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Parashat Chayei Sara – 11/13/2009

Parashat Chayei Sarah. November 13, 2009
In honor of Chaya Green’s significant birthday and on her becoming a ba’alat tefillah.

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Prayer. “Isaac went out to the fields to pray [la-suach] towards evening…” (24:63)
Rashi: LaSuach – this indicates prayer.

According to our Sages, the three daily prayers were instituted by the three Patriarchs of our people.  Specifically, Avraham instituted the morning (Shacharit) prayer, as it says in last week’s Parashah, “Avraham arose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before Hashem.” (19:27).  Isaac instituted the afternoon (Minchah) prayer, as noted, and Jacob instituted the evening (‘Arvit or Ma’ariv) as we will see in a couple of weeks.  Additionally, the three prayer services are associated with the services in the Temple.  The Shacharit and Minchah services are associated with the morning and afternoon daily offerings, and the evening service corresponds to the burning of any parts of the day’s offerings that had not yet been consumed.

All this is interesting, but the more salient question is “What is prayer and why do we pray at all?”  I would like to offer a few ideas that have served me well over the past number of years as I try to understand what prayer is all about.  They are in no particular order.  First, I’d like to recommend the book Praying with Fire by R. Heshy Kleinman (Artscroll) as a practical way to get started.  It’s divided into 3 months’ worth of 5-minute-a-day readings and is well worth reading over and over – I’m on my 17th time through, and still learning.

Prayer is individual and communal. The essential point of prayer is that it is the communion of the individual soul with Gd.  A human being is a composite of the absolute, unchanging, eternal basis of life, and the material, changing and ephemeral.  The soul, which is “a piece of the Divine” in us, yearns to return to its source, to be free of the restrictions of time and place that are associated with the body.  Prayer is the medium by which this is expressed, and therefore it is a highly individual thing.  Certainly one can pray alone, and in that solitude, free of distractions, one can experience an expansion of individuality into universality.  Yet there is a value to praying together with others.  There is a reinforcing effect when a group of individuals comes together to pray that elevates the prayer of each individual to a level higher than any one individual can reach alone.  Our Sages tell us that if our prayers are not answered, we should seek out a community setting and pray there, for Gd never rejects the prayers of the community.

Fixed time, fixed place, fixed text – yet flexible. How many times have you heard someone say, “I can pray anywhere, any time”?  I’m reasonably certain that if you ask such a person when was the last time he actually did pray, there will be an embarrassing silence as he probes his memory.  Although in Pirke Avot (2:18) we are told not to make our prayer “fixed,” this means not fixed and lifeless – it certainly doesn’t mean that we should deviate from a good routine of prayer.  If we want to drive from New York to Chicago, there is an Interstate that will take us there directly.  This is the best way to get to our destination.  We can deviate from that route by taking local roads, and we will get there, more slowly perhaps, and if we aren’t too proud to ask directions.  We can deviate further and try to go through field and farm, but we will only damage ourselves, our vehicles, and the fields and farms as well, and we will certainly never get where we want to go.

Let’s consider each of the three “fixed” aspects.  If we want to get the most out of prayer, it behooves us to get our minds and bodies into a rhythm, so that when certain times come around, thrice a day, our minds and bodies automatically switch into “prayer mode.”  (It is also clearly beneficial if one is going to pray with a group.)  This makes the transition from the mundane to the sacred that much smoother and more efficient.

Having a fixed place to pray is derived from Parashat Vayera – when Avraham awoke the next morning he returned to the same place where he had stood in prayer earlier.  Our prayers invest a place with holiness, and that holiness in turn makes our prayers more effective.  We can prepare our fixed place (if it’s not in a synagogue and therefore already prepared) to our liking, and dedicate it, in the same way we dedicate our prayer times, to the single purpose of connecting with Gd.

Finally, our Sages have given us texts to use as the foundation for our prayers.  This may seem constricting, but in fact it is quite liberating.  These prayers were composed by the spiritual giants of our tradition, who knew through their own contact with the Divine what effect each word would have on the individual, the community and the cosmos.  Not only does using the fixed text free us from the necessity of figuring this out on our own, each and every time we stood in prayer, but clearly it gives us a framework that we, at our lower level of spiritual awareness and sensitivity could not begin to construct.

All this having been said, there is lots of room in our prayer service for individual contemplation and expression.  The meaning of the prayers is quite broad, and from time to time presents a new face to us as our experiences change.  There are also many places where the prayer will speak directly to our current situation and we can add our own words, in our own language, and Gd will certainly hear us.

Lost in translation. It is preferable to pray in Hebrew.  Hebrew is the language of our Scriptures, and according to our tradition it is the language of Creation itself.  The sounds of the Hebrew language, when combined into Hebrew words, capture the essence of the thing denoted by that word.  Therefore, if we pray in Hebrew, the sound value of the words is added to the intellectual understanding of what we are saying and to the feelings evoked by those words, and the effect is that much more powerful.  If you don’t know Hebrew of course it is better to pray in another language than not to pray at all, but something will be missing.  Hebrew is actually not that difficult a language to learn (especially compared to English!), and the language of most of our prayers is fairly simple and straightforward.  There are resources available in virtually every community for beginners, and there are resources on the Internet as well.  It is all part of the preparation for significant Jewish prayer, and speaking from my experience, it is well worthwhile.

Be easy with yourself. Growth in prayer takes time and effort.  There will be times when it’s almost impossible to keep the mind on what you’re doing.  To be successful you have to build on your successes and let the rest go.  The only real sin is not making the effort.  In the case of any mitzvah if one intends to do the mitzvah but is unavoidably prevented from carrying out the intention, one is “credited” with having performed it.  Prayer is the same way.  It’s good to take a few minutes and quiet the mind before starting to pray, but if something upsetting has just happened and thoughts of that incident keep interrupting the flow of prayer, one just has to be easy with it and go through it, and come back the next time and try to do better.  The important thing is consistency.  Spiritual growth is the work of a lifetime, not a passing fancy.  Even if we feel we’re just slogging through mud, we have to keep at it, with a simple faith that in the end we will have a treasure of infinite value.

Prayer is sometimes called avodah in Hebrew, a word that means “service,” but also has the connotation of work.  It can be work – work to prepare oneself, one’s place, work to make time in the day.  But it is the most rewarding work we can do, because it is the one service we can do for our Creator that is unique to human beings.  When we connect with Gd through our prayers, we are doing nothing less than fulfilling the Creator’s design for Creation, bring joy to Gd and fulfillment to ourselves.