Prayer Essentials

For the week ending 3 September 2016 / 30 Av 5776

How to Win the Battle

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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Rabbi Eleizer Papo, in his book Beis Tefillah, offers some practical advice for someone who is having trouble concentrating on his prayers, with the following parable:

A man was carrying a chest full of precious stones. He tripped and fell, and with him fell the chest. The man stood bewildered, looking at all his stones scattered across the walkway. People around began to grab whatever they could carry in their hands. All of his precious jewelry, his life’s savings, was being taken. The man, watching what was happening, began to panic, but then realized that he also should start grabbing whatever he could or he would be left with nothing for him and his family. And so, he began to throw as much as he could back into his chest. When the chaos ended he looked into his chest to find more than enough stones to sustain himself and his family for a long time to come.

This story teaches us what to do when we find ourselves in the middle of our prayers, unable to concentrate on what we are saying. The yetzer hara, the “evil inclination”, comes to a person during his prayers to trip him up, causing all of his precious words of prayer to fall and become tarnished with negative intentions. When a person realizes this, in the middle of his prayers this yetzer hara again tries to discourage the person by telling him his prayers are worthless, and it is too late to fix them.

But this is simply not true! If one finds himself trapped in the clutches of the yetzer hara, he should act just like his evil counterpart, and he must “grab back” as many words as he can by saying them with proper intention. For if he just stands there feeling sorry for himself he will lose everything. His only hope is to salvage what he can. Even half of a prayer said properly is valuable. In fact, if it comes through hard work it will surely be extremely precious in G-d’s eyes.

So too, if one realizes in the middle of a blessing during prayer that he is not praying with proper intention, he should realize that the yetzer hara has managed to steal away part of his prayers from him. However, he can make sure to at least say the rest of the prayers with proper intention, “stealing back” what he can from his evil adversary.

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