Rabbi Dov Singer is the charismatic dean of Mekor Chaim Yeshiva High School in Gush Etzion and founding head of the Beit Midrash Lehitchadshut (Study Center for Renewal). He is renowned for his innovative and inspiring ability to deepen the connection of students and educators to Torah-true life and for planting the desire to be closer to Hashem through spearheading a revival of Hassidic thought, especially that of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, in Israeli non- hassidic circles.
"Prayer is the highest form of existence," he asserts and his pocket-book sized handbook of prayer "Tikon Tefillati" – possibly the only book of its kind extant– published in 2017, sold like wildfire in Israel. Its strength lay in an emotive analysis and presentation of the different forms and experiences of prayer, spiritual in nature, while including practical, behavioral suggestions on how each kind of prayer can enter the reader's heart to become an integral part of his life. It was recently published in English by Maggid Books and titled "Prepare My Prayer" Recipes to Awaken the Soul," after being adapted by Reut Brosh and beautifully translated with a readable, flowing text by Leah Hartman..
Each chapter and subheading awakens us to thoughts about prayer which we will be aware of from now on, using a rich medley of sources as set induction. There are excerpts from classic Judaic texts, biblical verses, midrashic insights, Talmudic discourse, the Rambam, the Zohar, Rabbi Nachman's Likutei Tefillot, Rabbi Kook, as well as modern poetry, always followed by a lyrical, flowing poem-essay by Rabbi Singer that seems to emanate from his very soul. Every topic ends with practical "recipes" and skills, for as the Baal Sefer Chinuch instructs, "our hearts follow the path of our actions." These are behaviorist tips that will aid the reader in reaching the goal set by each of the eleven chapters.
The chapters include thoughts like these:
Let me enter Your house: Don't rush into shul and begin to pray, prepare for speaking to the Creator, just as a musician tunes his instrument before he begins to play.
Soul Movements in Prayer: Traverse the range of prayers from the song of the heart to crying out, a form of communication which precedes language.
The elevator metaphor: As we being morning prayers, we can imagine ourselves in an elevator, ascending from level to level, beginning with prayers dealing with body awakening on the first floor to the wonders of the world in Pesukei dezimra, up to the world of the angels in the paragraphs before Shema and then to the world of closeness and whispered intimacy in the Silent Prayer, the Amida.
The Body's Gestures: Know that bowing is itself a prayer, one performed by the body, as is standing, lifting up one's hands to heaven, falling.
The Torah Reading – the entire Torah is names of G-d, and the word for "reading" is also used for "calling out" in Hebrew, so the entire Torah reading calls out G-d's Name.
The Priestly Blessing is a change in direction because now G-d is the Speaker, while we listen and receive.
Prayer differs from other commandments in that by definition, it needs kavana, intention (although there are those who say that the words themselves have mystic, intrinsic power.) In fulfilling other mitzvot, intention is important but performance is the only requirement. One cannot say that about prayer, which is all about addressing the Almighty in a meaningful way. The intention requirement is what makes daily prayer a challenging mitzva to fulfill.
The handbook addresses the problem of intention, especially relevant since opposition to praying at set times with set words is a common problem among many of today's young people, who are so used to individuality and self-expression that they find it hard to be tied to the words written centuries ago. Rabbi Singer gently guides them back:
The written prayer is a fixed prayer, We must make it new, To bring the ancient words inside, To say them again – refreshed, renewed…to reveal the movement from which the words were born before they were expressed, before they were written.
That is the most basic meaning of intention in prayer: To transform mumbling into facing, to turn the word toward their destination, to aim them in the right direction…The Reading of the Shema can be read as a public declaration… and alternatively, it is possible to read it as a quiet statement to myself, to listen to the secret of existence whispering from within reality: G-d is One.
To each verse a different address, a different melody. Don't make your prayer fixed.
I gave a copy of the Hebrew book to each of my children's families and therefore can vouch for the fact that the English version, which I read for this review, is true to the original. In English, as well as in Hebrew, the book is a soul-lifting spiritual trek.
But nothing happens by chance in this world. Full disclosure: This article was almost done, timed for posting a few days after Rabbi Singer's flight to the US for the launching of the English edition. Other responsibilities intruded before it could be finished, and by then Rabbi Singer was back in Israel and in isolation, having contracted coronavirus while out of the country. I could not bring myself to continue writing the article until yesterday, when, baruch Hashem, Arutz Sheva ran an interview with the beloved Rabbi as he convalesces in one of the rest homes Israel has set aside for those recovering from the virus.
Perhaps that delay is all for the best, because as the coronavirus pandemic erodes our security in so many ways, it seems fitting to be able to suggest finding sustenance and strength in a book which raises spiritual consciousness as we approach G-d – now, sad to say, most often in supplication.
People for whom prayer is part of everyday life and who, like all of us, sometimes let their minds wander, are now concentrating on their daily prayers as if every day is Yom Kippur- and rightly so. My heart tells me that, like the radically secular MK who revealed years ago that as an IDF soldier he said Shema when he thought it was the end, many people for whom prayer was not part of everyday life have begun feeling that they want to talk to G-d.
In that vein, yesterday morning, the first day of Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the month of renewal*, I joined hundreds in festive, inspiring prayer online by Rabbi Singer's Beit Midrash Lehitchadshut - with only ten socially distanced people in view and religious singer Yitzchak Meir leading the service. Rabbi Singer spoke from where he is recuperating.
Festive prayers are one of the best known activities of Rabbi Singer's welcoming Beit Midrash, one of whose stated goals is increasing motivation to pray and elevating feelings during prayer. The services take place, as do lectures and workshops, in a house of prayer in memory of Segen David Golobechich Hy"d in the picturesque Nahlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem – a gathering place for young adults and for famous Israeli musicians and singers who often join the Rosh Chodesh services.
May G-d hear all our prayers and may we see a full recovery for all those who are ill and be worthy for the Redemption in this Month of Redemption.
Notes: The book is also available at Koren Publishers.
*In the Book of Exodus, Nisan is called the Month of Springtime and Rabbi Kook wrote that "The Exodus from Egypt will forever remain the Springtime of the entire world," alluding to the Bible's introduction of the concept of liberty.
**A discordant note: It is unfortunate that the introduction by Elchanan Nir does what Rav Singer would never do – claims the book is important because other existing Torah messages and ideologies are not successful in reaching today's youngsters (the ideology refers to is clear to Israeli readers, but this is not the place to argue his point). However, any educator knows that no one message reaches everyone, and truth is not measured by the number of adherents to a particular ideology. Rabbi Singer would be the first to say that he wrote his book not instead, but in addition, to the paths to G-d paved by others.