Hi, I’m a Chabad Jew that struggles with davening. These are some of my thoughts about davening coupled with data from a questionnaire I sent to people in crown heights.
How does one talk to the fabric of reality?
As Chabad Jews we are taught to read Hebrew from a young age. We are taught that Hashem exists, and that by saying Hebrew words in a specific order, Hashem will give us things. Then we are taught that these words have meaning. Some of us are taught to understand the meaning of those words, and some aren’t. Then we are taught that by saying these words, not only does Hashem give us things, but we connect to Hashem. Some of us understand what connecting to Hashem could be, and some don’t. This is davening.
We are taught to daven either by our parents or in school. When we are in the environment we were taught to daven in, it’s much easier to daven as opposed to when there isn’t a person watching over us. When the time comes that we have to leave that comfortable space, our desire to daven decreases, as before then we never really thought about why we daven and the implication of what that means. When that time comes, some people recognize their lack of understanding and start to search for the meaning in their davening, and some don’t recognize their lack of understanding and think that just mindlessly spewing out words to a Hashem they don’t know is all there is to it. The former are the ones who daven because they want to. The latter are the ones who daven because they have to. Neither usually stays in that state for too long.
The ones who daven because they have to realize after a certain amount of time that doing so takes a toll on them. To use a metaphor, one davening only because one was taught to but not understanding the reason behind it is akin to one being paid a salary to pretend they are stocking shelfs in an empty room. They feel that they are accomplishing nothing. So some, like the ones who daven because they want to, start to search. What they find is unrealistic to tell as each person has their own journey, but it is safe to say that in the end they all discover that a general idea of davening is a connection to Hashem.
The ones who daven because they want to realize after a certain amount of time that the concept of davening is so much deeper than they originally thought. Some start to notice the subtle nuances of the words and their application. Some realize they don’t enjoy saying the words that much but like thinking about the concept of Hashem while they daven. Some who don’t have the time to get into deep thoughts of Hashem or understand the words recognize that they are content with the knowledge that somehow saying the words connects them to Hashem. The ways people add meaning to their davening are incredibly diverse.
Just because a person adds meaning to their davening does not in turn mean that they will always enjoy it. For a good chunk of people in the Chabad community davening feels like a hassle. Sometimes davening just feels like a bunch of assigned prayers that don’t in effect actually do anything. Sometimes when just mumbling the words people don’t feel any connection to Hashem. A few answers to the question “why do you daven?” by both male and female respondents paraphrased are “because I was taught to,” and “because it’s become a part of my routine.” Both are, although not the majority, reasons why some people who have meaning in their davening, don’t always enjoy it.
A great deal of people who add meaning to their davening benefit tremendously in enjoyment. Some see davening as something similar to a private audience with Hashem, where they can express whatever is on their mind to Hashem. Some see it as less of a physical meeting and more of a spiritual connection. Some see it as a daily recharge. Some see it as a literal way to ask Hashem for their needs and wants. Some see it as of no way a practice to do for themself, but as a way to show love and affection to Hashem. No matter the specific way, these people who have meaning in their davening take another step toward enjoying it.
Whether a person enjoys davening or doesn’t, whether a person has a meaningful davening or doesn’t, every jew has the Halachic obligation to daven. Chabad sees the mitzvah to daven as from the Torah,
“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving your Hashem, and serving him with all your heart and all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 11:13)
The commandment for Davening is similarly interpreted in the Babylonian Talmud,
“that it is said in a Beraisa,‘…Loving your Hashem, and serving him with all your heart…’ Which service is in the heart? This is saying Tefilla.” (Taanit 2a.)
It also is listed as the fifth mitzvah in the Rambam’s “Sefer HaMitzvot.”
People who daven, whether it be only out of obligation or out of meaning, all develop a connection to Hashem. Connecting to Hashem has no one specific meaning, just like an interpretation of a verse in the Torah has no one specific meaning. Connecting to Hashem could mean feeling something, understanding something, knowing something, or even doing something. What that something is can only be decided by the one who wants to connect to hashem. Someone can feel connected by singing during davening, while for others that doesn’t really give them anything. For others can feel connected by studying Torah before davening, understanding Hashem slightly more. Some are content with the knowledge of the Shema, that Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is one. A custom among many Chabad jews is to give Tzedaka before davening. By doing a physical act of righteousness a person can feel that on some level they are bringing Hashem’s will onto the world. When asked, “What does davening mean to you?” 64.5% of respondents answered along the lines of, “Connecting to Hashem.” The consensus about what davening to connect to Hashem means is “a time to put my worries of the world aside and talk to Hashem.” While not everyone has these opinions, these are a general indicator of what davening could be.
On another note, singing/humming during davening seems to not have a direct effect on ones enjoyment/meaning during davening. About 50% of respondents replied “yes” and “sometimes” to the question “do you sing/hum during davening,” with about 50% of them saying they enjoy or like to daven. Although the data shows little correlation between singing and humming during davening and enjoyment and meaningfulness, almost all of the people who sing/hum had trouble with focusing during davening and setting time to daven. It can be reasonably concluded that singing/humming davening can be of help to someone who finds it hard to focus on the words of davening, and can be a saving grace to someone who doesn’t understand the words.
In Chabad davening, an emphasis has been put on the aspect of connecting to Hashem rather than asking Hashem for someone’s wants and needs. People evolve in rapidly different ways and their davening evolves with them. Although a common theme of Chabad davening is to connect to Hashem, other themes such as talking, thanking, and rapidly saying words in another language because jews are commanded to do that, are minority opinions but nonetheless are still completely valid and should be heard. People love Davening. People Dislike davening. Davening, in all its forms, can be considered art; an expression. So davening, like all art, is what you make it.