesach and Sukkot. While Pesach is purely focused on a communal meal where we as a nation describe the story of our freedom from slavery on a national level, Sukkot is a personal experiential connection with oneself where we remove our own personal comforts and go outside and become more mindful of our surroundings. These two components of our national approach to Tefilah as well as our personal approach to Tefilah are important and work well together. The beauty of our Shemoneh Esreh is that we have a written script that we can always go to, which describes in a national construct our submission and love for Hashem and the nation of Yisrael. We cannot rely solely on that script. We must have an inner script that constantly furthers our relationship with Hashem while simultaneously forging a relationship with ourselves.
[i] Ben Joseph ibn Paquda, R’ Bachya. Duties of the Heart. Translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, 1999 p. 73
[ii] Ben Joseph ibn Paquda, R’ Bachya. Duties of the Heart. Translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, 1999 p. 75
[iii] Tractate Berakhot 31a
[iv] Yonah, Rabeinu, Tractate Berakhot 31a
Michael Ribalt is an Elementary School Assistant Principal of Judaic Studies in Yeshiva of Central Queens. Rabbi Ribalt has spent years focusing on Tefilah education in elementary school. He co-wrote a Tefilah curriculum for middle school entitled “Tefilah Reimagined” that won the Jewish Education Innovative Challenge, awarding schools $50,000 to implement an innovative approach to addressing challenges in Jewish Day schools. (http://jewish challenge.org/) He is currently working on a spiral Tefilah program for grades 1-8. This article is meant to begin a conversation about Tefilah education. He invites you to please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org as he would love to hear ideas and thoughts on how to improve Tefilah education.