If we are to fully appreciate what prayer means to a Jew, we should first of all get our terms straight.
The common term used for prayer for those with a Yiddish background is to daven (pronounced daa-ven) and there are various theories where the word "daven" came from. Some say that "daven" comes from the Hebrew word dovaiv, which means "to move the lips." Davening is when Jews move their lips. We don't pray silently; we pray verbally, vocalizing our prayers.
I once heard a theory from an old man in Seattle, Washington, that daven is an Aramaic word; it comes from the word d'avuhon, which means, "from our fathers." According to the Talmud, it was our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who first instituted prayer: Abraham was the first to pray the morning prayer, Isaac, the afternoon prayer, and Jacob, the evening prayer. So since prayers originate with our fathers, d'avuhon, it's called "davening".
In Hebrew, the word for prayer is tefilah. What does the word tefilah mean? There are two translations that are literal and accurate. The word tefilah comes from the word pellel which means "to judge." Tefilah is a time of self-evaluation, self-judgment, introspection, when a person takes the time to focus on himself and goes within himself to see what it is that he needs, what it is that he is all about, what are his faults, what are his qualities, what is it that he needs from G‑d, and why should G‑d give it to him. This self-assessment process happens through tefilah.
On another level, in another translation, tefilah means "attachment." When we daven, we create a bond between ourselves and our Creator. Prayer is a process of putting things together. When we daven there are only two things in the universe, G‑d and ourselves. The problem is that there are two entities when they should be united as one. Tefilah remedies the problem and turns them into one. So tefilah is the process by which we begin looking at ourselves, focusing on ourselves, and proceed to focus on G‑d and bring ourselves close to Him, raising ourselves above the whole succession of life that prevails during the rest of the day.
There is a very famous explanation from the Torah about tefilah. It deals with the incident (Genesis 28:12) when Jacob falls asleep and has a dream in which he sees a ladder standing on the ground and reaching into the heavens. Angels are going up and down the ladder. What is the allegory of the ladder? The Zohar, the primary work of Kabbalah, explains that this ladder joining heaven and earth symbolizes prayer. By means of the ladder of prayer we are capable of alighting, rising and elevating ourselves to the highest level.
Our sages tell us that Jacob's ladder had four rungs. Chassidic teaching identifies four stages in prayer, corresponding to the four parts of the morning Shacharit prayer:
1) P'sukei D'zimra ("Verses of Praise");
2) the blessings that precede the Shema;
3) the Shema;
4) the Amidah -- the "standing" prayer, also known as Shemonah Esrei ("eighteen") because of its original eighteen blessings.
These four stages form a gradual process which allows us to reach the top of the ladder. You can't get to the top in one jump; you have to take it step-by-step. The first step praising G‑d.
What is the idea of praising G‑d?
We are naturally inclined to relate to things that are of a physical nature; we are not naturally disposed towards spirituality. This is not because spirituality is not our true, natural state -- deep down that's really who we are, we're spiritual beings. But our spiritual identity, which Chassidic teaching calls our "G‑dly soul", is covered up. It's covered up with a body. And even within the body it's covered up with the "animal soul" that we all possess -- the life force that enables us to relate to and take care of our physical needs, but which inhibits the spiritual desires of the spiritual, G‑dly soul.
The process of prayer is to help remove all of that which covers up and inhibits our G‑dly soul from being one with G‑d. And I should add that much of the problems, the psychological difficulties that we experience, especially stress, is because of the inflated expectations that we have of ourselves because of our ego. When there is a conflict because we don't seem to be able to live up to our inflated expectations, we have all these problems of stress. When we daven, we help lift ourselves up out of this and reveal our true identity; then, of course, the problems begin to dissolve.
The first stage is to get our animal soul to more or less to appreciate something spiritual. I mean, if you talk to a cow, it's going to be very hard for you to get the cow to accept something spiritual. Try to talking philosophy to it. The cow is not going to appreciate what you're trying to say to it. Our animal soul, in many respects, is like that cow. It's not interested in spirituality. But the difference is that our animal soul can be reasoned with. If we can get to the rationality of the animal soul and "speak" to it, we can say, "Look, look at how great G‑d is. G‑d is the Creator. He creates the food you eat, the world you inhabit, your very life and existence." All this in the P'sukei D'zimra -- verses and Psalm describing G‑d as the creator and sustainer of life. The animal soul understands materialism, self. The most effective line of approach is to try to impress your animal soul with how good it is for its own material self to be close to G‑d. We tell our animal soul, "You know, the greatest thing in the world for you is G‑d." Loving G‑d means loving that which created you, your health, your sustenance, your children, your family, your social life, your community life. Once the animal soul realizes the advantages of being close to G‑d, we can go on to the second stage.
The second stage is the blessings before the Shema. We're going up another rung on the ladder of prayer. The blessings before the Shema talk about the angels, and how the angels in heaven are so excited about G‑d.
How does that affect the animal soul? Well, sometimes in order to get someone who is not very receptive to something to become more interested in it, one can do it by saying to the person, "You know what? Your friend is involved." Peer pressure is very powerful in our society.
The animal soul might be somewhat impressed when it davens and sees how great G‑d is. But it says, "Look, I can't just break away from all this unG‑dly stuff just because you've convinced me that G‑d is good. It's just not the thing that animals do" The idea of the blessings before the Shema, is to tell him that the angels, who are also animals, are all excited about G‑d.
I'm not being disrespectful by calling angels animals. They're referred to as animals in the Torah -- at the beginning of the Book of Ezekiel there's a whole vision where the angels are portrayed as animals. Because what is an animal? An animal is a creature that has intelligence -- not like a human being, but it has intelligence. The animal's intelligence is programmed; it follows its instincts. Angels are also programmed creatures; they are spiritual computers. What is a computer? A computer is a programmed, intelligent thing. Its intelligence is superior, in certain respects, than a human being. But nevertheless no one would ever say that a computer is superior to a human being, because only the human being has free choice, the ability to do whatever he wants to do. A human being is not programmed. The angel is a computer of sorts that is put into motion by G‑d, who is the programmer. The angel sees to it that nature runs according to G‑d's program.
And so you can tell the animal soul that these angels, its peers, are excited about G‑d. In fact, in Kabbalah, we're told that the various types of angels are the direct spiritual predecessors, a higher "link in the chain," of the animals as we know them, including, of course, that "civilized animal," the animal soul in man. If the angels are all excited about G‑d, then the animal soul feels that he has no reason to shy away from loving G‑d, of getting closer to G‑d, and of not inhibiting the G‑dly soul in reaching expressing its bond with G‑d.
The "prepping up" of the animal soul in the "verses of praise" and the blessings about the angels attains its goal in the third stage of prayer, the recitation of the Shema.
In the Shema we proclaim our belief in the unity of G‑d, and express our love for G‑d "with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." You as an individual cannot truly love G‑d when your animal soul loves something else. But as you go through the processes of davening, your animal soul begins to recognize that maybe its first love should be G‑d. And maybe it shouldn't stand in the way of the G‑dly soul. And then you can love G‑d b'chol l'vovcha, "with all your heart(s)." The Talmud comments that the expression l'vovcha denotes a double heart. And the Talmud remarks that this is because your heart is split. One set of emotions, one heart, is guided and inspired by your G‑dly soul, another set is guided by your animal soul. It's not enough that your G‑dly soul loves G‑d; your animal soul has to feel this love of G‑d, too. When you say the Shema, ideally, this is what you should be expressing - not only the love of G‑d through your G‑dly soul, but also your basic animal nature's love of G‑d. And that can only be achieved after you have completed the first and second rungs of davening as explained.
Still, there's higher to go. Because when you stand on the rung of Shema, the emphasis is on love of G‑d, and the nature of love implies that there is an object of that love, something outside of yourself, that you are not; it attracts you. There is a motive, however noble it may be. You feel an attraction to G‑d, you are aware of yourself, and therefore, you are still not in a state of total union with Him. When you say the Amidah, however, if you've gone through all the other stages properly, you now stand in total and complete union with G‑d. There aren't two things, you and G‑d. The process of getting to the top of the ladder is completed.
What is discussed here is the ideal state of davening, if everything goes according to specification. Ideally, it should work. But because we're not perfect, because we have other factors that interfere, it often doesn't. Nevertheless, it doesn't hurt us if we sometimes get ahead of ourselves, or if sometimes it takes a little bit more time.
There once was a chassid who put a lot of effort into davening. And when a chassid, in the olden days especially, would put effort into davening, that meant that he would study the mystical teachings for hours before davening. He would wake up at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. and study for two or three hours, then he would meditate on what he had studied for another hour or two, and then he would start davening. He would daven with that meditation, with those studies, and the davening would then penetrate and really have a tremendous effect on him.
This one chassid would make a lot of preparations. And he would feel very excited and spiritually moved by all of his preparations. But then, when the davening would begin, all of these emotions would just dissipate, just fizzle out. He wouldn't feel anything during the davening itself. He said the words, passed though the "four stages" -- he knew what the words meant and what each stage was -- but no emotions whatsoever were apparent. And this troubled him very much. Here he would build for hours and hours to get something great out of the davening, and then he goes and davens and doesn't feel anything.
So he complained to Rabbi Hillel Paritcher, one of the greatest Chassidim of his time. He said, "Look what I'm doing. I'm preparing myself, and I get spiritually high, and then when I start davening, I just drop, and I don't get anything out of it!" And Reb Hillel told him, "Why should it disturb you that you daven before you daven?"
In other words, we might feel the effects of davening in the preparation for davening itself, and the fact that not every part of davening, or no part of davening, arouses the same feeling every time does not necessarily mean that something is wrong.
As long as we have the proper attitude, and the proper goal in davening, our davening is not just, "Well G‑d said I have to daven, so I have to say the words, and get it over with." There are people who like to daven very early in the morning, which is a good thing; but what is not good, is that they do so because they want to get it over with -- "You know, I want to have a whole day where I can be free for myself." Davening is not something to "get it over with" -- it's something to get into.
Sometimes only after davening for years and years, do you finally feel something. Because davening is much like being a concert violinist. The violinist doesn't just get up there on stage and play some great masterpiece. He or she has to prepare, has to practice hours and hours, days and weeks and months and years before he can really present a masterpiece. The same is true with davening. What I described as davening is the ideal form of davening, and it might take years and years -- but the main thing is that you have to start, to know what the davening is about, and to use the davening to go in that direction.