A Chassid once took out his prayerbook to begin praying, folding the corner of one specific page before he began. Another man in the synagogue noticed that the Chassid’s siddur had many such fold marks, as if folding the corner of one page was a daily occurrence. The Chassid explained, “My concentration is limited, and I struggle to focus on the entire morning prayers. But if I fold over one page, when I reach that point in prayer, I can ensure that for at least one prayer a day, I am fully present and concentrating.”

Chapter 39 of Tanya may very well be the source for his actions. In this chapter, the Alter Rebbe discusses the spiritual address of a mitzvah performed or a prayer uttered. One can wonder, what happens to a mitzvah, or a prayer, once it is performed or recited? If recited with the proper intention, the mitzvah or prayer rises up to G‑d’s heavenly chambers, where it merges with the spiritual lights (Sefirot) found there, ultimately uniting with G‑d’s unlimited light (Ein sof). This is what it means that it comes “before G‑d.”

While no GPS can pinpoint their location, these spiritual chambers, or worlds, that exist are the abode of the angels or of the souls of righteous individuals. The world where the angels reside is called Yetzira, a world of G‑dly emotion, where angels serve G‑d out of love and fear. However, Yetzira is a lower-level chamber because angels only serve G‑d out of instinct, worshipping G‑d in a fixed emotional state. The world where the souls of righteous men reside, Briah, is greater in its spiritual nature, for it is the world of G‑dly intellect, being that righteous men serve G‑d not by instinct, but by using their intellect to create a love and fear of G‑d.

When a Jew performs a mitzvah or prays with an instinctive, inherent love and fear of G‑d, the mitzvah rises and merges with the G‑dly lights (Sefirot) of Yetzira. But when a Jew contemplates on G‑d’s greatness, and feels a love or awe of G‑d as a result of his intellectual effort, his mitzvah rises to the higher world of Briah, merging with the G‑dly lights of Briah, the home of the righteous. That is because a mitzvah motivated by an intellectually generated love and fear of G‑d has a superior quality to it, which makes it rise to a world that is greater than the angels.

What about if a mitzvah is performed with no intention at all, but simply out of rote? Or if someone got so carried away during prayer that instead of thinking of love and fear of G‑d, they are completely distracted by mundane and unrelated thoughts? Or even worse, if they did it with self-serving motives in mind?

That’s where repentance comes in. While mitzvahs and prayer without intention cannot rise and merge with those great G‑dly lights, one can do repentance after the fact or reinsert an intention into past prayers, releasing those good deeds and prayers to their appropriate spiritual destination.

This means that one Shema prayer recited with concentration and devotion, arousing intellectually generated awe and fear of G‑d in the heart of the Jew, can cause the Shema prayers of an entire year to rise together to the world of Briah, to the world which is higher than the angels.

Tanya Bit: If yesterday my mind wandered during prayer, today I can concentrate and cause two prayers to soar to the high spiritual worlds.

(Inspired from Chapter 39 of Tanya)