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Thought for the Day: Prayer V -- Expectations and Benefits

When it comes to mitzvos, we nearly always deflect the question of "so what do we get out of it?"  At a very basic (and, as it turns out, a very deep) level, the answer is simple: What kind of question is that!?  In the first place, HaShem brought you into and continually sustains your existence.  That in itself is enough to require us to do whatever He asks.  For us Jews, though, there is also the fact that He asked if we wanted the Torah and we enthusiastically affirmed that we wanted the Torah and would do our utter best to fulfill all of its mandates.  Finished.

But prayer seems different.  After all, it is framed as a series of requests.  If HaShem wants me to ask for stuff, isn't it reasonable to for me to get that stuff?  If I have no expectation of my prayers being answered, then the whole exercise turns into a quite sterile recitation of words.  Moreover, the halacha (see TftD on intent in prayer) tells me that my attitude during prayer is as a petitioner standi…
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Thought for the Day: Prayer IV -- כוונה/Attitude/Intent

Finally... there you are standing before the Creator, ready for a serious conversation, text in hand.  What should be your כוונה/attitude/intent?  After all, we started this whole series noting how ludicrous it would be to approach your boss at work and speak out the same canned speech to him three times a day.  Yet, here we are with a fixed text we are required to recite thrice daily in the Divine Presence.  There has just got to be more than a simple recitation!

The Shulchan Aruch (O. Ch. 98), though, seemingly does decree a simple recitation: When one prays, he must direct his full concentration to the meaning of the words coming out of his mouth.

But here's the rub.  You are not standing in front of your boss, you are standing in front of the King of kings -- the Holy One, Blessed Be He -- who sees straight into you and delves into the thoughts and intentions behind each word expressed by your lips.  If you make a misstep with your boss, there are other ways to get the resourc…

Thought for the Day: Prayer III -- What?

Quick recap: HaShem has ordained that we should pray and the Torah tells us (by context and example) how to pray.  Now we need content and format.

Let's begin with format.  This is meant to be a serious conversation with the Creator.  Just to set the bar, consider what is required to even be allowed to present a case to the US Supreme Court.  I found the following description in Wikipedia:
Before oral arguments, the parties to a case file legal briefs outlining their arguments. An amicus curiae may also submit a brief in support of a particular outcome in the case if the Court grants it permission. Formal rules govern every aspect of these briefs; Chief JusticeWilliam Rehnquist described the rules thus: The rules direct what information must be included in a brief, describe the size of paper and type of print, and limit the number of pages. Even the colors of the covers of the briefs are specified: the petitioner's brief must have a blue cover and the respondent's must have…

Thought for the Day: Prayer II -- How?

Now that we know that the obligation to pray is nothing more (nor less!) than a divine decree, we are going to also need instructions from heaven on how to implement that decree.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to have instruction from heaven how to implement heavenly decrees.  One only needs to look at the shambles that one modern ism has made of the very important Torah principle of תיקון עולם/improving and fixing the world.  They have taken words out of context and used them to support their own nefarious schemes.  (To the point that Google Translate actually translates -- not transliterates -- תיקון עולם as Tikkun Olam.  Amelia Bedelia would be proud; we are not amused.

The Torah teaches us how to pray in two complementary fashions.  One is the way in which the concept is presented as an obligation, the other is by giving us examples of how to practically implement those instructions.

The obligation is introduced in the second paragraph of "sh'ma" -- וּלְ…

Thought for the Day: Prayer I -- Why?

As a physicist, one of the first things we learn is that physics never answers "why" questions.  Nonetheless, people do ask perfectly reasonable questions that are phrased as "why" questions -- "Why is the sky blue?", for example.  What they mean, of course, is: "how/by what mechanism does such and such happen".  Where does one go to get his "why" questions answered?  The stock physicist answer is "religion"; by which physicists actually mean to say that asking why is meaningless, so feel free to shop around for any answer you like.

Prayer seems like such an integral part of religion that one may never think to ask, "why pray?"  (Besides, obviously, the anti-religious crowd who aren't asking at all, but are making a snide commentary on the entire institution.)  I have learned a lot, though, by asking questions no one thought to ask.  So... why pray?

To make the question more concrete, imagine I were to walk over…

Thought for the Day: Live Life As If Your Time Were Rationed -- Because It Is

I had the opportunity recently to enjoy getting to know a couple who have lived their entire life in a very small town in Iowa.  Very, very nice people.  Mid-seventies, married almost 60 years; he was a lineman for the power company and she did daycare in her home and took in ironing.  You just can't get more salt of the earth than that.

Chazal tell us that even though there is no Torah among the nations, there is wisdom.  In fact, there is a Torah obligation to stand when anyone over 70 -- Jew or non-Jew -- walks into the room.  Chazal explain that even without Torah, someone who has lived that long has seen miracles and has thereby achieved some measure of wisdom.  My ears therefore really perked up when she said that there was something she had a lesson from her parents that needed to be shared with the younger generation.

Her older sisters had been born during the Great Depression (she had been born during WWII).  During the war, in a beautiful (to my mind) show of patriotic u…

Thought for the Day: Build a Relationship With HaShem Joyously

One of the highlights of my week is when I get a phone call from my first born granddaughter on erev Shabbos.  Sometimes she has a d'var Torah to tell me, and she always asks for a d'var Torah from me.  I always try to have a d'var Torah for her that will elicit a giggle... then I know I've been successful.  I was particularly motivated the Friday of parshas Toldos; a young man I knew had been taken from the world suddenly and I was full of uncomfortable questions.

I asked her if she knew what character trait Yitzchak Avinu exemplified and represented his whole life.  "Of course!  Yitzchak is דין/strict measure of law."  Very good... and then I asked if she knew what the name "Yitzchak" means.  "Um... he will laugh?"  Right again!  So I asked her it that seems like the right name for him.  Of course it didn't.  So I told her that the great Torah sage for whom her brother is named -- R' Alter Chanoch Henoch Leibowitz, ztz"l -- …