Friday, November 02, 2007

Hayyei Sarah (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to my blog for November 2005.

The Patriarchs Instituted Prayer”

“And Isaac went out to meditate in the field in the evening…” (Gen 24:63)

The above verse from this week’s parasha, set at the moment before Yitzhak’s encounter with the woman destined to be his bride, shows us a man accustomed to solitude, to long, quiet, meditative walks in the field. The Sages portray Yitzhak as engaged in intimate communion with God, as one of the first figures shown as praying to God. And indeed, a well-known Talmudic sugya (Berakhot 26b) presents two contrasting views of the origin of our daily prayers [see note 1, below]: one view, that of R. Yossi b. R. Hanina, sees the three daily prayer as having been introduced, respectively, by the three patriarchs, while R Yehoshua b. Levi says that they were instituted to correspond to the daily sacrifices (Shaharit and Minhah against the two temidin, and the burning of the flesh on the altar during the nighttime corresponding to Arvit).

It seems to me that the central idea underlying the approach that “the Patriarchs introduced prayer” is that prayer is essentially a personal, inward experience; one that occurred within the life of each of the Fathers within a specific context, at a particular time of day, reflecting in one way or another the unique personality and life-approach of each one. Abraham began the day with prayer, rising early to stand before God as the first significant act of the day, thereby expressing perhaps the centrality of the relationship with God as taking priority to the numerous tasks of his active day. Yitzhak was a more inward-turning, passive, contemplative person, somewhat mystically oriented, who found the waning light of dusk ideal for deep, meditative communion with his Creator. Yaakov was a highly active, complex person, who came upon the sacred site of Beth-el almost by chance, sensed the presence of the numinous there, received a dream vision, and prayed. Here we have prayer in the dark of night, a time of vision, of perceptions of that which transcends the ordinary world.

The second view expressed in the Talmudic discussion, that prayers correspond to the sacrificial offerings in the Temple, emphasizes more strongly the fixed and ritualistic aspect of prayer, as a service that man is required to perform before his Creator, in much the same way as our ancestors offered daily offerings in the Temple at fixed times. This dispute thus represents the two poles of prayer: on the one hand, the personal, inner, spontaneous aspect, which is of the very essence of prayer—that part known as kavanah, “intention” or “focusing”; the other pole that of fixity, of prayer as a mitzvah, an externally imposed obligation.

Here, one might well ask: if kavanah is the essence of prayer, why does it need to be a mitzvah at all? Personal prayer stems from human need, whether concrete needs pertaining to one’s everyday life, or from the desire and yearning for closeness with God. In either case, how can it be commanded? The answer, it seems to me, is that prayer is part of what it means to be a religious human being—prayer means, fundamentally, to stand before God. Existentially, man is always standing before God—but he doesn’t always know this. Statutory prayer as a mitzvah, as an obligation that must be fulfilled every day in some minimum way, comes to accustom us to stand before God in practice.

In the end, the poskim fixed the halakhah according to the view of R. Yehoshua b. Levi—namely, that prayer is essentially a fixed act, a mitzvah to be performed at set times, and that even when kavvanah does not come, one ought not to postpone prayer for that reason. [see note 2] Yeshayahu Leibowitz once remarked that the saying of R. Shimon in Pirkei Avot (2.18), “When you pray, do not make your prayer a fixed thing, but [asking] compassion and supplication before the Omnipresent,” was in practice rejected as a halakhic statement.

I would like to offer see a second interpretation of this dispute: namely, as applying to the tension between private prayer and public prayer. The prayer of the fathers was a personal act, performed in solitude; if this is our model, than whether we worship at home or in the synagogue, the essential element of prayer is the inner, personal experience: kavannah, as Rambam puts it, is part of its very definition. If, on the other hand, prayer is modeled after the korbanot, it is primarily a public act of worship. The minyan of ten required for tefillah betzibbur, anywhere in the world, is a microcosm of the entire Community of Israel; each individual is a participant, but Klal Yisrael as a whole is somehow the actor. The fixity of prayer—specifically, of public worship—thus symbolizes the constancy of the Jewish people in its worshipful standing before God, as a regular part of their life routine.

Today, when there is a certain renewal of what is called “spirituality” (defined by some as referring to the actual experience of devotion, of religious feeling, while “religion” refers to its institutional setting), many people find a tension between these two approaches. Some opt out of public prayer, because davening in many synagogues seems rote and mechanical, and simply too fast-paced to facilitate prayer with anything approaching kavannah.

Various solutions have been found to this problem. One is to simply pray at home, and bypass the public dimension of tefillah. Another is to establish an alternative minyan with like-minded people—but not everyone has such people in immediate proximity, and even when one does, such groups typically meet only on Shabbat, or even less frequently. Habad Hasidism, which teaches an approach of deeply meditative prayer (tefillah be-arikhut), advocates that those who choose this path attend shul to hear and respond to all public parts of the liturgy (Barkhu, Kedushah, Kaddish, Torah reading) and afterwards pray privately, undisturbed. Some find other avenues for personal devotion: reciting Tehillim (Psalms); going into the woods or the desert and speaking to God in the vernacular (Bretslav). Finally, the classical solution, but one that can be very difficult: to somehow learn how to pray with kavvanah while in the synagogue, with the minyan, somehow synchronized with the rest of the community.

Note 1 The text of this passage is as follows: R. Yossi b. R. Hanina said: prayers were introduced by the patriarchs. R Yehoshua b. Levi said: prayers were instituted to correspond to the daily sacrifices… R. Yossi b. Hanina said: Abraham introduced the Morning Prayer (Shaharit), as is said: “And Abraham rose early in the morning, to the place where he had stood” [Gen 19:27]…. Yitzhak introduced the Afternoon Prayer (Minhah), as is said, “And Yitzhak went out to commune in the field before evening” [Gen 24:63], and sihah refers to prayer, as is said, “The prayer of a poor man, when he enwraps himself and pours out his siah before the Lord” [Ps 102: 1]. Yaakov introduced the Evening Prayer (Arvit), as is said, “and he came upon (vayifga) the place and slept there” [Gen 28:11]. …

Note 2 There is an interesting tension in the halakhah surrounding this issue. What happens if one does not have kavannah? Should one pray or not? Or if, after reciting the prayer, one realizes that he didn’t have any kavannah, but let one’s thoughts drift? Should one go back and recite it a second time? The original halakhah, following the logic of the Talmudic conception of prayer, says that if one cannot “direct his heart” he ought not to pray—and indeed, Rambam defines kavannah as one of the five indispensable conditions for prayer. See Rambam, Tefillah 4.16; Tur & Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 101.1. But the Ram”a, in his gloss ad loc., notes that so many Jews pray by rote, that were they required to repeat the prayer they would likely again do so without kavannah!


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