Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Letting God In- Getting Real with Our Avodas HaShem

[This is a followup to my last post where I suggested that, too often, God is absent from our lives.]

It is one thing to write a manifesto suggesting that there is a problem in (our) Orthodox world. It is entirely another to suggest a solution, particularly when I myself struggle with the very same problem. Diagnosticians are a dime a dozen, while those who can cure what ails us are much more rare. I am not foolish enough to think that I know the way, or even ways, to make God more of a reality in our lives. Still, I write what follows to get the conversation started, with the hope that those who have more to offer will join the conversation, and make suggestions. What follows, in no particular order, are some things which I have found useful, or which I hope to use, in trying to develop a more real, and deeper relationship with God. There is nothing complex or creative that I am going to say, but sometimes simplicity is a better route.

Baruch A’TA Hashem

Shmuel Bergman said “We pray out of belief, but we believe out of prayer”. Tefilla is an opportunity for us to deepen our belief. Through it we realize how God cares about us, and our dependence on God. We also gain something else. We go from talking about God, as we do in the Shema, or when we study theology, to speaking to God, speaking as we would do to a spouse, friend, or anyone we love. Each time there is a place in tefillah where we address God directly, as we do, for example, in the first part of most berachos, it is a chance to speak directly to God. The more we speak to God in the second person, the more He goes from being a thing, or an idea, to being someone to whom we relate.

Hisbodedus/speaking in your own words

This photo, which I shared in my last post, is one of favorites. Although I’ve rarely had the guts to stand in the woods and try to speak out loud to God, I’ve long felt that nature offers a unique opportunity to feel God’s presence. What I do more often is to speak, using my own words and in English, directly to God. While it often involves asking for things, there are many times where I simply share my thoughts and feelings, especially gratitude, fears, and desire to truly experience God’s presence. Speaking in my native tongue with my own words allows me to connect with God in a direct, raw, and unique way that is different from what I experience during tefillah.

Talmud Torah

It often seems that for men in our community, only gemara and halacha are considered serious talmud Torah. It is rare to see a chavrusa where Ibn Pakuda’s Chovos HaLevavos, Ramchal’s Derech HaShem, the Piaseczna’s Bnei Machashava Tova, or the Alter of Navardok’s Madreigas Ha’Adam is learned. To the degree that they are studied, it is generally done informally. Take the time to study the siddur, and treat it as seriously as any other text composed by the chachamim. The Avudraham is an excellent sefer to study to more deeply understand the goal of each part of tefillah.

Role Models

Look for role models who live with God in a serious way. It doesn’t have to be a gadol, teacher, or famous person. Find somebody who is real. If you don’t know anybody who fits that category, learn the Torah written by such a person, and/or learn about their life, whether or not they are still living. For me, by way of example, although I never merited to meet him, anything I have read by or about Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l deeply affects me, and causes me to want to grow more real in my Avodas HaShem. His life serves as a high target that I will never reach, but also as one that causes me to strive for more than I otherwise might do.

Pause and slow down

This can be challenging for me, but I try and pause before saying a beracha, and think about what I’m about to say. I also try to literally pause, standing still, and even closing my eyes when saying the beracha. When I do this, it goes from being quickly mumbled words, to speaking to God.

Peirush HaMilim

Know what you are saying. If your Hebrew is not strong enough, use a Hebrew-English siddur. You can’t meaningfully speak to someone if you don’t know what you are saying.

Relationship, not rulebook

Try not to think in terms of “Am I chayav?” Or Is this assur?”, although for sure, one needs to know these things to properly follow halacha. In our relationships with people, we focus on being loyal, or loving, not on being yotzei an obligation. I try to think of my relationship with God in the same way. Our chachamim compare Bnei Yisrael’s relationship with God to that of a husband and wife. We gain a lot if we think in those terms, as opposed to legalistic ones.

Don’t work alone

Work with others to create this reality. If possible, daven at a shul or minyan where the davening is conducive to serious Avodas HaShem. For me, a slower pace, beautiful singing on Shabbos, and God-centric derashos and shiurim matter. If you don’t have options, try and sit in a part of the shul where people don’t converse during davening.

If possible, and this is one of the places where I have not yet succeeded, start a chaburah, mussar-vaad or the like. Join with other people to work on avodas HaShem by focusing on a particular sefer. For some it will be a mussar sefer, while for other it will be a sefer from the Rishonim, or chassidus. Which brings me to…

Listen to your neshama

Find the approach that works for you. Some approaches to Avodas HaShem, and language used to discuss it (including mine) might seem too light or fluffy for you. Find the one that works for you. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in Avodas HaShem. When you experience the approach that is right for you, you’ll know it. Don’t let anyone dictate to you how it “should” be done. Thank God, there are many legitimate approaches from which to choose.


As I mentioned in the introduction to this post, I claim no expertise in this area. I am a searcher, and some of what I described might speak to you. If you have other suggestions, or think some of my ideas are mistaken, please share your thoughts.

"It is one thing to write a manifesto suggesting that there is a problem in (our) Orthodox world. It is entirely another...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Tuesday, March 1, 2016

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