Thursday, April 24, 2014

Amidah Lifnei HaMakom- how I ditched the daf, rediscovered tefillah, and remembered what relationships are really about

When I was in my twenties, I came up with the goal of “finishing” Shas by the time I was 40. Although I had a long way to go, I had finally reached the point where I could make a leining on my own, and I had discovered the joys of bekiyus. I am nearly 43 years old and I failed to reach my goal. Sure I made progress, completing a number of masechtos of gemara, with chavrusas and through Daf Yomi, but I reached my 40th birthday having gone through less than half of Shas.

Although it was too late to reach my arbitrary goal, I started doing Daf Yomi again, nearly two years ago. Despite the philosophical struggles with which I was dealing at the time, or maybe because of them, I kept up with the schedule on a nearly perfect basis, falling behind less than a handful of times. I enjoyed the learning, picked up a lot of ideas and insights, and started to imagine that I could attend the next Siyum HaShas, as a misayem, and not just a spectator, as I had been at the last one. Then, during my recent trip to Israel, I stopped doing the daf. Not a temporary break, and maybe not forever, but certainly for the foreseeable future. Although I was sorry to stop, I knew it had to be done.

For a long time, I've struggled with davening. Although part of the struggle was due to my difficulty keeping my mind from wandering, I sensed however, that that was a result of my lack of connecting with tefillah, rather than the reason for my struggles. I couldn't make sense of what tefillah was supposed to be about. It seemed silly and superficial to believe that davening was a way to “get stuff” from God, but I had a hard time getting past that. Besides, if that was the goal, I was either really bad at achieving it, or God just really didn't like me. I came across those who suggested other ideas, most commonly, that fefillah was a form of self-judgement. Although that made some sense to me, it just didn't click with me. Davening became a greater and greater burden in my life. I started learning during davening, not out of piety, but as an attempt to pass the time without thinking about my inability to connect to prayer. Nearly every morning, I completed the Daf during Shacharis. It wasn't that I thought this would help me daven better. Essentially, I was giving up. Then, with the help of some friends and some self-reflection, I realized I was approaching things the wrong way.

What is the goal of spending time with your spouse? What does your friend give you that makes it worthwhile to spend time with them? Intuitively, we recognize the shallow absurdity of these questions. Still, in my mind, I had been asking the same sort of question about God. What do I get for davening? What's in it for me?

The main part of each tefillah, the part we call the Shemoneh Esrei, is more properly called the Amidah, or even better yet, Amidah Lifnei HaMakom, standing before God (interestingly called The Place). Many of the ritual parts of the Amidah are to help us feel that it is just the two of us, me and God, me in God's presence, God, as a presence in my life. Included in this, is how we stand, our posture, bowing and so much more. The goal is to just be there in a Shir HaShirim-lovers sort of way. Not out of compunction, habit or law, but out of love. Sometimes of course that's difficult if not impossible. Sometimes we feel so angry, frustrated or sad, that we hardly want to talk. Surely we've experienced the same feelings in the midst of our most important relationships. We are still asked not to, and are hopefully unable to, negate the one we love, our spouse, and friend. Tefillah at that moment takes on a different tone, but still, we stand together, and communicate, however imperfectly.

I miss the constancy and companionship of doing the daf and I don't know whether I will ever finish Shas, but I do know that I have no desire to so at the expense of my davening. While learning Torah connects my intellect to God, it is through davening that I most closely feel His presence.


  1. Pesach, this was very well worded. Connected during davening is a struggle I also deal with. I found Rav Reuven Leuchter's sefer on tefillah to be a lifesaver. Glad you posted this.

    1. Neil, thank you so much. What's the name of the sefer?

  2. Yet another insightful, heart-warming and inspirational piece. Davening is a life-long skill that we are all challenged to stregthen each and every day. Your assessment of Daf vs. Davening is spot on. We should all be as wise as you to dedicate more time, energy and attention to this most sacred and life-altering activity. Reb Pesach - incredible job!

    1. Rabbi Bernstein,

      Thank you for your kind words and continued encouragement.