First Things First

A teaching on prayer by the Baal Shem Tov from Amud Hatefilla, Sefer Baal Shem Tov.

One must guard one’s mouth and tongue from all speech before prayer, even those words permitted by our sages, such as greetings and asking after someone’s welfare (1), for even this is damaging. For, as we know, the world is created through thought, word, and deed (2), and the beginning of everything is thought, and speech is an offshoot of thought, and deed an offshoot of speech. Therefore, when a person rises from his sleep as a new creation, as it is written, “they are new each morning” (3), if his first words are not words of prayer, then, whether he then proceeds to pray and learn Torah or not, everything will grow out of his first words, his subsequent speech and actions alike being joined to them and growing out of them. So a person should be careful to sanctify and purify his first words, and clarify his first thoughts so that they cleave to holiness, so that everything that follows will be drawn after it. Then when he stands up to pray in the joy of a mitzvah, with sanctified speech and thought, surely his prayer will be answered.

1) There is a lengthy discussion in Masechet Berachot 14a about what kind of speech is permitted before morning prayers. The conclusion is that, if one happens upon others on the way to praying, he may greet them and ask about their welfare. Like the Baal Shem Tov, the sages were concerned that a person address himself immediately to G!d, making Him his first priority, but they also recognized that it would be insensitive to ignore everyone else until then, so they arrived at this compromise.
2) The Besht is alluding to the mystical concept of the “Four Worlds,” which were four stages of development in the world’s creation and continue to act as levels of being that bridge the gap between the infinite G!d and the finite world. The four worlds, from “top” to “bottom,” are Atzilut, “Emanation,” Beriyah, “Creation,” Yetzirah, “Formation,” and Assiyah, “Action”; as G!d’s creative power flows down from world to world, it grows ever more concrete, finally resulting in the material world. As usual in Hasidism, the cosmic model is applied to the human being, so that the same process happens in our psyche, as our own creative power begins as an urge or an insight, develops into a conscious thought, and then is acted out in speech or deed.
3) The verse is from Lamentations 3:23 and reads, “His mercies are not spent. They are renewed every morning. Ample is Your grace!” There are plenty of texts the Besht could have cited that refer to our being made new each day (as opposed to G!d’s mercies, as here), but I think he chose this one because the phrase “Ample is Your grace”/ rabbah emunatecha is the conclusion of Modeh Ani, the prayer said immediately upon waking.

Jeff says…
The idea that the beginning sets the tone for what follows exists on every level of time in Judaism: cosmic (Tuesday is an auspicious day because the word “good” is used twice on the third day in the Creation account), lifetime (a baby’s nature is traditionally decided by the spiritual state of the parents at the moment of conception), annual (on Rosh Hashannah we try to be our best selves and eat sweet foods in the belief that whatever we do that day will set the tone for the year), monthly (we say prayers for the whole month on Rosh Hodesh), weekly (we begin the week with Havdallah, trying to bring some of the primordial sweetness of Shabbat into our work week), and daily, as we see here.
The Baal Shem Tov’s advice works for single folks, or for families that have the traditional division of labor: the men get up and pray while the women get up and care for the family. In my own life, I know, I could only follow it if I abandoned my wife every morning or refused to speak to my two-year old daughter until I got to daven, neither of which is an option!
I still think the Besht’s advice can hold, though, with a shift in awareness that I’m taking, naturally, from Hasidism. In Pirkei Avot 3:9, Rabbi Yaakov says, “One who walks on the road while reviewing [a Torah lesson] but interrupts his review and exclaims, ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!’ Scripture considers it as if he bears guilt for his soul.” There is a Hasidic teaching that holds that the sin is not in admiring the beauty of the world, but in interrupting his Torah to do so — because admiring G!d’s world should be part of one’s Torah learning!
I apply the same logic here. If I’m in the middle of my davening and my daughter needs me, I can’t ignore her and carry on davening. But according to this teaching, I shouldn’t stop davening to attend to her either, but rather include my attention to her in my “davening.” It’s all prayer. Another of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings says that we shouldn’t wait for such an urgent situation to carry our davening state of mind into the rest of our life; instead, we should strive to be praying always, no matter what else we are doing, even while carrying on mundane conversation. So, requesting the Besht’s permission, I’ll begin my prayerful state of mind even before I begin my davening, and say whatever I need to say to my wife and daughter, and then go to minyan — to continue to pray.

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