I think the problem is that we spend so much time focusing on learning. We overly focus on intellectual stimulation. On another question LN6595 repeated their teacher's advice:
[I]t is imperative to periodically learn a new commentary on the Siddur in order to find new meaning in the old words.
But that will only help for a short while, until you find the next seifer... And what do you do when you're between siddurim and a new one didn't come out yet?
And yet, it is critical advice. After all, at different times in our lives we want to say to Hashem different things. The Rambam emphasizes the role of the "sages, and among them many prophets" of the Great Assembly in founding the core of our siddur because it takes prophecy to create such a rich palimpsest of potential meanings out of a single text.
We have a problem when teaching tefillah. Teach it too late, and the routine is never established. Teach it too early, and the routing is to run through a bunch of syllables that have no meaning.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe has an exercise in which one says "Adon Olam" paying attention to how one says it. Not saying it with more kavanah than otherwise; watching the kavanah ebb and wain -- aware that this will indeed influence the results. I found it very hard, at least in the first weeks, to still be thinking about what I was saying through to the end of the poem. And non-coincidentally, I learned to say Adon Olam in Pre-1A. Those habits die hard.
I think we need to be much more in touch with the experiential side of things. Tefillah is not about the brain, it's about the emotional experience of turning to one's Parent and both discussing the things that are bothering me, as well as getting in the habit of discussing the things that are supposed to be bothering me.
For me, two things have helped, but I fear there is no one-size-fits-all solution:
1- Try the practice Rav Nachman miBreslov called "hisbodedus". Go someplace quiet, alone, preferably in touch with nature, and simply talk to the Creator. It will be artificial and awkard at first. But eventually you get used to it.
And then that ability to "speak to G-d" in your own words carries through to how you relate to davening a formal liturgy.
2- Rav Reuvein Leuchter has an approach based on Kelm's version of what Rav Yisrael called "hispa'alus" (literally: working on oneself). There are different ways of imbuing words with experiential and emotional power. Novhardok's involved yelling and they and Slabodka heavily used music. Hispa'alus isn't tied to a specific how; it's just about doing words in a way that they make impacts.
In adapting hispa’alus to contemporary prayer in a contemporary synagogue, perhaps Kelm’s style of hispa’alus that is quieter then Novorodok’s impassioned cry would be more useful. Kelm's approach was more intellectual. (In fact that's true in general. Their ideal [in my own metaphor] is for the intellect to be a conductor of an orchestra of middos, so that each middah chimes in when appropriate, instead of whenever it wants.) The bridge they used in hispaalus to get to the emotion is that we tend to connect emotionally to our own creations. Any prayer in which you find your own insight becomes more yours.
The Alter of Kelm describes a process:
- Intense and single-minded concentration on a single thought. One phrase, sentence or paragraph, repeated out loud and with a tune, to help keep away extraneous thoughts. A beginner should start with five minutes and work his way upward. But that meditation-level thought on one phrase itself causes emotional response.
- Through the extended concentration, one can find a chiddush a new insight into the thought. As many corporate managers learn, if you want your employees to “buy into” a new project, you hold a brainstorming session. By getting each person to contribute ideas to the project, they get a sense of possession. The project becomes “theirs”.
Through this chiddush the person develops an attachment and “takes ownership” of the idea.
- Last, the person deepens the insight into profundity on Torah, one’s own nature, and the interaction of the two. How the Torah speaks to my condition, and how the uniqueness of who I am and how I see things speaks to the Torah.
How does this become a style of prayer? Obviously, saying every line of the siddur with five minutes of concentration apiece (and that’s just when you’re starting out!) is impossible, both humanly, and because of the finite time of the day. Instead, certain parts of tefillah call for this kind of attention: the first berakhah of the Amidah, the first line or paragraph of Shema, maybe the verses in Qorbanos about bitachon (trust in G-d) which the siddur tells us to repeat three times each, or whichever tefillos speak to you and where you’re up to in life.
Rav Leuchter explains the mishnah's notion that we are supposed to enter tefillah in a mental state of "koveid rosh -- heaviness of head", usually translated "seriousness". But what to we know about heavy objects? They have inertia. They are hard to move. Similarly we speak of "yishuv hadaas -- a settled mind". If you enter tefillah with koveid rosh, you are approaching it as something you naturally wouldn't be distracted during.
So we need to give the words of tefillah mass.
Picture building within ourselves a palace for the Almighty. "Bilvavi mishkan evneh -- I will build a Tabernacle in my heart", as Rav Hutner wrote (and the songwriter popularized). Each line of tefillah can be a stone in that palace. But to be a worthy palace, we need expert masons, going over each side of the stone. Making sure its corners are truly square, and its sides truly smooth. To go over it an over it, polishing the stone until it sparkles. Until it belongs in a palace, a sanctuary, for Hashem Himself.
Or at least, until we have done the best we could, and the practice with this sentence has become habit and boring. After all, as we say in Nishmas, "even if our mouths were filled with song like the sea bed [is filled of water], and our tongues with melodies of praise like its mighty waves... we would still be insufficient to give You Your tribute..."
And as we polish the stone, it becomes more tangible. More real in our lives. It has emotional import because we take possession of our perspective into our sages' words. The stone gains mass.
This is what hipa'alus gives us.
Perhaps it’s best to explain by inviting you to experience it. I ask you to try the following next Shabbos morning, The middle blessing of the Shabbos Amidah begins:
Yismach Mosheh — Moses will be happy
bematnas chelqo — with the giving of his portion,
ki eved ne’eman — because a reliable servant
qaraso lo — You have called to him.
The line looks simple enough, however riches lie underneath, with a little concentration. Rather than spell out what they are, and my opinion on what they mean, I am going to list some questions to think about and give you a chance to find your own chiddushim, your own relationship to the text.
Why does it say “yismach” in the future tense? Wasn’t Moshe’s happiness at the time?
“Yismach” is from the word “simchah”. Think of some of the other words for happiness: sason, gilah, etc… How do they differ in usage? What does the choice of “yismach” here indicate?
“Bematnas” with the giving of his portion. What does it mean that Moshe is happy with the giving of his portion, his lot in life, rather than referring to the happy is caused by the portion itself? The mishnah says “Who is wealthy? One who is samai’ach bechalqo — happy with his lot.” Nearly the same phrase, but without “bematnas”. The lot itself. Am I to be happy with my lot, or with the giving of it?
“Ki eved ne’eman — because a reliable servant…” Rashi says the word “ki” has 7 meanings, “because” is only one of them. The others are: rather, when, that, perhaps, if, reason. Why did they choose a potentially ambiguous word? What happens to the meaning of the phrase if we try some of these other translations?
“Eved ne’eman.” What does it mean to be an “eved Hashem”, servant of G-d. What’s the added point of being “ne’eman”, a reliable servant in particular?
“Karasa lo” — You called to him. Why not “qarasa oso”, that Hashem called him, why “to him”?
Why does being a servant make Moshe happier with his lot? Or, in light of the above questions, why does being called to as a reliable servant make him happy — and the kind of happiness we call simchah — with the giving of his lot? And is “because” and “why” the only connection implied?
And most important, what does this say of my worship and my happiness?
Look! “Treasures buried in the sand”, repeated with minimal or no thought every week holds worlds of meaning about ourselves and how we should relate to G-d. Through hispa’alus we can not only find them, but use them to enrich ourselves.