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Parashat 09/10/2010

Parashat HaAzinu
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

For it [Torah] is not an empty thing for you. (Devarim 32:47)

“I don’t get anything out of the services.”

You get out of it what you put into it.  Lillian Rabinoff A”H

And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.  Paul McCartney

Someone has graciously offered to buy new prayerbooks for our synagogue here in Fairfield.  Several of us have been reviewing different prayerbooks, some Orthodox, some quite liberal, to find something that would be suitable for the rather unique ethos of our community.  This has led to some discussion of the role of prayer in Judaism, especially as it impacts, or unfortunately, as it does not impact many in the modern world.

In Hebrew there are many words for prayer; this alone should indicate its central importance to living a Jewish life – a language reflects in its diversity and its nuances the priorities of its underlying culture.  How many slang terms do we have for “money” in the US?!  The one I would like to focus on is avodah or service.  When the Temples stood in Jerusalem, worship centered around the sacrificial services, especially the regular daily service (tamid = constant service). Our Sages tell us (Pirke Avot 1:2) that the service, in the Temple is one of the 3 pillars on which the world exists (the other two being Torah and acts of lovingkindness).  When the Temple was destroyed, the daily sacrifices were replaced by prayer, and the name avodah was transferred to the prayer services (this is where we get the word “services” from).

Now really, what “service” can we do for Gd?  Gd is infinite and self-sufficient and doesn’t need anything that is within our poor powers to give Him.  Yet Gd has given us commandments so that we will become sanctified and draw close to Him, and know him in all our ways.  In some way that we, as limited human beings probably cannot fully comprehend, Gd takes pleasure in His creatures’ drawing near to Him and knowing Him.  So the service we perform for Gd is gradually to detach ourselves from the material world and connect to the spiritual world, and then act as a conduit for the holiness of the spiritual world to flow back into the material world.  In this way “…the earth will be full of the knowledge of Gd as the waters cover the sea.”

Now we can understand why prayer is “service” par excellance.  Prayer is the most direct mechanism by which the individual human soul can connect with the Divine.  Through the inspired words of prayer, whether from the sacred texts that have been passed down to us through the millennia, and which serve as the superstructure for our prayers, or through the spontaneous outpourings of our hearts, which form the spirit that infuses that superstructure, we begin a conversation with Gd that elevates us and delights Gd and brings fulfillment to Gd’s original design of creation.

Now this is the ideal.  Most of us are shaking our heads at this point and asking what this has to do with the reality that we inhabit.  And the answer is, in most cases, unfortunately not much.  Why is this?  If prayer is so powerful, why do we come to synagogue and are not moved?  Why, even when we are at our most inspired, are our prayers sometimes, or maybe most of the time, not answered?  Are we doing something wrong, or is prayer just a pious hoax?

Our Parashah tells us with regard to Torah: It is not an empty thing for you.  The word “for you” is michem, which can also be translated “from you.”  In other words Torah is telling us that if we find it empty, meaningless, irrelevant, then we had better look at ourselves first.  This is especially the case with prayer.  We have a tendency in our day and age, and especially in the industrialized West, to seek instant results, instant gratification.  We think that if we do something a few times we should be experts at it.  But any performer, be it a musician, an athlete, a surgeon, will tell you that the main thing in gaining expertise is repetition.  It takes time and it takes reps, to the point where, in the words of a legendary magician, “the difficult becomes easy and the easy becomes natural.”  Imagine that you had a powerful meditation technique that was practiced twice a day.  If you practiced it 3 or 4 days out of the year, you would hardly blame the technique if the results were not as promised.  It’s like the tourist wandering the streets of NY who ran into Toscanini and asked him, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  Toscanini’s one-word response: “Practice!”

A different meaning of the word avodah is “work.”  To become expert at prayer takes work.  Although one may pray in any language, it is far better to pray in Hebrew.  Our Sages tell us that the words of the Hebrew language capture the essential vibratory qualities of the object that the word references.  Therefore when one prays in Hebrew there is no disconnect between the words we are speaking and the ideas our mind is to be entertaining.  This is not so, or at least not to as great an extent, in other languages.  So if we want to have success in praying, it would be worthwhile to learn at least “prayerbook Hebrew.”  There are many programs available to help with this effort; we need only supply the time and the motivation.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do to make our prayer more effective is – pray!  Our tradition ordains three daily prayers – morning, afternoon and night.  Each of the 3 daily prayers has its own flavor, and when we get into a rhythm of saying the services at their appropriate times, our days get into a rhythm of connecting with Gd, perhaps only slightly at first, as we feel our way through unfamiliar structures and unfamiliar sounds try to roll off our tongues, but eventually growing more and more close and intimate.  Our holidays and fast days have special prayers, as do our Shabbats and New Moons.  All of this puts our lives in the same rhythm of the weeks and the seasons and the years, slowly but surely attuning us with the rest of Creation, and eventually with the Creator as well.

Whenever I was having trouble with school, or with anything else worthwhile, my mother A”H would always tell me “You get out of it what you put into it.”  Our Sages in Pirke Avot (5:26) tell us “The greater the effort, the greater the reward.”  The reward of successful prayer is nothing less than living the bliss of a purely spiritual existence in this material life.  We are now in the middle of the 10 days of t’shuvah, of returning to Gd.  Let us all highly resolve to take this opportunity to start down the road to a prayerful life.