by Rabbi Yaacov Chaiton
I understand that proper concentration and intent is critical to prayer. Is there then any reason to go to shul if I am really not in the mood of praying and know that I will not be able to concentrate properly throughout the service?
The Hebrew word used throughout the Bible to denote prayer is "Tefillah". For lack of a better word we translate "tefillah" as "prayer". The connotation of "prayer" is supplication - asking G-d for something. The true root of the word "tefillah" is the word "to bond". Tefillah is a time of bonding between man and his Creator.
One of the integral components of a true bond is the sense of commitment and consistency. The regularity and fixed times for prayers are thus not merely for formal reasons but are in themselves an expression of true commitment, an ongoing, constant connection with G-d which in itself is a critical component of prayer. Even if the only sacrifice offered in prayer is the sacrifice of one's own time - though it may not be a perfect offering of the heart - it still represents an act of real giving and genuine commitment. External and formal as it may seem, a relationship nevertheless exists.
The Hebrew word for intention and concentration in prayer is "Kavanah". This word too has an additional meaning - "direction". Throughout the day a person's own affairs, ambitions and ego pull one in many directions - which can lead us to ignore or not be conscious of our relationship to G-d. Regular prayer times provide us with a constant reminder to re-direct and strengthen our connection to G-d. By merely taking out time from a busy schedule to pray one automatically shows which direction is important to him/her.
A discouraged congregant who found it difficult to pray the entire service with proper concentration once approached a great rabbi. The rabbi comforted him with the following analogy: Typically, when farmers bring their harvest to the market, the grain merchants will examine the grain carefully noting how much chaff is mixed in. However, in years of famine the merchants will quickly buy whatever is available without being too picky. So too, in times of old when people were able to focus better G-d expected all their prayers to be of the highest quality. In our time however, when there is a lot more going on around us, making it more difficult to concentrate throughout the prayers, G-d appreciates us "coming to market" and accepts all our prayers, even if they are of a lesser quality.
So of course the best way to pray is to have proper intent throughout. But even if you are not able to do so, never let it discourage you from going to shul. This is our direction.