Sermon Notes 01/12/12 - VaYishlach / Tefillah 6

תפלה: Kavannah, the 'Prayer Problem' and Shabbat

This is the final instalment of my thoughts on Tefillah, which began here.  The other instalments in the series are here, here, here and here.  Much of what appears here is in response to positive feedback.

1)  Throughout this series, I’ve spoken about spontaneity, but how does the fixed prayer service allow for this?  Professor A.J. Heschel suggests that it can be found through kavannah – focused, intent-filled prayers rather than rote recitation of the text.  Only kavannah can constantly reinvest familiar prayers with new meaning.  Heschel paraphrases the early 19th-century Chassidic classic, B’ney Yissaschar:

To be able to pray is to know how to stand still and to dwell on a word.  This is how the worshippers of the past would act: ‘They would repeat the same word many times, because they loved and cherished it so much that they could not part from it’. (Man’s Quest for God, p. 34)

Of course, this is just to illustrate the principle – it is neither desirable, nor in most cases, even permitted to actually repeat words during prayer – yet, B’ney Yissaschar teaches that it’s possible to savour every word and find new meaning each time it is said.  The words may be the same each time we read them, but the meaning with which we invest them can, and should, change each time.

The indispensability of kavannah to the prayer experience is highlighted by another pithy line from Heschel:

To pray with kavannah (inner devotion) may be difficult; to pray without it is ludicrous. (ibid. p. 53)

How does one maintain the need for kavannah, against the obvious tendency to retreat into rote prayer?  An answer may lie in a phrase that appears above the ark in many Shuls, including ours:

דע לפני מי אתה עומד

Know before whom you stand

The enormity of standing in the presence of the divine is often lost on us – after all, we’re at home in the Shul, as we should be, and as God surely wants us to be.  Yet remembering that the primary function of prayer is to allow us to commune with the divine is central to the success of the entire enterprise.  See the first in this series here for further thoughts on this from Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik.

2)  This leads on to a difficulty with the ‘simple prayer’ model, which was raised by a correspondent, who asked me to address:

...the disjoin between the central apparent content of the request and the modern explanation of what prayer is about – critical self-assessment.

This is actually a pre-modern concern: Rabbi Yosef Albo in his Sefer HaIkarim (Book of Fundamental Principles) asks a question which may be summarised as:

If God gives us what we need and does not give us what we don’t need, then if we genuinely need something, we will receive it whether or not we pray for it; if we do not need it, we will not receive it whether or not we pray for it.  As such, there is no purpose in praying. (Based on Sefer HaIkarim 4:18)

So what is the point, for example, for praying for those who are ill?

Two resolutions are commonly advanced to this conundrum.  The first, offered by Albo himself, is that pray is really about critical self-assessment and personal development – by recognising that God is the source of wealth, health, etc., the supplicant undergoes a process of self-transformation which produces a ‘new’ person who will merit a new set of blessings from God.  This is known as ‘rational prayer’ – it is intellectually attractive, but seems to be highly-counter-intuitive and very far from a normative understanding of traditional sources about prayer.  A second option is what might be termed ‘mystical prayer’ – the words of the liturgy when uttered correctly reconfigure the spiritual worlds, allowing a specific flow of blessing to come into the world.  Many find this view emotionally comforting and inspirational, yet intellectually unconvincing.

While these difficulties remain unresolved, it is likely that all of us maintain inconsistent views of prayer, uneasily melding the ‘simple’, ‘rational’ and ‘mystical’ models.

3)  Finally, I suggest that we should view the Shabbat prayers as especially important to developing our relationship with God.  From Rabbi David Abudraham, the 14th-century liturgical expert from Seville:

יש שואלין מה ראו חכמים לתקן בשבת שלש תפלות משונות זו מזו אתה קדוש. וישמח משה. ואתה אחד. וביום טוב לא תקנו אלא אחת אתה בחרתנו לערבית ולשחרית ולמנחה. וי"ל מפני ששבת נקראת כלה והקב"ה נקרא חתן תקנו אתה קדשת על שם הקדושין שנותן החתן לכלה. ואח"כ ישמח משה על שם שמחת החתן כלה... ואח"כ אתה אחד על שם שמתיחד החתן עם הכלה.

One may ask why the Sages saw fit to institute for Shabbat three prayers that are different from each other – ‘You  are holy’ (Ma’ariv), ‘Moshe will rejoice’ (Shacharit), ‘You are one’ (Minchah) – whereas on Yom Tov they instituted only one – ‘You chose us’ – for Ma’ariv, Shacharit and Minchah.  Perhaps it is because Shabbat is described as a ‘bride’ and the Holy One, may He be blessed, is a ‘groom’, the Sages established ‘You are holy’, corresponding to the betrothal which the groom gives to the bride; after that, ‘Moshe will rejoice’, corresponding to the rejoicing of the groom and bride’… after that, ‘You are one’, corresponding to the moment when the groom and bride consummate their marriage. (Abudraham, p. 147, free translation)

I first learnt this beautiful idea many years ago.  I think about it often and it has strongly influenced by conceptualisation of the Shabbat prayers.  It’s a good place to end this series with the brachah that each of us find meaning and purpose in our prayers and may they always serve as a vehicle for a mature and developing relationship with God.