תפלה: Meaning, Experience and a Challenge
Over the coming weeks, our community will be in a transitional phase as we begin to recreate our ‘prayer space’ in the redeveloping building. It’s clearly really important that we do this in a way that all of us can really enjoy the new space and so I’ve decided to devote this and the next few Shabbat-morning sermons to considering our prayer experience and what our expectations can and must be of it. I plan to cajole, reprioritise and challenge to ensure we get this right, but this week, some basics.
1) What is the meaning of תפלה – the word most commonly used for prayer?
It is not request – that is בקשה, nor praise – that is שבח, nor thanks – that is הודאה, nor blessing – that is ברכה, nor supplication – that is תחינה.
תפלה is none of these and all of them. Interestingly, the verb associated with תפלה is להתפלל, which is a reflexive form of the word פלל, meaning ‘judge’. That renders תפלה as a process of self-judgement, or, perhaps, self-reflection. In this vein, Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer, in his introduction to ‘The Hirsch Siddur’ notes that תפלה is related to הלל – to radiate or reflect rays, meaning that ‘while God is not visible to us, we perceive the radiations of His Omnipotence in the infinite evidences of wonder which permit us to find God’. ‘Prayer’ – our תפלה – must enable us to reflect on our lives, their purpose and our relationship with God. Rabbi Breuer continues:
תפלה requires that we imbue ourselves ever anew with the great truth and demands which must place their stamp upon our Jewish existence and consciousness.
In other words, תפלה must provide us with Jewish direction, peace of mind and renewed God-consciousness.
2) The Talmud articulates three early perceptions of prayer based on the experience of the Avot:
Not like Avraham, who saw the focus of prayer (the site of the future Temple) as a mountain, nor like Yitzchak, who saw it as a field, but like Ya’akov, who saw it as a house. (TB Pesachim 88a, paraphrased)
We should not view תפלה and connection with the divine as an insurmountable climb (Avraham’s mountain), nor as a straightforward, equally-accessible experience (Yitzchak’s field), but as a house that can and must incorporate a range of needs, feelings and complexities.
3) Finally, a challenge from Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, who asked a question I often ask myself and I urge you to ask yourselves:
When we go to Shul or pray at home, is our goal to daven, or to have davened? Think about it.