By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Author’s note: With the completion of the holidays, we return to my dialogue and exchange of letters with the famed singer Matisyahu. Here he responds to my last answer to him that the entire prayer service is like a symphony composed by a great maestro that a musician would never change:
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I don’t believe you can say the prayer service is an equal comparison to a Beethoven concerto. The listeners, not necessarily the musician, are the ones who benefit from the playing of the whole concerto vs. the musician stopping. Prayer is about the “musician” and God.
As a side note, I struggle with this every single night. What happens when I’m singing “Jerusalem” or “One Day” and something inside me goes dead? Do I fake it and continue for the sake of the listeners, or do I have the artistic integrity to stop. On some level, it is a job: People paid money to hear those songs and maybe they are not so sensitive to even know what is happening with me. I owe it to them to get past my own shortcomings. On the other hand, it feels like Moshe hitting the rock. How can I speak to the rock when I’m too busy hitting it to get water?
I, as a layman and not a musician, would humbly suggest that any musician who plays a piece with real integrity and feeling — as you mention in your struggle, that the musician needs to live the music himself and not play simply for the sake of the listeners — is a key beneficiary of that music.
The musician achieves a level of joy and ecstasy to have brought a piece of music, in its entirety, from notes on a page or thoughts in their mind to something real, tangible, alive and breathing. His or her personal emotion, thrill and delight spill over to the listeners. The musician would be lacking in their own personal accomplishment if they felt they only played half the symphony.
It is true that prayer is between the one praying and God, and the sages have actually said “tov ham’at bekavanah,” better to say a little with true focus and passion than a lot without thought and feeling, as God “desires the heart.”
The key source in the Torah for the mitzvah to pray is from the verse “ … and you should serve God with your entire heart” (Deuteronomy 11:13). A prayer uttered without the heart is not really a prayer. Conversely, any prayer at all, the recitation of even one blessing recited with kavanah, feeling and thought, is embraced, dear and beloved in the eyes of the almighty.
This being the case, the supplicant would nevertheless need to know that by reciting merely a portion of the prayer service he or she is only touching on a part of the symphony.
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) writes that a mitzvah without kavanah is like a body without a soul. That being said, he adds that this does not disqualify a mitzvah completely when it is bereft of kavanah; even such a mitzvah is considered a service of God provided the performer of the act at least knows he or she is performing a mitzvah.
The very act itself contains holiness within it and is, by its very essence, a service of God. Therefore, he concludes, even when one doesn’t feel like doing a mitzvah at a particular time, better to do it than not to, as it still has a positive effect on the person and the universe — even though that it doesn’t even compare to the same act with concentration, focus and emotion.
This is why I usually advise people to place their main focus upon one blessing, verse or section of the prayers at a time and recite the rest even with less concentration. In this way, they will eventually be able to concentrate on more and more, ultimately to get the entire symphony. In the meantime, the rest of the prayers are not a hollow act; they also have merit.
Again, I stress this is not a reason not to recite only a portion of the service. The prayers and blessings, like the rest of Torah and Judaism, are by no means an “all or nothing” deal. I am simply putting it into context.
I think the lesson of Chaim Volozhin answers the struggle you mention; although you may feel at times you are playing without your soul in it, you still know you are playing something that brings either enjoyment or inspiration, or both, to the listeners.
That’s enough to uplift what you are doing from being a hollow act to being something positive, something that you owe to them and that only you can provide, even though it might not be your very best. It’s still your very best at that moment.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel, Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.