Sermon Notes 24/11/12 - VaYetze / Tefillah 5

תפלה: Private and Public Prayer – the Challenges

Continuing thoughts on Tefillah, which began here and continued here, here and here.

At the start of this week’s parashah, we find Ya’akov unexpectedly stopping his journey for the night; as he lay down, he made a makeshift pillow or barrier from stones.  Based on a difficulty in the text, Rashi comments:

The stones began to squabble, each saying, ‘let the righteous man rest his head on me’.  God transformed them into a single stone... (Rashi to BeReishit 28:11, based on Chullin 91b)

A parallel midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 68:11) casts Ya’akov wondering whether he would simply transmit the monotheistic ideal to a single inheritor, like his father and grandfather before him, or if he would be able to establish the twelve tribes of Israel, the beginning of the Jewish People.  When

...the twelve stones amalgamated, Ya’akov knew that he would establish the twelve tribes.

This midrash highlights a general difficulty with religious life – maintaining the correct balance between individual aspirations and one’s membership of a people or community – a group with a single, shared purpose.  This is especially acute when it comes to prayer, as highlighted by the following message which recently appeared in my Inbox:

Are you going to touch on how to daven in a collective where the man behind intones out loud and out of tune, your neighbour comes to shul for social reasons and someone's gorgeous child decides it is screaming time? How to use the mantra of familiar prayers as a launch-pad to lift you over and above the immediate interruptions and distractions of praying in a kahal? That's the baton I would so like you to pass on so that I do not continue to believe I can best step out beyond myself when I am by myself.

The question is not easy to answer, but a good starting point is acknowledging that from time to time I also have the same thoughts – while I love our Shul, sometimes private or spontaneous prayer works better for me.  I suspect this is true for all of us.

Not talking during davening may seem novel to some, but is really essential for creating an appropriate environment as well as showing respect for others and their own ‘prayer space’.  I know that the urge to talk In Shul can sometimes be overpowering, but when it strikes, please consider going out until it passes.

It’s also important to remind ourselves that public prayer was never intended to replace personal and spontaneous prayer.  In fact, they are interdependent.  The Rizhyner Rebbe told the story of a small Jewish town which had almost every amenity – a bathhouse, cemetery and even a hospital, as well as every artisan, except for one – there was no watchmaker.  Inevitably, all the clocks became increasingly inaccurate with no one to repair them.  Some people chose to let their clocks just run down, but others decided to keep winding them every day even though they showed the wrong time.  One day, a watchmaker appeared in town and everyone rushed to him with their clocks.  The only one he could repair were those that had been kept running; the abandoned ones had become too rusty.  The application is obvious – to keep our ‘prayer’ faculty well-oiled, we must maintain our regular public prayers, even when they seem substandard and fall short of our expectations.

These ideas are thoughtfully explored by Professor A.J. Heschel:

We have stressed the fact that prayer is an event that begins in the individual soul. We have not dwelled upon how much our ability to pray depends upon our being a part of a community 

It is not safe to pray alone. Tradition insists that we pray with, and as a part of, the community; that public worship is preferable to private worship. Here we are faced with an aspect of the polarity of prayer. There is a permanent union between individual worship and community worship, each of which depends for its existence upon the other. To ignore their spiritual symbiosis will prove fatal to both...

Those who cherish genuine prayer, yet feel driven away from the houses of worship because of the sterility of public worship today, seem to believe that private prayer is the only way. Yet, the truth is that private prayer will not survive unless it is inspired by public prayer. The way of the recluse, the exclusive concern with personal salvation, piety in isolation from the community is an act of impiety... (Man’s Quest for God, pp. 44-5)

I am particularly taken with Heschel’s assertion that personal prayer cannot survive unless it is inspired by public prayer.  Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik develops the need for prayer with a community to ensure that we do not become too entrenched in our individual needs:

The prayerful community must not, likewise, remain a two-fold affair: a transient "I" addressing himself to the eternal "He."The inclusion of others is indispensable. Man should avoid praying for himself alone. The plural form of prayer is of central Halakhic significance. When disaster strikes, one must not be immersed completely in his own passional destiny, thinking exclusively of himself, being concerned only with himself, and petitioning God merely for himself. (The Lonely Man of Faith)

Of course, public prayer, with all its challenges, is actually a collection of private prayers, and is dependent on each individual for his or her contribution.  On this, Heschel again:

Even the worth of public worship depends upon the depth of private worship, of the private worship of those who worship together. We are taught that the fate of all mankind depends upon the conduct of one single individual, namely you. (ibid. p. 46)