DAVENING ON HOT COALS – Tefillah Like You Mean It
By Rabbi Yehoshua Karsh – Copyright 2002
I want to thank my mentors and colleagues who took time to look over earlier
versions of this essay. Their many comments and suggestions are apparent in
the final draft. They are: Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz, Rabbi Mordechai Becher,
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Rabbi Avraham Edelstein; and for his
painfully direct and meaningful criticism, and for devoting more time than
he had to for this, Rabbi Menachem Nissel. Thanks to Jacob Brudoley for
suggesting that I write this essay and to Jacob and Sherri for providing
initial funding for its production. Thank you to Sheldon Mazor, Janet
Cohen, and Alysa Hoffman for their thoughts and comments. Thank you to
Rivka Lev for her very professional proofreading of the manuscript. Thank
you to Miriam Shreiber, publisher of Jewish Image magazine, for publishing
much of my writing and for publishing an early version of this essay.
Thanks to my father for many things, and specifically, in this case, for
editing this essay. Thank you Hashem Yisborach.
For Tzippy, A.Y., Sruli, Moishe and Shauli
* Chapter One*
I rarely looked forward to davening. In fact, I often dreaded it. It was a
source of secret embarrassment and shame. There, I said it. I feel like
I'm standing up at a "Don't Like Davening Anonymous" meeting.
If your davening experience has been meaningful, and you feel that you have
the tools to continue growing in davening, then this essay isn't for you.
This is for people who find davening consistently boring, who use it as a
time to practice patience or organize their day, or who don't do it at all.
What are my qualifications for writing this? They aren't as much a list of
my accomplishments, as my failures. I rarely ever had kavannah. I
tolerated davening, but rarely found it exhilarating. I desperately needed
Hashem's involvement in my life and wanted davening to be everything I had
learned about in Day School and Yeshiva.
My early experience with tefillah was sort of like "The Emperor's New
Clothes." I looked around at my friends and teachers davening, and assumed
they were all blissfully engaged, that I was the only one whose mind was
wandering. I couldn't tell anybody about it or get any tips on how to make
things better, because if they found out that I was spending my time
daydreaming, I would be the laughing stock of the school. I do remember
asking one of my teachers how he managed to daven with kavannah. I must
have been in eighth grade, and I remember him telling me it wasn't easy for
him. His expression made it clear that he was uncomfortable with the
question. It took me a long time to realize that if I was in a room with a
lot of people davening, very few of them were actually concentrating on
their davening. But this isn't about other people. I hope that everyone
I'm around is caught up in his or her tefillos. This is about you and me.
We're the ones with the problem.
What is the problem? For the sake of clarity I've chosen two issues upon
which to focus. The first is the feeling that I'm actually doing something
important. I know that if I really felt that it was earth shattering that I
was davening, I would do it with gusto. The second is paying attention.
We're supposed to pay attention to what we're saying, but I found that I
couldn't focus for more than a few seconds without my mind wandering.
In order for this essay to be of help, you have to be ready for change. You
have to need Hashem's presence in your life and be willing to take some
risks, to live on the edge. I'm going to show you things that others will
tell you are dangerous or perhaps weird, but davening is about a
relationship. When it comes to relationships, safety doesn't work; you have
to take chances. You have to be open to the possibility that you'll be hurt
or disappointed. Play it safe and what you end up with will be static and
What if you think Hashem doesn't like you? What if you think He hates you?
Who wants to spend time with someone who hates him? Chances are that if you
don't like yourself, you're going to assume that Hashem doesn't like you
either. If this is how you're thinking, don't give up. You can change how
you feel about yourself, and when you do, your assumptions about how He
feels will change as well. Davening can help make that happen, but you have
to give Hashem some space to show you His love. You have to let Him show
you how much He cares for you, how much He does for you.
Maybe you're afraid of the intimacy implied in a relationship with Hashem.
You fear you won't have a life. You will have to give up everything you
enjoy. Not just enjoy, but need. And what if you open yourself up and give
yourself over to the relationship, and He doesn't respond in kind? The
bottom line is, you aren't asking Him to get involved in your life; He
already is. You're just opening your eyes to the fact that He's there, and
that He's involved in all of the details of what you're doing. And when
your relationship with G-d gets deeper, your life becomes more meaningful.
You will discover that you can enjoy more not less, and that what you really
need, Hashem alone can provide. The other stuff was just that - stuff. Yes,
it's true that sometimes a close relationship with Hashem can leave you
vulnerable to more pain, but along with that risk, comes the assurance that
your life will be more purposeful.
We are going to be focusing on that aspect of tefillah that is
"supplication." We are going to be asking for things. There are also
"thank yous," and "praises," and tefillos that teach us what we should
strive for, but we've got to begin at the beginning and the beginning is
asking for things. The love of a child for his parent is founded on the
gratitude he has for what he has received. All loving relationships begin
with what I get out of the relationship. As they mature there is sharing,
and when they've really matured, each side gives, not caring if he receives.
A relationship with Hashem is no different. Once you've practiced asking
for things, you can apply your experience to the other more sophisticated
aspects of tefillah, which are more about giving and sharing.
* Chapter Two *
I'm going to introduce you to four techniques I've been using. They all
involve practice, but they show results immediately.
The first technique is simply to ask Hashem for something. Not only will
you ask Him for something; you will get it - whatever you want. Yes, you
read that correctly, whatever you want. He's ready to do this at any
moment; you just have to ask.
Sometimes, we think we asked, but did we really? Did we ask like someone
who really believed he was going to get what he requested, or like someone
who, if he received it, would feel like he won the lottery? Imagine going
to your boss and asking him for a raise the way you ask Hashem for things,
with no feeling and no expectation of receiving it. Do you think for a
minute that you would get that raise?
Much of the time we ask Hashem for things we don't really want. What I mean
by that is, we think we want these things, but if we were really honest with
ourselves, we would realize that we don't want those things that badly. For
instance: if I would ask Hashem to end starvation in the Sudan, and while I
was asking for that I measured the intensity of my feeling with something
like an intensity detector, on a scale of one to ten, my tefillah might
register a four. Now, if I asked for tickets to a sold-out ball game or
some very popular clothing I really wanted, it might measure off the scale.
The problem is that I don't ask for the tickets, because I think it's petty,
and I ask for the end of starvation, but I don't feel strongly about it. So
my experience with davening is that I ask for things that I really don't
care that much about, never really expecting to get what I ask . I'm
embarrassed by the reality of my wishes and desires, and therefore live in
This is now going to change, because you're going to ask for things that you
really, really want. You're going to expect to get them, and finally,
you're going to get them. When you've done this a few times, your
relationship with Hashem will change forever. Your life will change
This is what you do. Find something that you want. It can be something
small, like tickets to something or it can be big like a shidduch or the
healing of a loved one. All that matters is that you really want it. I
mean really want it, so intensely that you feel the need concentrated in
Step two: you must believe that Hashem will give this to you. He certainly
can give it to you. He can do anything. He loves you and wants you to be
happy. I know that you're thinking: what if it's something He doesn't want
me to have? First of all, who do you think gets you those things? Do you
think you're getting them on your own? He's getting those things for you
anyway. Secondly, we aren't doing this just to get things. This isn't
about things; this is about a relationship with Hashem. This is just the
way we're going about making it happen. Again, think of the bond of a child
to his parent. It begins with the child asking (demanding, really) and
receiving what he asked for. That is the basis of what later becomes a love
defined by and founded upon gratitude. Sure, we should want more
sophistication than this. We shouldn't have to get new things in order to
have gratitude. We should be able to feel as profoundly about other
people's needs as we do about our own. But the reality is, most of us
don't. And if we wait until we do, we'll be waiting forever.
There are some of you who are wondering, what if the answer is no? What if
I want something and He is determined that I shouldn't get it? I have
guided many people, including one of my sons, in what I'm suggesting you do.
The experience has always been deep and meaningful and no one has
regretted embarking on this journey. Be wary of getting too philosophical
when you daven. There's a time for tefillah and a time for learning. When
you daven, you have to be focused and motivated. Your tefillos need to be
simple and meaningful. If you start dissecting them as they emerge, you
interrupt the flow and stifle the passion of your expression. Leave the
philosophy for later. I assure you that when you work through your
experience later on, you will come to the conclusion that your tefillos were
answered. While you are saying them, be assured of that, and let it flow.
And don't hesitate to ask for something huge. If you have a child who is
ill, ask Hashem to heal him. He is the source of healing, not the doctor.
Don't hold back.
A common piece of advice that many will offer you is: "Be careful what you
ask for, because you might get it and then regret it." This is a
self-defeating thought for you at this stage. Yes, it is possible that what
you ask for might not be good for you, but never asking for anything would
be much worse for you. You must take some risks. And why are you so
certain that you're so out of touch with yourself that you can't be trusted
to ask for what you want? I say, go for it.
So, here's what you're going to do. You're going to find something that you
really want. And you're going to ask Hashem for it once a day. The best
time for this is at the end of the Shmoneh Esreh, before you take your three
steps back. A wise man told me that if you insert your tefillah there, the
Shmoneh Esreh fuels the tefillah and gives it power. Ask for it in your own
language, in a way that expresses your feelings most honestly.
Hashem's response is immediate. It just takes time for us to see it. I
suggest you keep a diary for the next week or two. Write down anything that
seems related to what you asked for. If you want tickets to the Super Bowl
and a friend calls and tells you he knows someone who has tickets, write
that down, along with any other related phenomena. If you're davening for a
shidduch and someone calls you with an idea, write that down. You'll see an
immediate increase in activity and shortly you will receive the answer to
your tefillos. Remember, you aren't doing this to test Hashem; you're just
paying attention to something that is going on all of the time.
When you start seeing all of the activity in response to your tefillos, it
can be scary. You may get so frightened that you want the whole thing to
stop. Don't! Just pull yourself together and let it happen. When it
happens, write that down too, so that later on, when you need a boost of
faith, you can look back at it.
Warning: if you talk about your results with too many people, it takes away
from the effect. When your tefillos are answered, you're so excited that
you want to tell everybody. There's nothing wrong with doing that, but when
you talk about things that have the potential to affect you, it diminishes
their power. Just as it is therapeutic to talk about things that hurt you,
talking about your issues lessens their impact. So maybe the first time
you'll tell everybody about the results of your tefillos, but you'll see
what I mean, and then the next time, you'll start paying attention just for
the sake of the relationship and keep it quieter. Keep on doing this. Ask
for things, watch them for a while, keep a journal, get them, and then ask
for some other things until you've built up a reserve of experience. Once
you feel you have a good reserve, you can slowly move to the next level and
incorporate some of the more sophisticated techniques mentioned in the
Gemara or other seforim.
Now, after all of this, some of you are wondering, what does that have to do
with tefillah? Well, my friend, this is tefillah. The best metaphor I can
find to explain the difference between what we just did and what you find in
a siddur, is the difference between a musical novice playing a simple song
and a concert musician playing a symphony. The tefillos were written by
nevi'im and chachomim and were exquisitely composed. If you sit at a piano
and play something like chopsticks, you're playing music. It's not
Beethoven, but it's music. You will never play Beethoven if you don't first
play something like chopsticks. Someday, with practice, you'll be able to
daven with the sophistication that is available in the composed tefillos,
but first, you have to cut your teeth on the core of tefillah. And believe
me, practice asking Hashem for things and you will see an immediate
improvement in the intensity you experience during the composed tefillos.
Davening is a practice that can affect you to your very core. It's not
always fireworks. Sometimes it is, sometimes it's a struggle just to do it,
and other times it's the gentle hum of your being in well-balanced order.
* Chapter Three *
We are now moving from a technique that will bring a sense of meaning to
your tefillos to one that will help you focus and stay focused on them.
This technique involves relaxation and full breathing before and during your
davening. Some people call this "meditation"; I call it "paying attention."
The minute you mention "meditation" or "breathing" to Jews, they get
nervous. But this is just applying stuff you're doing all the time. When
you're learning or reading something interesting and realize an hour later
that your leg fell asleep and you didn't notice, or that someone was talking
to you, and you didn't hear them, you were "paying attention." Women use it
when they deliver babies naturally. People who suffer anxiety use it to
relax. Some people call it self-hypnosis and use it to deal with pain or to
remember lost moments. You're going to use it, because with a little
practice, you'll be able to deeply concentrate on anything you want for a
significant period of time. Your davening will be life-altering. It might
feel like fireworks are exploding inside of you, like walking over hot
co, or like the soft whisper of a loved one. Whichever it is, it will
change your life.
Tool #1: Breathing
The key to this process is taking relaxed, full breaths. Exhale all of the
air from your lungs (without straining), pause for a moment and then fill
your lungs completely (but don't blow them all of the way up like balloons).
Exhale again and remove all of the air from your lungs. (Remember not to
strain; empty them the best you can.) Pause for a moment and then fill your
lungs again. Don't pause after you inhale. Once you fill your lungs, begin
to exhale. Don't rush. Breathe fully and comfortably.
After just a few moments you will be more relaxed, alert and focused. The
longer you keep up your deep breathing, the deeper and more pronounced the
Tool #2: Relaxing your body
This is best done sitting comfortably or lying down, but can also be done
standing. Close your eyes and silently ask your body to relax. Imagine
waves of relaxation rippling from your head to your toes. Focus on your
toes. Relax them. They might tingle as they relax. Now your feet: focus
on them and they will relax as well. From there, move step by step through
your body, relaxing each part as you come to it. Pay special attention to
your stomach area, your back, your shoulders, your neck, your face, and your
forehead. These muscles gather tension and often require more attention
before they fully relax. Focus on relaxing. If your mind wanders, gently
bring it back to relaxation. Don't worry if it wanders, don't struggle to
focus; when you notice it wandering, acknowledge what you're thinking about
and then go back to where you wandered from and continue.
Eventually you'll develop your own breathing and relaxation techniques. Do
whatever works for you.
Warning: dramatic shuckeling may disturb your focus. A slow, swiveling,
half-circle shuckel, or standing straight and still, works best.
Before we apply the techniques described above, a word about the siddur.
The siddur is a collection of all sorts of things, many of which are
tefillah. The word siddur itself means order, and like the seder on Pesach,
it is designed to help us navigate the many opportunities for connection
with Hashem as they present themselves. You should look at your siddur as
an organizer for talking to G-d. Find one that you like. There are
thousands of siddurim, each serving the needs of a particular niche. Find
the one that was designed for you. All work goes much more easily when you
have the right tools.
You have 5-10 minutes to spend in a quiet place before davening.
You have a moment to spend before davening.
You are in the middle of the Shmoneh Esreh and you discover
that your mind has just traveled elsewhere.
Scenario number one is the best-case scenario. Five to ten minutes is
enough time to relax and focus your thoughts. In this case, you begin with
your breathing and combine it with relaxation. Once you're relaxed, you can
just focus on your breathing. Just pay attention to how you're breathing,
and when your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breathing. Or you
can follow your thoughts and let them go wherever they want. You're an
observer noting what you're thinking about. Or you can introduce a specific
thought or visualization that will prepare you for tefillah.
Scenario number two is the most common; you have just a moment before
davening. In this case, start some deep breaths and generally relax
yourself. Ten deep breathing cycles will greatly enhance your focus. If
you still have time for a visualization like the one mentioned above, go for
it. If you find your mind wandering later in the davening, pause and do some
more deep breathing; you should easily regain your focus.
Scenario number three is embarrassingly common. You find yourself in the
middle of Shmoneh Esreh and you're not even sure how you got there. Stop
for a moment and begin your deep breathing. Do at least three cycles and
try to generally relax; for the next while, daven with your breathing. You
do this by davening during the exhalations, and remaining silent while you
inhale. You might need to pause in between brachos for more breathing and
relaxing. During that time, you can focus on the general meaning of the
next brachah. When your mind wanders, don't strain. Let the thought go its
course and then go back to the tefillah. Eventually, after some practice,
you'll be able to recapture your focus when you first discover that you've
If you follow the steps outlined above, you're guaranteed to experience
profound clarity in your tefillah. It's never the same experience twice,
and there are days when it's a struggle to focus on anything. Don't let
those days discourage you. Keep at it and you'll experience tefillah as you
always dreamed you would.
* Chapter Four*
Now comes a third technique. Mystics of old called it Hisbodedus. This
involves talking to Hashem about whatever is on your mind. At first, it
feels funny, but before you know it, you're talking about deep things and
loosening up deeply embedded pains and emotions. You have to find a place
and a time where you can talk out loud to Hashem. There are some who go to
the shore of a lake or an ocean, or climb to a mountaintop. There are
others who sit in a car, or walk in a forest or talk to Hashem while they're
lying in bed at night. Perhaps the most practical place and time for
Hisbodedus is after Shmoneh Esreh, just before you take your three steps
back. I have a good and wise friend who tells his students to do this and
many of them actually do.
I know the discussion of this technique only lasted a few sentences. Don't
let that be an indication of its value. Most often it's the simple things
that are the most powerful. Hisbodedus is very powerful, it is often
exhilarating, and it can change your life.
* Chapter Five *
One more thing before we end. This is something that has been very helpful
to me and I want to share it with you. There are times when you feel like
the ground has been pulled out from under your feet, like you're
free-falling, or like someone has just punched you in your emotional solar
plexus and you find it difficult to breathe. It's difficult to gather your
thoughts, you need a powerful hug, someone to tell you that everything will
be O.K., that they will handle it. For those moments and many others, I say
Tehillim. Not just one or two kapitlach (chapters); a lot. Less than ten
minutes does very little for me and sometimes I need to say it for half an
hour or an hour. You just open the Tehillim and read. You've got to say it,
though, not just read it to yourself. You're saying it to Hashem,
articulating your pain, your fear and your anxiety. Try to pay attention to
the meaning of the words, but if you can't, don't worry about it. Saying
Tehillim is powerfully restorative. It helps you find your center. You
will find comfort and strength. You will feel Hashem's presence, and most
importantly, his love, envelope you.
So that's it. Now that you have some of the tools I have been using to
light a fire under my davening, it's just a matter of applying them. Don't
wait to put these into action. Start now. I guarantee that they will change
your life forever.