Prayer

  • Rav Ezra Bick

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Sponsored by Aaron and Tzipora Ross and family
in honor of the yahrtzeits of our esteemed grandparents:
Neil Fredman (Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen, 10 Tevet),
Clara Fredman (Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid, 15 Tevet),
and Walter Rosenthal (Shimon ben Moshe, 16 Tevet).
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            We have spent four shiurim eating. Now it is time to pray.

            Actually, from the halakhic point of view, that order of things is totally wrong. There is a specific prohibition on eating in the morning before praying. The reason is simple, and indicates something about the place of prayer in the halakhic scheme. Eating before praying means placing concern for oneself before concern for God. In other words, prayer is THE mitzva which expresses concern for God - the thing that most people generally consider the focus of religion in general.

            Which brings me to an important distinction. This course is about the meaning of Halakha. I would never claim that halakha exhausts the meaning of Judaism in general, or even of Jewish life. If you have been reading this course since the beginning, I think it should be clear that the focus of Halakha is very much MAN - how he lives, how he finds meaning in his life. (Of course, the source of that meaning and of the halakhic dictates is God). Religion, at least as it is understood in Christian countries, is mostly about relating to God. I think it should be clear by now that the halakhic experience and the religious experience are not necessarily identical. The most conspicuous halakhic example of a religious experience though is prayer. In this case, by concentrating on the specific nature of the halakhic experience of prayer, I will undoubtedly limit the discussion greatly. There is clearly more to prayer than what we will discuss. In fact, there are whole bookshelves. I wish to restrict myself to trying to understand the meaning of the practice of prayer, as mandated by halakha. Anything performed three times a day, every day of the year, is undoubtedly going to have a major influence on the shape of one's life.

            In fact, that last point is one of the most obvious and striking facets of prayer in Judaism. Unlike what one assumes, that speaking to God should be spontaneous and unrestricted, halakhic prayer (tefila) is a mandated repetition, three times a day, of the same mandatory text. As generations of observant Jews have noticed, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to bring an exalted deep sense of emotional experience to something that is performed so regularly, and under such strong constraints. What this basically means is that the Halakha does not abandon its character as LAW when approaching tefila. What does this mean for the individual?

            There are two halakhic categories that I think are essential to understanding tefila. The first is "avoda" (service).

            The Rambam rules that prayer is a positive commandment of the Torah. The verse that is the source for this mitzva, according to the Rambam, is "And you shall serve HaShem your God" (Exodus 23,25). The Rambam adds, "It is written, 'to serve him with all your heart' (Deut. 11,13). The Sages said, what is the service (avoda) of the heart - this is prayer" (Rambam, Hilkhot Tefila 1,1).

            The noun "avoda" derives from the verb ABD, which means to serve. An "eved" is a slave. "To work" is also translated in Hebrew as "la'avod." The service in the Temple is called "avoda" (and that is the avoda that it is NOT "of the heart"). In many old prayerbooks the prayers were called "service," which was simply a translation from this Hebrew term, and I suspect that many Rabbis, trained in archaic language as a matter of style, still use it. But on reflection, the term appears to be misplaced. We understand that the temple ritual might be called the service of God, as many of the rituals appear to be done for His sake, to glorify Him, etc. At least outwardly, the Temple is God's house, and maintaining and keeping it could be called His service. But prayer, supplication, talking to God - why is that His service? In fact, if it is primarily of the heart, how can any such activity be seen as service?

            Before you give the obvious answer, let me introduce the second basic concept of tefila. The Sages state, "ein tefila ela tachanunim" (Tefila is primarily beseeching). In other words, praises of God, hymns of glory, even thanks for favors granted in the past, do not form the heart of prayer. Prayer is defined by its role as supplication, as requesting things from God. This is why the usual referent of the technical term "tefila" in the Talmud is the prayer we now call the "shemoneh esrei." The introductory parts, the morning blessings, the opening psalms of praise, the reading of the shema, are not defined as "tefila." What is the shemona esrei? The heart of the daily shemona esrei is thirteen distinct requests, called "bakashot." This is sandwiched between three opening sections of praise and followed by three sections of gratitude. The opening blessings are explained by the Rambam by the necessity to introduce tefila with praise, as the proper etiquette when asking for something. The final three sections are conclusions - after we have asked for everything we need, it is only proper to thank God for what He has given. Clearly, the central and defining unit is the multi-thematic series of requests. Rather than an elevated meditation on spiritual heights, metaphysical reflections, or resounding hymns, Jewish prayer essentially consists of a list of problems - health, prosperity, politics, exile, etc.

            Putting these two concepts together, we reach the conclusion that to serve God is to ask things of Him! Not giving something to God (as offering a sacrifice might be construed), but getting something from Him. How can this be?

            The answer I think lies in understanding the nature of servitude, how it applies to our relationship with God, and how that relationship differs from the servitude of man. A slave is totally dependent on his master. The basis of his life and his destiny is in the hands of his owner. Since the master is one who has needs of his own, who needs to acquire power to achieve his goals, the slave becomes an instrument in achieving the ends of the master. Having no independent basis for his own existence, he serves the ends of the one who grants him life, sustenance, and support. A slave, in other words, is dependent, and hence subservient.

            The Jews were taken out of Egypt in order to be freed of servitude - they were taken out of the house of bondage. For what purpose? The Torah answers - to be My (God's) slaves. Is that merely a trading of one master for another, more exalted perhaps, but essentially the same? There is a basic difference between serving Pharaoh and serving God, one that allows us to achieve freedom by leaving the former even as we enter the service of God. God has no needs that we can fill. The individual does not become an instrument for achieving the ends of God by being dependent on Him. The dependence on God is total, absolute. Everything we have, everything we want, everything we can possibly achieve, must come from Him. Avoda, service of God, is the recognition of total dependence. The dependence is so total, so absolute, precisely because God has everything, and THEREFORE, HE NEEDS NOTHING FROM US. Hence, the dependence becomes reversed in its results. Serving God is declaring that whatever we need can only come from Him - "we have no one other than our Father in Heaven." How do we declare that? By addressing ALL our requests to Him. Praise of God is not service. Asking for the daily bread is. The human master indeed grants a daily allotment to his slaves, but in turn expects to receive much more. God grants a daily allotment to man, and seeks nothing in return for Himself. His service is expressed in that we ask even more. For whatever man wants, the service of God says to address the request only to Him.

            We now understand the regularity and mundane nature of halakhic tefila. Halakhic tefila is service, the constant affirmation that ALL our needs can be satisfied only by Him. This is expressed in two ways. First by constancy. One prays not when one feels an overwhelming need to come close to the metaphysical center of holiness, but when one needs something - which is always. R. Yochanan said, "Would that one would pray all day long." Three times a day, evening, morning, and afternoon, is a way of saying, practically, "all the time." One does not turn from tefila with a sense that one can now go a few days on one's own. The power to be independent, to be FREE, is dependent on constant dependency on the one source of all power, Who will not subjugate man to His own needs. If I may be permitted an electrifying comparison, praying is being plugged in to the wall socket, rather than being recharged. We do not have any batteries of our own. Only God has power. By turning to Him and recognizing that fact, we are "plugged in." Turn away, and there is nothing.

            Secondly, tefila is uniform and regular. Of course, one can and should add to one's prayer the immediate need, the pressing concern. The framework of tefila, however, is the total recognition that ALL needs are dependent on God. The Sages attempted to write a list of man's real needs - and that never changes, even if psychologically, we may feel one more today and another tomorrow. Perhaps, you may point out, you do not feel like beseeching God to give me bread today. You have another concern, something that really bothers you. But, the halakhic framework of tefila answers, what about bread? Do you imagine that you can survive a second without the bread of heaven? Can you possibly address Him with your immediate psychologically pressing concern if you have not first reiterated that you have no other source for any necessity other than Him. If it does not move you to talk of bread today, perhaps that itself is a sign that you have begun to imagine that your bread is yours, granted to you as a right, in your pocket, so to speak. If so, whom do you serve? To whom can you address those other concerns?

            We now understand the halakha I mentioned in the beginning of today's shiur. When one sleeps, one does not serve God. When one sleeps, one is not aware of any needs. When one wakes, all his needs become pressing, immediate. If one is hungry, should one turn to the refrigerator, or to God? Where is the source? On what is one dependent? To turn to the larder is a form of pride. One imagines that one can provide for oneself, assuage the needs through what has been acquired and is owned. Hence, the Halakha says that first of all one should turn to God, even if - no, especially if - it is to talk of bread. Your own needs are in God's hands, not in your refrigerator.

            Another law of tefila: One is supposed to try and connect "geula" (redemption, meaning the blessing that follows the recitation of the shema, which refers to the redemption from Egypt) to tefila (meaning the shemona esrei). The Talmud praises this effort superlatively - "One who recites geula immediately before tefila is guaranteed a place in the world-to-come." R. Yona (Spain, 13th century) asks how could the reward for such a simple thing be so magnificent? He answers that "geula" is the blessing on our redemption from the house of bondage - if one immediately continues with tefila, with the service of God, then one gives meaning to that redemption, achieving true freedom. If we would bless God for our freedom but not immediately serve Him, the freedom would become empty, without purpose.

            Let us quickly review the entire structure of daily prayer.

            There are three daily prayers. The first (remember the first shiur in this series, on Jewish time) is the evening prayer, Maariv (or Arvit; both terms mean evening). The time for this service begins at nightfall. A long time ago, in the second shiur of the series, I explained that starting the day at nighttime indicates that we view sleep not as the exhausted end of a day of toil but as the preparation for a new day of work. Tefila now is the first one, before I begin my preparations by sleeping. Already, I am planning the next day.

            The second tefila, shacharit, is first thing in the morning. Man rises to go to work, to do his business, to accomplish that which he has husbanded his strength for, but first turns to God to receive the power for those tasks. There is a non-mandatory, rarely-observed but highly praised, practice of praying with sunrise, based on the rabbinic advice, "let the sun be awakened by you and not you by the sun." If it is day, and work can be done, something can be accomplished, goals can be met, value can be added, there is no point in sleeping. If there is light, there is need to serve God, to turn toward Him and seek his gifts for ourselves, for we are in need.

            The third prayer, mincha, is in the afternoon. This is, for most people today, the most difficult tefila of all. Time is passing, tasks have not been finished, one is rushed. There is no natural time for mincha - you have to excuse yourself from that meeting or walk out of a class, break off from what you are doing, from your concentration on your own life, and turn outward. This surely is not a prayer of natural self-expression, but of forcing oneself to remember who one is, where one is, and "before Whom one stands." The main part of the workday is past; night is approaching. Whatever has not been accomplished today will have to be chalked up to failure. There is a certain sense of disappointment now, or of quiet musing on what has been done. It is a time for taking stock.

            Consider the Rabbinic sources for these three prayers. The Talmud says that our father Abraham instituted the morning prayer. When? When he goes to argue with God in an attempt to save the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. Great tasks lie before him, a battle to be fought, cities to be saved. The world waits, and Abraham prays.

            Isaac instituted the mincha service. The verse says that when Rebecca came from her native land to meet him, Isaac had gone out to meditate (the verb has the same root as "to speak") in the field. Isaac is alone, in the field, not facing a mountain, but having recently come down from the mountain to which his father had taken him. He has lost his mother, for whom he was an only child, and he wanders, meanders, in the field, near the desert, lost in his thoughts. This is the mincha, not before a great task, or in preparation for it, but a break from life, a taking-stock, a quiet time alone.

            Jacob instituted the maariv, the evening prayer. When? Jacob is fleeing his brother who wishes to kill him. He has been sent to a distant country. He must leave his family, his land, and flee alone. Night falls, and he comes to a solitary hill in Judea. Tomorrow he will travel to the unknown. Jacob prays. This is a great deep breath before starting a new day, before any plans can be made for he knows not just where he is going or what he will be called on to do. Before Jacob goes to sleep, he prays - for what? For guidance, perhaps, or for fortitude. For support, that he not be abandoned. Tomorrow is a new day - for Jacob, tomorrow is a new LIFE, a new country, the great unknown. This is the maariv prayer, before (not after) one even knows on what journey one will be setting out in the morning.

            These are the three aspects of daily prayer, of daily confrontation with one's dependency and fragility - fearful anticipation at night, resolve and dedication in the morning, summation and meditation in the passing of the day. At each step, the solution, the source of all strength, is in God.

            Next shiur we will examine the structure and significance of the shemona esrei.