Before praying, the rabbis taught, it is not enough to direct one’s thoughts. We should prepare not only the mind but also the heart. Which emotions are conducive to sincere prayer?
There are two emotions that the Sages specifically mentioned to avoid before prayer. “One should not stand up to pray while immersed in sorrow or idleness” (Berachot 31a). Why are these two emotions particularly detrimental to prayer?
We function in three realms — in our thoughts, emotions, and actions — and we aspire to serve God in all three. We serve God in the realm of thought through Torah study, and in the realm of deed through practical mitzvot. Between these inner and external services of God lies the intermediate realm of prayer, the service of the heart. Prayer engages our emotions, and through them bolsters the other two realms. It inspires the mind to contemplate pure and holy thoughts, and it encourages the body to perform good deeds.
However, the mind and the body must be ready to accept the positive influence of prayer. For this reason the Sages counseled that one should avoid sorrow and idleness. One who is sad or depressed will be discouraged from intellectual exerting himself to seek pure and enlightened thoughts. And idleness is a lethargic state when one is disinclined from engaging in good deeds. If we can steer away from these two emotions, we will be more receptive to the spiritual benefits of prayer.
The Sages also listed four activities that are inappropriate before prayer because of the emotional state that they induce. They are: laughter, conversation , frivolity, and idle chatter.
To merit heartfelt prayer, we must prepare ourselves in four aspects.
First, we need to acquire an overall attitude of seriousness and reverence. This is the opposite of joking and laughter. Those who constantly jest belittle their sense of reverence and respect. For such people, nothing is serious and nothing really matters. Nothing needs to be respected — including their own inner self and their higher aspirations.
The second preparation for prayer is to internalize the truth that the soul’s true perfection is only to be found in its inner happiness. We must recognize the unique honor and joy when the soul is enlightened with the light of knowledge and awe of God. Since the soul attains true happiness when it meditates inwards, during prayer we should avoid any activity that indicates that our happiness may be found outside of ourselves. This is the essence of conversation: that we seek what we lack, not within ourselves, but in others.
The third preparation is to avoid frivolity — literally, kalut-rosh (light headedness). It is important that we conduct ourselves according to our highest visualization of awe of heaven. There should not be a disconnect between our ideals and our behavior. Thus we must avoid kalut-rosh, which indicates an attitude of disregarding one’s cognitive inner truths, a willingness to act in contradiction to one’s beliefs. This negates the very purpose of prayer, which works to create harmony between the three realms of mind, heart, and body.
The final preparation for prayer is to internalize the importance of speech. Only if we are able to fully value our faculty of speech — a unique gift to humanity — can we grasp a proper image of the value of prayer. Therefore we should avoid idle chatter, especially before prayer, as such talk belittles the value of speech. Rather, we should respect and safeguard this gift.
To summarize the four principles of true prayer:
Avoiding sorrow and idleness, refraining from laughter, conversation, frivolity, and idle chatter — these are all negative guidelines. Is there also a positive preparation for prayer?
The Sages mentioned one emotion as a positive preparation for prayer: “the joy of performing a mitzvah.” While a mitzvah is an external deed performed for others, the joy in its performance is an internal emotion. It is a feeling of accomplishment as the soul rejoices in the goodness of its path. This feeling of completeness, the harmonious balance between our external and internal worlds, is uniquely suitable for prayer.
(Adapted from introduction to Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 29)