By Rabbi Josh Blass –
Several years back, my kids and I spent a day in Great Adventure. Despite my better judgement, at some point I was convinced (or coerced) to go on a roller coaster aptly called the Runaway Train. Halfway through the ordeal, the car I was in sharply lurched over a bump, and before I could react, I felt my iPhone become dislodged from my breast pocket and begin its agonizingly slow descent into the pool of water below. Like many of you, my whole life is in my phone and it’s hard to adequately describe the feeling of absolute panic as I saw the device take its fatal plunge. Thankfully, I got my phone through Yeshiva University, where I work, and within a week I had a new one with all of my contacts that they were smart enough to back up.
On my drive back to Monsey that evening I found myself routinely putting my hand in my jacket pocket to check my nonexistent phone to see if I had received any e-mails or texts, only to discover that I was, in fact, phoneless. To nobody’s surprise but my own, the world was still standing several hours later when I checked my e-mail from home. Within a day or two, that feeling of withdrawal was replaced by a far healthier one—namely, the feeling that when I was in the car with my kids, I was actually fully present, as opposed to constantly thinking about who I have to call, or trying to return a text at a red light. I also was reminded how much I used to love driving before I became a “phone junkie.” I would just sit in my car, listening to Eitan or Shlomo Katz, conscious of the beauty of the world around me and giving thought to the day behind or before me. It was my time to just connect with something both within myself and simultaneously bigger than myself, but slowly, over time, I began to live a life in which I allowed those moments to dissipate.
The necessity of turning the clock back to a quieter, simpler time seems to be absolutely critical, especially in regards to the ability to meaningfully connect during tefilla. In truth, man lives with the dialectic of needing to balance structure and form with building and cultivating a vibrant inner life. For instance, how does a couple married for 25 years create a structure that allows for the running of a home: cleaning the house, doing errands, paying bills, driving carpools, etc., while still having real passion and intimacy within that structure? How does a thinking, sensitive Jew live a life dedicated to the precise observance of the structure dictated by the Shulchan Aruch while still maintaining genuine religious passion and feeling? Nowhere is that dialectic most keenly felt than in prayer. Tefilla is the obligation that is most regulated —what to say, when to say it, with whom, where etc.—this is the structure that Chazal understood was absolutely critical for a life of daily committed service to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. We inherently understand how meaningful, elevating and transformative daily, regulated tefilla can be and how that daily, regulated tefilla helps to shape our religious identity.
That said, daily, regulated tefilla is by no means the same as avodah she’b’lev— service of the heart. The structure of tefilla, far from discouraging the potential for one’s tefilla to become kevah—fixed, which is abhorrent to Chazal, almost ipso facto creates rote and routine. How is it feasible to have the structure of tefilla while also embodying the type of spontaneous, meaningful and passionate prayer that is so readily found in the writings of Dovid Hamelech?
The answer would seem to be found very simply in that which I experienced after the episode of the falling phone; namely, allowing ourselves to cultivate moments of aloneness more colloquially known as hisbodedus. The notion of hisbodedus has become popularized through the writings of Rav Nachman of Breslov, who strongly recommended that each person finds a set, full hour every day for hisbodedus, to just talk to G-d about one’s life, one’s challenges and hopes.
While Rav Nachman’s ambitions and innovations are impressive, the reality is that the very foundation of tefilla was that of hisbodedus. Avraham’s tefilla was that of the solitary early- morning encounter with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Yitzchak ventured by himself into the fields to simply talk to G-d and Yaakov encountered G-d while alone and afraid during his escape from Eisav. From Adam Harishon on down, tefilla was always about man’s ability to remove the outer shells of his primordial life, to allow the noise of the immediate now to fade from the stage and in its place to find the emergence of the stillness and the peace of one’s inner life.
When should one allow for that hisbodedus? Rav Nachman often recommended to sit in a peaceful place in nature so that ‘”all of nature can join in his prayers.” While that may sound nice to some, for others that may feel a little too hippie-ish. That said, everyone can have moments of hisbodedus and healthy disconnection: sitting in one’s car listening to music, going for a walk on a Friday night, taking a few minutes during the day to regain one’s equilibrium when feeling anxious or stressed out or pausing for a few seconds to really think about the berachos one is saying on a daily basis. These are just a few mechanisms to push the pause button, take a breath and bring G-d and a spirit of calm into a life that often feels defined by static.
It would seem as though hisbodedus is the solution to the tefilla dialectic. If we can develop the ability to take time throughout the day to increase our conscious contact with ourselves and with the Ribbono Shel Olam, then when we walk into davening, even though it is structured and formulaic, we have developed the ability to truly connect, to close our eyes and allow the outer world to fade and to just stand enveloped by the presence of He Who created and continues to nourish our lives. That is the image of tefilla l’ani ki ya’atof—a tefilla that completely envelops us. Before cell phones were ubiquitous, a friend roughly my age spent a couple of years learning in Yeshivat Sha’alvim in the early ’90s with an extraordinary Israeli mechanech, Rav Michoel Yammer. My friend, who came from a pretty well-to-do family, told Rav Yammer before his return to the States that he was particularly excited to come back to his house because in his absence his parents had bought a fancy, built-in shower radio. Rav Yammer was nearly apoplectic; “A shower radio!! The last refuge where man can just think and reflect—even there man can’t be alone!”
Let us continue to seek out refuge in the quiet corners of our lives. Let us understand that in order to connect, in the deepest sense of the word, we need to work to find some avenues of meaningful disconnection. Kein yehi ratzon that those efforts will lead to a tefilla that can reach the Kisei Hakavod.
Rabbi Josh Blass was born in Baltimore. He received ordination from RIETS and has spent the better part of the last 25 years at Yeshiva University. He is currently finishing his master’s in Jewish philosophy from the Bernard Revel Graduate School for Jewish Studies. He has taught in a number of high schools, including MTA and Bruriah. He is currently the rav of Kehillas Beis Yehudah in Wesley Hills. For the past 13 years, he has felt privileged to serve as a mashgiach ruchani in Yeshiva University.
Please feel free to contact Rabbi Blass at 917-623-4711 or firstname.lastname@example.org