In Prayer: Thoughts Astray? It’s Okay!

I am always curious about when to maintain my focus and when to drift…

and how to integrate those capacities better in myself.


In his book, Your Word is Fire, Arthur Green examines how the Hasidic Masters explain the meaning, value, and management of stray thoughts during contemplative prayer.

It is important to note, first of all, the emphasis of prayer in Hasidic life. In the Introduction to the book, Green reminds us that the ancient rabbis say that the world rests upon three pillars: Torah, Worship, and Deeds of Compassion (Mishnah Avot 1:2). In the parlance of mussar, which I am also studying, I have come to understand that Torah is God reaching out to us, that prayer is us reaching out to God, and Gemilut Chasidim are how we humans reach out to each other.

Green tells us how the early Hasidic masters began to emphasize prayer over the other two pillars, and that they saw all of Jewish life as ‘the way of service’. Prayer, study and observing mitzvoth are how Jews fulfill this sacred service. The way these were done became more important than the acts themselves, thus, study for its own sake, recitation of prayers formulaically, and performing mitzvoth without kavvanah were warned against. Instead, ecstatic prayer, achieved by complete absorption and devotion to the prayer moments and making intimate and personal connection with God and soul, called devekut, were taught by the masters. The first of the mystic teachers to expound this was R. Isaac Luria (1534-1572), and later the Ba’al Shem Tov (1700-1760). This personal striving for transcendence and redemption within this world replaced the eschatological vision of world redemption of previous times. This shift from the futuristic and universal to the immediate and personal was largely due to the wish to separate from the failure of earlier Sabbataean messianism and its message of world redemption.

According to Green, one of the Hasidic masters, R. Pinchas of Korzec said, “prayer itself is the essence of God!” More generally, according to Green, the Hasidic belief is that the soul is “a part of God above” and longs to reunite with God above. Prayer, particularly Hebrew prayers of the liturgy, are the vehicles for the soul to return. The prayers create the process of unification, יחוד yihud, and are considered the highest goal of life.

So, here we are now, whether modern or medieval, Hasidic or not, in all our human nature, the reality is that

during prayer, our minds stray!


That is the uniting truth of prayer, or of any other endeavor that we undertake for longer than a few seconds. Despite the inspired composition and deliberate canonization of the best of them into liturgy, and although one may strive for devekut and yihud, the fact is, we have busy minds and we like to avoid the pain and fear that prayers may evoke.

One way to deal with this is to find deterrents to straying, punishments as it were, such as in the old Puritan church were the beadle would carry a rod to smack dozing or distracted worshippers back to attention; or our own internal self-deprecation for allowing thoughts to stray. My voice teacher in New York could always tell that I had lost focus during a vocalize exercise or song because I would lose pitch. He would catch me as I barreled along, trying to skillfully get back on key before I was caught, and he would say, “Susan, where did you go? Do you know how I knew you lost focus? Because I could in your eyes that you went somewhere else. Now, write down whatever it was, and put that aside for later, and get back to singing.” He was right. That lesson taught me how to maintain focus and separate distractions for later.

The question is, though, is it really so wrong to let your thoughts stray during prayer? Certainly, on stage in a performance, it is a problem and my voice teacher was right in my training! But what about in prayer? Should the mind be a battlefield over which the opposing forces fight for attention during prayer? The Ba’al Shem Tov revolutionized the answer, and saw that just as each moment in life is an opening to God, so each distraction in prayer may be a rung to a new level on the ladder of ascendance in prayer. Even distracting sexual thoughts could be understood as a message to look for an answer from the realm of Love, rather than as physical fantasies to be avoided, acted out, or ignored.


Hasidic davvening is a way to climb toward heaven through the המרכבה ירדי, the descent to the chariot (Dan, 2006). This process of ascent through descent is attributed to early Talmudic sages, Rabbi Akibah and Rabbi Ishmael, and in contrast to most Hekhalot and Merkavah literature surrounding it, speaks of first hand experiences, rather than Biblical verses and midrash. Also different is the idea that the pathway of ascent through seven realms to heaven begins from a descent downward, and expounds on the many dangers faced in order to ascend and reach each of the seven palaces of heaven. In other words, the journey of prayer begins in humility, perhaps from a place of brokenness or confusion.

According to Green, only one who knows that God is present in everything, including thoughts we’d rather flee, can be a leader of prayer. That means as prayer leaders, we can use a big dose of radical self-acceptance; the tendency toward excessive brooding over relatively minor failures must be avoided, and forgiving and moving on is encouraged. Rather than be held up by these relatively minor distractions, there are bigger and better realms to climb toward, remember the seven palaces leading to heaven. Each one has its challenges to overcome and it is an exercise in faith to let go of the fear or self-reproach that prevents moving on toward reaching God. As prayer leaders, we need to accept this practice for ourselves in order to be available and to model it for others.

As for instructions on how to pray, the Hasidim wisely did not create an instruction book for us, instead they created parables that one may examine and find relevance in every time they are viewed. Green’s chapter on ‘Thoughts That Lead Astray’ has several parables that juxtapose distraction and focus for us to examine. Here are two parables that I would like us to examine:

The first is the story of two men who wish to pass through a forest. The road they must travel through it was very dangerous and filled with highwaymen and robbers. Most people who passed through went very quickly in order to avoid trouble. Of these two men, one was sober, the other drunk. The sober man passed as quickly as possible to the other side and waited while the drunken man ambled slowly through. This one was attacked and beaten along the way, but because he was so drunk, he felt nothing at all. He only believed in his injuries when his sober friend held up a mirror for him, and he had no memory of any of the incidents that had caused him injury during the journey. In this parable, I see that rushing through prayer leaves one unscathed, and also unchanged. Both men managed to pass through, and although the drunken one went slowly and met with danger, he suffered no pain or memory of being attacked, and carried forth to the other side. This allegory about prayer tells us that we, like the sober man, can rush through prayers untouched by the various memories and feelings they were devised to bring our attention to, such as an evil tongue, or the memory of a lost loved one. Or, we may ramble slowly and unfocused, like the drunken man, possibly be pummeled by a multitude of challenges, and upon leaving, have no memory of what transpired. Awareness of the new self only comes through reflections seen upon return, that indeed, there has been a journey and arrival at a new place.

The second parable helps me to understand the extreme shuckling of Orthodox and Hasidic davveners. I have read that it is in some way a sort of sexual integration with God, and if this is true, find it rather simple and unsatisfying as an explanation. Something has always told me that this is not the purpose of what the men are doing. This second parable reads: “…do not laugh at one who moves their body, even violently, during prayer. A person drowning makes all kinds of motions to try to save themselves. This is not a time to laugh. Indeed, it is not a time to laugh”.

My interpretation of this sort of uninhibited physical prayer comes from Green, who tells us that according to the Lurianic kabbalists, “the mystics had access to a complicated series of keys that could unlock the heart in prayer. We no longer have the keys; all we can do is to smash the lock. The only true prerequisite for such prayer he said, is a broken heart.” After reading this parable about bodies in prayer, I now see them differently. What I see is someone who is so engaged and lost in their desperate need to be with God that they no longer have the body inhibitions that we consider genteel. Just as drowning is no time for polite decorum, so may prayer also be. A heart that is allowed to become fully broken is the entrance for love and repair, a heart that is held together with bits of intellectual wire and glue will never be whole and healed.

What I have learned from this chapter is that the hardest work of all is the letting go of the belief that we can control or think our way out of trouble, without need for insights from God. Allowing distractions to happen, or allowing ourselves to go into our fear or pain during prayer, allow God to enter. Again, I am reminded of the Leonard Cohen song, ‘Anthem’: “forget your perfect offering/ there is a crack, a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in”.

Perhaps as prayer leaders, we can find ways to enable and normalize for our congregants or mushpa’im the healthy opportunities for releasing and letting go that our prayers create for us.


  1. Dan, Joseph. Kabbalah: a very short introduction. Oxford Univ Press 2006
  2. Green, Arthur and Barry W. Holtz. Your Word is Fire: the Hasidic masters on contemplative prayer. Jewish Lights Publ. 2006
  3.   Cohen, Leonard. “Anthem”