Ekev (Individual & Community)
On Prayer, Public and Private
This week’s parashah contains the brief phrase upon which the mitzvah of prayer is based: “to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart (ולעבדו בכל לבבכם) and with all your soul” (Deut 11: 13). Rashi, quoting the ancient tannaitic midrash Sifrei, focuses upon three words: “to love him with all your heart.” It is worth taking note of his exact language:
“And to serve Him with all your heart” (Deut 11:13). Service of the heart—this is prayer. For [we know that] prayer is called service from the verse, “Your God before whom you serve constantly…” (Daniel 6:17). And is their service n Babylon? Rather, because he was used to praying, as is said, “and he had windows open there [facing Jerusalem]” (ibid 6:11). And so too David says, “Let my prayer be accepted before You like incense” (Ps 141:2).
Rashi, and the midrash upon which his comment is based, appear to have sensed a certain contradiction in the combination of the two concepts, “service” and “heart.” “Service” or “work,” avodah, generally refers either to physical labor, or to the subjugation or submission of one person (or nation) to another—and this, in the concrete, material realm. Thus, when one nation pays tribute to a powerful conqueror it is said to serve the latter (see, e.g., Gen 14:4); likewise the word for slave or servant, ‘eved, comes from the same root; the animal sacrifices offered in the ancient Temple are referred to in Rabbinic literature as ‘avodah, albeit this phrase appears but infrequently in this sense in the Bible. Hence, the idea of prayer—the verbal expression of adoration and worship of God, which is seen primarily as an expression of the heart, of the individual human being’s emotions and spirit—being called avodah shebelev seems strange, even discordant. Hence Rashi feels the need to bring, not one, but two (really three) separate proof texts—first to show that prayer may legitimately be referred to as “service” (the verse from Daniel), and then that there is a clear and direct parallel equation made between prayer and the Temple cult (Psalms).
Nevertheless, referring to prayer, not merely as avodah, but as avodah shebelav, suggests that the essence of prayer is within man’s innerness—in the heart, the seat of a person’s intentions, emotions, thoughts, and soul. It follows that prayer requires a certain inner, psychological–spiritual preparation. Thus, the entire first section of Shaharit, the daily Morning Prayer—the longest and most elaborate of the three daily prayers—known as Pesukei de-Zimra, is seen by many as essentially a way of preparing the heart for the Prayer as such which follows thereafter. Indeed there is a vast literature concerning how one ought to prepare for prayer, and how one ought to behave during the act of prayer, how one ought to guide one’s inner life and thoughts and feelings. It is far more than merely reading the words of the Siddur, and even less so—as often seems to happen—an attempt to recite the maximum number of words in the minimum amount of time.
But if this is the case, then another, opposite question arises: What is the point of public prayer altogether? If the essence of prayer is service of the heart and soul—which almost by definition pertain to each individual—then it ought not to need a public dimension. Each person may best perform this mitzvah by him/herself, at their own pace, in the privacy of their own home.
And yet, it is a well-known fact, almost a truism, that the halakhah places great emphasis upon public prayer, and the importance of participation therein—although it stops short at actually defining it as an obligation incumbent upon each individual. (Although if every place where Jews dwell there should be a synagogue, and a daily minyan, then that would seem to imply a certain duty or obligation on at least those ten men to show up in shul!) But even if it is not incumbent upon the individual to pray with a minyan, it is highly praised by the Rabbis. Thus, Abba Binyamin states that “A person’s prayers are only heard constantly in the synagogue [with the public].” (Berakhot 6b). Or, to the contrary, Rabin bar Rav Adda in the name of R. Yitshak, who said that if one who goes to the synagogue every day, and one day doesn’t come, God asks after him (ibid.). Or Resh Lakish, who states that : “One who has a synagogue in his town and does not go there to pray is called a bad neighbor” (ibid., 8a). On the other hand, we do read of Rav Ami and Rav Asi who, even there were thirteen synagogues in their city [Tiberias], only prayed “between the pillars where they studied” (8a).
But perhaps most striking is the statement that the Shekhinah only resides where ten people from Israel are gathered together (ibid., 6b). This is the underlying reason for the rule of davar shebe-kedushah—that is, that there is a whole gamut of things which may only be recited in the presence of a minyan, beginning with Kedushah (the declaration of God’s Holiness in imitation of the angels (“Holy, Holy, Holy…”), including Kaddish and Barkhu, and ending with the public reading of the Torah and the recitation of the Priestly Blessing.
I once discussed here (HY IX: Hayyei Sarah [=Mitzvot]) a passage in the Talmud, Berakhot 26b, concerning the source or root of prayer: is it based upon the model of the patriarchs, or upon the sacrifices offered in the Temple? I wrote at that time that these two views, of R Yossi b. Hanina and R., Yehoshua b. Levi, respectively, clearly correspond to two different aspects of prayer: individual and public. (Why the Sages chose the particular verses and words they did to prove the patriarch’s connection to thrice-daily prayer is itself an interesting question, deserving deeper discussion some other time.) That is, public worship in the synagogue is a kind of reenactment, on some spiritual level, of the service in the Temple performed on behalf of Knesset Yisrael.
Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik once drew a distinction between “prayer in public”—where each individual prays by him/herself, but coordinated with the public; and “prayer of the public,” symbolized by the Hazarat ha-Shatz, in which the reader recites the entire Amidah aloud on behalf of the public. It seems to me that the latter is a kind of parallel or replication of the Tamid shel Shahar—the daily sacrifice offered morning and evening in the Temple, through which all Israel together worship God.
But one might still well ask the question: if the essence of prayer is service of the heart, and the entire realm of both thought and emotion are almost by definition located within the individual, how can one meaningfully speak of the “heart” of the public, of a collectivity of individuals? There is a suggestive Rashi on this matter in the chapter of Matan Torah. At Exodus 19:2, he comments: "'יחן שם ישראל נגד ההר' – כאיש אחד בלב אחד"—“’And Israel camps [the verb is in the singular] there opposite the mountain’—as one man, with one heart.” That is, in some almost mystical sense the entire nation were spiritually united, “with one heart.” There can be a phenomenon of a large group feeling an emotional bond, binding them into one (this may operate for good or for evil—but that is another matter).
What, then, is collective prayer? There are two major aspects to prayer: on the one hand, bakashat tzerakhim, beseeching God for one’s concrete needs in practical life—such things as health, economic security, family, peace in one’s social and political environment, etc.; on the other hand, there can be prayer in the sense of pure avodah, worship of God without any ulterior motive, a demonstration of one’s devotion to God—all of which is implied in the phrase עמידשה בפני ה', “standing before God” (see HY X: Ekev [=Zohar]). If one were to place private and public prayer on a continuum between these two poles, private prayer would be closer to petitionary prayer and public worship would be closer to the idea of pure worship. Here, too, public prayer seems to be modeled upon the korban tamid—the daily sacrifice, which was specifically an olah, a burnt-offering symbolizing simple, complete devotion to God.
But in addition, there may be extraordinary situations in which the collectivity engages in prayer for some common need or concern—of bakashat tzerakhim for the public. This is in fact the model for Ta’anit Tzibbur, public fast days, in which the entire community, in response to some crisis—the classical Rabbinic model is that of drought and the implied threat of famine, but the crisis may be one of it may warfare, epidemic disease, disastrous floods, or even the welfare of a leader or some other individual whose fate touches the entire community. Some readers may remember, in October 1994, when soldier Nahshon Waksman, hy”d, was kidnapped by Arab terrorists and held captive for several days against the release of certain prisoners. There was a mass prayer meeting at the Western Wall one night of that week, when 10,000 or more people came to pray for him; even more impressive, that Friday night Jews throughout Israel were asked to gather in their synagogue after the Shabbat meal to recite Tehillim on his behalf. (In the end, unfortunately, he was murdered.)
Interestingly, Rambam notes that it is a special prerogative of the community’s prayer that they are answered at all times: whenever a community turns to God in this way, it is comparable to the Ten Days of Repentance when God is somehow accessible in a special sense to every individual who does teshuvah (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2.8).
I would like to conclude, very briefly, by noting that this issue goes beyond the specific issue of prayer to the entire area of individual and community. There has been an enormous shift in Western society over the past half century from an excessive emphasis on the group, usually the nation–state, to the other extreme, in which almost all aspects of culture and life—from the large structures of economic life through the ways we think about sexuality and the family unit, and everything in between—are seen almost exclusively through the prism of the individual. This may be felt in the way we think about spiritual life as well: whether in an over–emphasis on individual, subjective experience, or an individualistic, at times almost anarchic approach to halakhah found in many quarters, without a true understanding of the spiritual riches and power to be found in a healthy, deeply interconnected community.
For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog for July 12 2006, August 2007 (scroll down), August 2008, and August 2009.