For me, one of the hardest mitzvot to perform is prayer.
It is fashionable to categorize mitzvot into performance-based acts and intention-based performance. Shaking the four species on Sukkot or eating matzah on Passover are easily quantifiable and hence activities easy to perform. One might require the necessary tools, but the action itself, all things being equal, is usually achievable.
Intention based or Kavanah centric mitzvot are something entirely different. The performance of Shema is not merely reading the words. To fulfill the mitzvah properly requires intention and theological introspection. The recitation of the text is only an outer garment of the internalized acceptance of God, which explains why the rabbis called it “the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven.” Rav Kook, at the beginning of his book, Orot HaTeshuva, suggests that the emotional requirement for fulfilling the mitzvah of repentance is so daunting that he never found anyone who had completely performed the task.
For me, the mitzvah mountain is prayer.
Today is Rosh Chodesh Shevat – the first day of the new month. I pondered the difficulty of prayer while attending synagogue this morning. Rosh Chodesh prayers almost double the length of a typical weekday morning service, but the mundane needs of the day don’t change. Life demands we finish quickly to get kids to school or to ourselves to work and I often pray as if trying to catch up.
The words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov come to mind. I hope the connection is apparent.
Why is this new month different than all others? Although we celebrate the “new year” of the trees as it were on the fifteenth of this month of Shevat, in the Mishna, some consider today to be the real day.
“There are four ‘new years’: The first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of animals. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishri. The first of Tishri is the new year for years, for shmitta and jubilee years, for planting and for [tithes of] vegetables. (Rosh HaShana 1:1)
The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the words of Bet Shammai. Bet Hillel says: on the fifteenth of that month.”
According to Beit Shammai, today is the day we should give the world’s flora its due. Rebbi Nachman relates this to the act of prayer:
Every single word is an entire world. When a person stands up to pray and recites the words of the prayers, he is gathering beautiful buds and flowers and blossoms, like someone walking in a field picking lovely blossoms and flowers one at a time, until he makes a bouquet. After that, he picks more, one by one, making another bouquet, and joins them together. So he goes on, picking and gathering more and more lovely bouquets.
This is likewise true of prayer: a person goes from letter to letter until several letters are joined together and form a single word. He does the same for a second word. Then the two words are joined, and he goes on, gathering more until he completes a single blessing. After that, he goes on gathering more and more—from Avot to Gevurot, and from Gevurot to Kedushot [parts of the Amida prayer]. So he goes on, further and further. Who can extol the magnificent splendor of the gleanings and gatherings that a person makes through the words of the prayers?
And when speech emerges, it emerges from the soul, as it is written (Genesis 2:7), “thus man became a living soul”—which the Targum renders as: “he became a speaking spirit.” The utterance emerges and is heard by his ears, as our Sages, of blessed memory, said: Let your ears hear what you are bringing forth from your mouth (Berakhot 15a). (Likutei Moharan 65)
Our prayers are like the splendorous flowers sprouting up throughout the world. If we treat the words correctly, we can create a bouquet of Kavanah or intent. To do so may require slowing down.
One might suggest reducing the number of prayers in order to make those we do say more meaningful. And sometimes, there is room for such an approach. However, Rabbi A.J. Heschel warned about the seduction of this solution.
To abridge the service without deepening the concentration would be meaningless. It is just as possible to read a brief service without Kavanah as to go through a long service without Kavanah. On the other hand, those of us who are anxious to omit no word out of reverence for the treasures of the liturgy are paying a high price for their loyalty. Judaism is faced with a dilemma, with a conflict between two requirements: the loyalty to the order and the requirement of Kavanah.” (Man’s Quest For God p. 35)
So what are we to do? How can we navigate this conflict words, time, and intent?
During this month, while in Israel, we begin to look towards the renewed signs of life and the early budding of spring, we can take time both to meditate a bit more on nature and use that regeneration to feed a renewed sense of prayer.