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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayikra: The Power of Prayer

Summary

How can we stop the suicide bombers? Instead of serving G'd with offerings, we now serve Him through prayer. The real organ used for prayer is the heart. Concentration is necessary when we approach the King of the Universe with our prayers. The Jewish people have inherited a special power: the voice of Jacob. Prayer should never be a burden or an obligation. We have to realize that everyone needs the mercy of G'd. The soul needs three daily prayers to sustain it. The Jews at the Red Sea raised their eyes and cried out to G'd. The Midrash tells the parable of the king who hired some robbers to get the princess to cry out once more. Prayer creates a special closeness between G'd and the Jewish nation as described in the Song of Songs. No peace can be achieved without the Master of Peace.

How can we stop the killing?

We live in a world of falseness and double standards. On the one hand, we see continued acts of terrorism in Israel. Our enemies are merciless. The relatives of suicide bombers celebrate the destruction of Jewish life when they blow themselves up along with totally innocent victims whose only crime is being born Jewish. On the other hand, when the Jews of Israel try to take protective measures and rid themselves of the constant threat, the world condemns them. The same nations that go to war against Al-Keida and fight in Iraq blame Israel for protecting their innocent inhabitants against murderers. There does not appear to be any end to this insanity in sight. What can we do to stop this injustice and the killing of our people?

Serving G'd

In this week's Torah portion, we read about serving G'd by bringing offerings. While the meaning of the offerings may be studied on many different levels of understanding, the purpose of the offerings is to bring us closer to G'd. However, since the destruction of the Temples, we can no longer serve G'd by bringing offerings. Instead, we now serve G'd through prayer.

"With all your heart"

In the second paragraph of the Shema we are commanded to serve HASHEM, our G'd, with all our heart and with all our soul (Devarim 11:13). The Talmud (Taanis 2a) asks what type of service is possible with the heart? The Talmud answers, this is through prayer. Although prayer is expressed and verbalized through the mouth, the real organ used for prayer is the heart. Albeit by saying the words of prayer even without understanding the meaning of the words one fulfills one's obligation to pray; nevertheless, we must admit that this kind of prayer is "lip service". The proper way to pray to G'd is with intense feeling and concentration. This comes from the heart.

Concentration

There is a famous saying: "Prayer without concentration (kavanah) is like a body without a soul." This does not mean to say that if we do not understand every word of our prayer we should not pray. Rather, this means that we should make efforts to understand our prayers. As Rabbi Chaim Valozhin explains, the prayers, compiled by the Men of the Great Assembly, have an effect even if said by someone who does not understand what they are saying. On the other hand, the Rosh in Orchas Chaim (paragraph 36) admonishes us to concentrate when we pray. As he says, "imagine if your son would speak to you without thinking what he is saying. Would it not make you angry? How dare we approach the King of the Universe without thinking what we are saying? Lest we be like a servant who has been honoured with a special job for his benefit but messes up the whole job. Would he dare to approach the king? We ought to ask forgiveness for the part of the prayer when we ask for forgiveness without thinking. At the very least, if we cannot concentrate throughout the whole prayer, we should concentrate in the first blessing of the Amidah and the first verse of the Shema."

Events in Israel

We are all concerned and nervous about the world situation and shaken by the events in Israel. The Jewish people have always known instinctively to turn towards our Father in heaven to pray and cry out in despair. From our Patriarchs we have inherited a special power: the voice of Jacob. As King David says (Psalm 20), "Some come with chariots, some come with horses, but we in the name of G'd call out."

Beg for compassion

We know that when calamity strikes it is a time to cry out and pray to G'd. However, do we realize that whether it is a time of war or peace, of illness or health, of poverty or wealth, intensive prayer has to be part of our daily routine? As it says in Pirkei Avos (2:18) "Rabbi Shimon says: (a) Be meticulous in reading the Shema and in prayer; (b) when you pray, do not make your prayer a set routine, but rather [beg for] compassion and supplication before G'd " Says Rabbeinu Yona, in his commentary on this Mishna, "When you pray, you should pray like a poor person who prays for what he needs, not like one who does not put his heart into what he is saying. Prayer should never be a burden or an obligation. We have to realize that everyone needs the mercy of G'd. Even when things go well, we cannot know whether this is due to G'd's being slow to anger. There's no one who is so totally righteous on earth that he only does good and never sins (Koheles 7:20)". The absence of calamities may result from the slowness of G'd's anger. Sometimes G'd delays the harsh consequences arising from our conduct.

Pour out our hearts in prayer

G'd is merciful and everyone needs G'd's mercy. Our prayers may tip the scale as to when G'd acts with mercy or with justice. Therefore, it behooves us to constantly pray that nothing bad should happen to us or to others. However, there is more to prayer than that. We must realize that G'd does not need our prayers. Rather, for our sake G'd wants us to pray. The Kuzari explains, just like the body needs three meals a day to sustain it, so does the soul need three daily prayers to sustain it. We find that G'd brings difficult situations on individuals and communities in order to bring the Jewish people to pray. As the Midrash explains, our Matriarchs had no children until late in life. Part of the Divine plan for this was to encourage them to pour out their hearts in prayer. The Jews in Egypt were brought to pray through the hardship of their labour. As it says (Shemos 2:23), "And the children of Israel groaned because of their work, and they cried out. G'd heard their moaning, and G'd remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob."

Perilous situation

Even more so, after the exodus from Egypt, when the Jews arrived at the Red Sea and the Egyptians pursued them, again it says (Shemos 14:10), "Pharaoh approached and the Children of Israel bait their eyes and saw how the Egyptians were chasing after them and they were frightened. The Children of Israel cried out to G'd." The Jews at that point were in a very perilous situation, pursued by their enemies, bounded by the sea and surrounded by wild animals. It was a hopeless situation. They raised their eyes and cried out to G'd.

The king saves the princess

The Midrash asks why did G'd do this? Why did He put them in that situation? The Midrash answers that G'd wanted them to pray. The Midrash compares it to a king that during his travels was approached by a princess who cried out, please save me from the robbers. The king promptly saved her. Later, the king wanted to marry this princess, but she did not even want to talk to him. The king hired some robbers to get her to cry out once more. As the robbers pursued her she started crying out to the king. Said the king, "This is what I was waiting for." So says the Midrash, the Jews in Egypt cried out to G'd from their hardship. G'd came and saved them. After the exodus the Jews stopped praying, so G'd sent the Egyptians after them. Once again the Jews prayed.

Let me hear your voice

This is what King Solomon says in the Song of Songs when he describes the events at the Sea (2:14) "Oh my dove, trapped at the sea as if in the clefts of the rock, the concealment of the terrace. Show Me your prayerful gaze; let Me hear your supplicating voice, for your voice is sweet and your countenance comely." From this we learn that prayer is not just a way to get out of peril. Prayer has a purpose of its own. It creates a special closeness and bond between G'd and the Jewish nation as described in the Song of Songs. When the Jewish people are slack in our prayer, G'd will bring a peril as a way to bring forth prayer. If we strengthen our prayer, pray more and better, who knows how many calamities may be avoided for the whole Jewish people? The Jews in Egypt were saved when they prayed to get out of Egypt. They were saved again when they were trapped by the sea. And so throughout our history, the Jewish people again and again have been in so many difficult situations. And always we have rebounded and turned to G'd who answered our prayers.

Master of War and of Peace

In the present situation, we have to learn from the past and understand what G'd expects of us. He does not want any sacrifices of human life but He wants to hear our voice and for us to re-establish the close relationship between G'd and the Jewish people. At the Song by the Sea, the Jews refer to G'd as the "Master of War". We also refer to Him in our prayers as the "Master of Peace". We all know the famous prayer "oseh shalom bimromav" that we say at the end of the Amidah Prayer: "He who makes peace in the heights, He will make peace for all of us and all Israel." No war can be won without the Master of War. No peace can be achieved without the Master of Peace. The Jewish people have to realize that only through re-establishing a strong bond between G'd and the Jewish nation through prayer and adhering to His commandments can we succeed. The real danger is when we move away from G'd and forget about his commandments. Just as at the time of Purim the Jewish people were only saved from their enemies when they listened to the Torah sage of the Time, the righteous Mordechai, and turned to G'd in earnest prayer. So must we follow the instructions of our Torah sages and pour out heart to our merciful Father in Heaven. And then, no doubt, He will hear our voices crying out and in His great mercy He will save and redeem us and put a stop to all suffering and bring peace to us and the whole world. Amen.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.


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