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Parashat Ki Tavo 5774 — 09/10/14

Parashat Ki Tavo 5774 — 09/10/14

We cried out to Hashem, Gd of our forefathers, and Hashem heard our voice… (Devarim 26:7)

The verse does not say, “Hashem heard our prayer,” but rather, Hashem heard our voice. This teaches us that in times of trouble, we must cry out to Hashem in a loud voice, for thereby He will answer our pleas immediately. Although sometimes He answers us only after a few days, and sometimes – as it says in the Midrash – we might wait for years, it certainly helps if we cry out in a loud voice.

   Ideally, it is best to make requests of Hashem on behalf of the entire community [or nation], and right after we perform a mitzvah – as we do after reciting Birkas Hamazon. Immediately afterwards, we proceed to make a series of requests for the entire Jewish people, beseeching Hashem: “Harachaman…” – “O Merciful One… ”  (Chafetz Chaim)

One who makes one’s voice heard during the Amidah is of little faith  (Berachot 24b)

Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard  (I Samuel 1:13)

Our tradition appears to have conflicting views of prayer and how properly to pray.  On the one hand, we find prayer described as “crying out” to Gd, as our anscestors did in Egypt and at the Sea, and we find Gd answering those prayers.  On the other hand, we find Hannah praying silently, and Gd answers her prayer as well.  Hannah’s prayer has in fact become more or less the model for how we are to pray the Amidah – we are supposed to be able to hear ourselves, but the person next to us shouldn’t be able to hear us, so that we may both focus on our own prayer.

How can we reconcile these two approaches?  I think part of the answer is situational.  Someone who is in pain naturally cries out, as any inexperienced carpenter knows.  Perhaps it is the intense focus that the pain engenders that makes the prayer effective.  Our ancestors in Egypt focused their “crying out” on Gd, pleading for salvation from a very present, painful situation, and Gd answered.  Now, as we can see from another Biblical incident, it is important not only to focus in prayer, but to aim that focused prayer in a positive direction.  In the prophet Eliyahu’s confrontation with the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel, the prophets of the Ba’al were crying out and praying, but to what?  To nothing.  The result was as expected: “There was no voice and nobody answered.” (I Kings, chapter 18 has the whole story.)  In fact, Eliyahu taunts the prophets of Ba’al, telling them that perhaps Ba’al is taking a nap and they should call louder.  But calling out with the most intense focus is useless without a proper direction, as we see at the end of the confrontation.

Generally, however, we think of prayer as an inward exercise, done quietly, as in the archtypical case of Hannah’s prayer.  In Hannah’s case there is also intense pain, as she had been unable to conceive for a very long time and she had a rival wife (polygyny was accepted in Judaism until the edict of Rabbeinu Gershon in around 1000 CE) who constantly threw her childlessness in her face.  When she prayed, there was certainly an aspect of “crying out,” but it was not expressed on the verbal level.  Rather, Hannah spoke in her heart (which in Jewish tradition is not the seat of the emotions as in Western thought, e.g. “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart…” [Psalm 19]), and only her lips moved.  Clearly, there was an internal process going on, that resulted in the birth of the great prophet and leader of the Jewish people, Samuel.

How does this internal process work?  Not being on Hannah’s spiritual level, I can only guess based on my limited experience both with prayer and with pain.  Both Western scientific tradition and our own spiritual tradition tell us that creation is structured in layers, and that the “deeper” or more fundamental the layer, the more power is available.  At the most fundamental layer, the power and intelligence is infinite – the entire creation is an expression of this layer.  I think that “successful” prayer is prayer that can tap into this most fundamental layer of creation.  Working on the deep layer gives us the ability to change the surface layer.

What does it mean to work on this deep layer?  I think it must mean something like this – when we think a thought it comes bubbling up, as it were, from the depths of our consciousness.   If we can pick up the thought at earlier and earlier stages of its expression, closer to its source in the depths of our personality, then we can operate on that thought with greater power.  If we express our desires from this deep level, we can, I believe, manifest those desires on the surface level.  Our sages describe the process as taking the words of prayer and “raising them to their celestial source.’  The analogy is the same, just with up and down reversed.

Needless to say, it is one thing to talk about this process, and it is quite another thing to be able to do it.  Most of have a constant background of noise going on in our heads – old conversations, political debates, sports trivia.  It’s loud and it prevents us from perceiving thoughts at a subtle level.  In fact, most of us experience that when we pray, we become prey to a thousand different distractions that prevent us from focusing on what we are doing.  It isn’t easy to “raise our thoughts to their celestial source” while we’re simultaneously planning the dinner menu.  Successful prayer requires a very one-pointed focus.

As we pointed out above, pain “focuses the mind most wonderfully.”  If the pain is not too much of a distraction itself, it can drive out other distractions and allow us to be one-pointed in our prayers, which then stand a better chance of being answered.  However, it is also possible to focus the mind in another way, and that is by letting it naturally settle down towards the infinite source of thoughts within us.  The soul, after all, is a piece of the Divine, and its natural tendency is to move towards its source.  On the mental level this is reflected by the mind’s gravitating inward.  Just as the physical characteristics of the body restrain or prevent the soul’s movement towards the purely spiritual, so it can prevent the mind from settling down and functioning at the level of the underlying stratum from which thoughts arise.

I think that this is why we find that those who are more spiritually advanced are able to pray more effectively – they have managed to transcend their physicality to a greater degree, and therefore are able to think and act from more subtle and powerful levels.  So the key to effective prayer is greater spiritual development.  And what is the key to greater spiritual development?  Obviously, prayer!  But this is not a Mexican standoff – it is a cycle of growth where we start from wherever we are, pray, grow, pray more effectively, grow more quickly.  From my own experience, they key to this cycle is regularity – we have to keep at it for it to pick up momentum.  There are dozens of prayerbooks, illustrated, translated, annotated, with stage directions and everything you need to get started.  It’s a small investment of time, but the dividends in terms of every aspect of our lives.  As we approach the holidays, when we will spend much time in prayer, lets resolve to use that time to jump-start our cycle of growth.

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 21: On Character Education (Chicago, 17 November 1997)

To sum up: a good teacher is one who helps his student learn how to learn, and who teaches him to become a mentsch.  This is the greatest possible achievement of any teacher.  Whoever does that, does something Gd-like, for he has created a human being.

It is a great shame that the tradition of a master-disciple relationship has largely fallen into desuetude (isn’t that a great word?!  I’ve always wanted to use it in a sentence.) in Western society, because, as R. Steinsaltz points out, there are things that can only be passed on from teacher to student.  If the process of education were simply a matter of gaining subject-matter knowledge, we wouldn’t need teachers at all – just online course designers.  But there is ever so much more.  The real purpose of a teacher is to raise the student to the teacher’s level of consciousness.  A teacher of small children has to bring them along, in an age-appropriate way, until they can think independently, as adults do (or should do).  A teacher of Torah has to infuse Torah into his or her students, so that the spiritual influence of Torah enters the heart and soul of the student.  Whenever I have asked anyone why they began the Transcendental Meditation program, the answer is always, “I went to a lecture, and I thought to myself, whatever it is he has, I want.”

This is what a real teacher does.  He models the person he wants the student to become.  I have never really worked as a physicist, but I use the skills I learned from my dissertation advisor every day of my life – he modeled for me how to analyze problems and generate solutions.  When you see a Chabad shaliach, you’re seeing an embodiment of the Rebbe.  When you look at a Jew, you should see someone who reflects the values of his Teacher!