by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon
Checking over the biography of the Rebbe Rashab, I realized that although I mention the tremendous efforts and emphasis that the Rebbe Rashab put in, to encourage Chassidim to Daven with Avodas HaTefilla, I never really explained what Avodas HaTefilla is. So, I decided to share my thoughts and hopefully with your input, I would be able to write that chapter properly and send the book to the printer.
One of the fundamental aspects of darkei HaChassidus is Avodas HaTefilla. Originally that was a defining factor between chassidim and misnagdim. As the Rebbe notes in HaYom Yom that Reb Yekusiel Leipler, a chossid of the Alter Rebbe davened at such length, that [during the short winter days] there was almost no break between Shacharis and mincha and between mincha and maariv, he simply davened an entire day. In fact, most of the twenty-two charges against the Alter Rebbe in his first arrest were centered on his emphasis of Avodas HaTefilla.
However, over the years, due to the difficulties of the various decrees that the Czarist government placed upon Jews, it made their life and livelihood difficult and by many chassidim the concept of Avodas HaTefilla was pushed to the side. The Rebbe Rashab bemoaned this situation and placed tremendous emphasis on bringing it back.
We are told that Avodas HaTefilla requires one to contemplate, to ‘be Misboinein’ on a Ma’amar or a thought of Chassidus that he has learned. Indeed, it is mentioned that a person should do so before he beginning to Daven and during Davening.
However, there’s a famous story of Reb Boruch Mordechai of Babroisk that once, when his non-Chassidic relatives came to his city for a Shabbos, they heard a Chossid who was Davening in the Cheder Sheini, (the small room to the side of the main Shul where Chassidim often Davened at length). Initially, they were inspired by his Davening, but when they heard that it was the wagon driver who was davening, they began to mock such a davening. Reb Boruch Mordechai noticed this and felt he was obligated to stand up for the respect of Chassidim. He said to them, “Evidently you forgot the Mishna that requires this”. Being Talmidei Chachamim, they quickly reviewed every Mishna in their minds and replied that there wasn’t such a Mishna.
Reb Boruch Mordechai replied that the first Mishna in the third chapter Pirkei Avos states, “Akavya ben Mehallel says…”. While this was his name, there was also a message in his name. ‘Akavya’ spelled in Hebrew can be divided into two words: ‘Eikev’ and Hashem’s name. This teaches that even one whom others might consider an ‘Eikev’ (just a ‘heel’ amongst others, i.e. the wagon driver), it is he who is ‘ben Mehallel’, one who can praise Hashem. Indeed, there are numerous stories how the Tefillos of plain, simple people saved entire communities, even though they weren’t learned.
So, what is Avodas HaTefilla that makes it applicable to everyone, whether they are learned or not? Knowing the meaning of the words, which is definitely important, and obligatory in some places, is simply a Halocha in Shulchan Oruch. Avodas Hatefilla must be something else: something more than understanding the words.
In Hayom Yom, 26th of Tammuz, the Rebbe writes that when someone is learning, there is a very different thought process going than when he is Davening. When someone is learning, he is trying to grasp and understand the concept. However, when someone is Davening, he is trying to connect to something that is higher than his understanding. It is akin to the difference between a student with his teacher and a child with his father. When someone learns from his teacher, although he may have tremendous feelings of respect and adoration for him, the main connection between them is an intellectual one: how much knowledge can I acquire, from this teacher? In contrast to this, a child’s main connection to his father is love: an intrinsic bond that unites them.
Now, when a person learns Torah, even if he is studying a concept about the greatness of the Creator or any aspect of G-dlinesss, his mind is trying to comprehend that concept properly. For example, he is thinking how a spark of G-dliness gives life to everything that exists. [In Chassidic terminology, he is contemplating on Ohr Ha’ma’Maleh.]
However, when he Davens, he is trying to connect with the Creator Himself, which is infinitely higher that any intellectual level; it is referring to something that is beyond his, or any human’s, ability to comprehend, and higher than Ohr Ha’ma’Maleh.
When Yaakov Avinu stopped to Daven on his journey to Charan, he dreamt of a ladder whose feet were on the ground and its top reached the heavens.
The commentaries learn from this that although, when someone begins their day and starts Davening, their feet are firmly rooted on the ground. But by the time they reach the Amida, they should feel that they have climbed all the way up and are now standing in front of the King Himself. Therefore, before beginning the Amida, a person must request permission to be allowed to address Hashem directly: “Hashem, Sefosai Tiftach”, ‘please open my lips and allow me to pray’.
Avodas HaTefilla is not merely repeating the prayers that the great scholars of yesteryear composed, or even just learning their meaning. Avodas HaTefilla is understanding that this a time Hashem allows each person to personally present their requests to Him.
When we wake up we say modeh ani, which is an admission of Hashem’s greatness. As we say birchas hashachar and thank Hashem for all that he has done for us, it propels a person on a journey, he wants to see the king himself, he wants to see this wonderful provider. As the person leaves his house and begins traveling to the King’s Palace, he sings the kings praise, and that is pesukei d’zimara. However, at the same time when one recognizes that the king’s greatness is much more than he originally thought, he realizes that it is important to make sure that he come with the proper attire and humility, and that brings us to the second meaning of pesukei d’zimra, which is to prune the trees from the not good branches i.e. his thought and actions, so that he is more presentable.
So yes, davening is a time for a person to refine himself, realizing that Hashem created the entire world and his mission is to fulfill Hashem’s will, not to embellish his own ego.
Then as he enters the palace and sees how all the important and powerful ministers stand in awe of the king, a deeper sense of awareness comes upon him. This is birchas krias shema, where we describe the fear and reverence the angels have, so that brings us to a heightened stage of humility. Then by Krias Shema, one comes to the realization that there is nothing in the world besides Hashem, as He is constantly giving life to everything.
Finally the person is admitted into the throne room, and as he enters the kings chamber he is tongue tied until the king instructs him to speak, and therefore before we begin shemonei esreh we ask Hashem permission to speak and bend down as if we are prostrating ourselves to the Almighty.
To present this thought in a tangible scenario, take this week’s story/thought. before posted I this week’s story, I discussed it with some friends and Mashpiim – I thought about it. Now that I am posting it, my thought process is even deeper, focusing on how I should present it. Later, when it becomes a chapter in my forthcoming book, it will be reviewed yet again, with additional thought.
Similarly, when a person Davens, repeating words that he has said for many years, it can sometimes happen that he rushes through it. Yes, he has fulfilled his obligation to Daven, but has he spoken or better said, has he had a conversation with Hashem? When he realizes that he is speaking directly to Hashem, then even if he has Davened thousands of times, he won’t rush through it, or think about anything else, even if it is important.
Once a person has that mindset, then the aspect of contemplating on a thought of Chassidus before Davening comes in, because the greater the ‘king’ is, the greater is the respect and awe of Him. It is in essence what the Maggid of Mezerich told his classmate when he explained, “It is not enough that you think about the deep thoughts that the Arizal explains about Davening; you actually have to arrive at the king’s throne room itself!”
However, you need not enter as a visitor, during davening you connect yourself to Hashem and realize this is where I belong, I belong with the King.
Yes, it takes tremendous effort and energy, but this is the way a person elevates himself to come closer to Hashem. The Alter Rebbe explains this is the inner reason that the Sages inform us that the reason why there are 18 (19) Brochos in Shemoneh Esreh: it is because there are 18 (19) bones in the spinal column. Interestingly, the spinal column is not counted as one of the body’s 248 limbs, and yet it gives strength and stability to the entire body. Similarly, Davening may not be Biblically required in the same way that we must recite the Shema but gives a Jew strength and upholds in his connection to Hashem.
This week’s post is l’zechus the comlete and immediate healing of my sister Chaya Rivkah bas Cheyena and all who are in need of a brocha.
Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran mechanech and author of numerous books on the Rebbeim and their chassidim. As mentioned his 640 page biography on the Rebbe Rashab is about to be sent to the printer. Those who wish to participate can contact him.
 Mashpi’im explain this is why it is called Avodas HaTefilla. Avodas has the same root as the expression ee’buht oiros, which mean working over a hide. Just as it is a long and sometimes grueling process to transform a hide of an animal into parchment, so too transforming one’s animalistic inclinations, is not always easy, but the product is much more valuable now than before.