The Talmud in Berachot 31a relates how Rabbi Akiva, the great first-century sage, would conduct himself in prayer:
“When he was with the congregation, he would pray quickly so as not to be a burden on those praying with him [who would respectfully wait for him to finish]. But when he prayed alone, one could leave him in one corner and afterwards find him in another corner, due to his many bows and prostrations.”
From this account we see that there are two levels of kavanah — intent and mental focus in prayer. The minimal level of kavanah is to concentrate on the meaning of the words. This is a basic requirement of prayer (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 98:1).
There is, however, a higher level of kavanah, when one’s thoughts are raised upwards, scaling the heights of profound insight and expanded consciousness. The Shulchan Aruch describes the lofty kavanah of great tzaddikim:
“Devout and pious individuals would seclude themselves. They would direct their thoughts in prayer until they succeeded in divesting themselves from their physicality and expanding their state of consciousness. Then they would attain a level close to that of prophecy.” (ibid.)
Every prayer makes an impact on the person praying, but the extent of this impact depends on the kavanah. A prayer recited with the basic level of kavanah — just concentrating on the words — promotes spiritual advance. This is, however, a gradual progress, like the imperceptible growth of the body.
A prayer focused on higher kavanah, on the other hand, will be the trigger of more radical transformation. When Rabbi Akiva prayed by himself, his prayer was not the reserved, dignified prayer of the community. It was an intense and ecstatic service of God. His fervent spiritual ascent was expressed physically; when he finished praying, he would find himself in the opposite corner of the room.
Such great movement during prayer is unusual. The Amidah prayer is supposed to be recited standing in one place, feet placed together. Yet Rabbi Akiva would move across the room “due to his many bows and prostrations.” The more one is aware of God’s infinite greatness, the stronger will be one’s feelings of submission. The sense of one’s separate selfhood dissipates, and one yearns to unite with the greater existence of the Infinite.
As Rabbi Akiva deepened his awareness of God’s greatness, his profound feelings of subservience and selflessness was expressed with profuse bowing and prostrations.
Despite the obvious benefits of such an intense prayer, this is only suitable when one is secluded in private prayer. But when praying with the congregation, one should align oneself with their level of prayer. The entire congregation could never attain the intensity of prayer of a holy scholar like Rabbi Akiva, so he would pray quickly, content with the ordinary kavanah of concentrating on the meaning of the words.
This is the implication of Rabbi Akiva’s conduct when praying with the congregation. The importance of joining in communal prayer outweighs the benefits of private prayer, even a profoundly intense prayer suitable to one’s own spiritual level.
(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 28; Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 132)