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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayikra: The Power of Prayer
Instead of serving G'd with offerings, nowadays we serve Him through prayer. The main organ used for prayer is the heart. We must concentrate 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 neither feel like a burden nor as an obligation. 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 a 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. 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 and worldwide. On the other hand, when Israel takes protective measures to rid ourselves of the constant threat, the world condemns us. The same nations that go to war against ISIS blame Israel for protecting their innocent inhabitants against murderers. What can we do to stop this injustice and the killing of innocent people?
In this week's parasha, we read about serving G'd by bringing offerings. The bringing of the offerings can be understood on many different levels; however, the purpose of the offerings is to bring us closer to G'd. Since the destruction of the Temples, we can no longer serve G'd by bringing offerings. Instead, we serve G'd through prayer.
"With all your heart"
In the second paragraph of Shema (Devarim 11:13), we are instructed to serve G'd with all our heart and with all our soul. The Talmud (Taanis 2a) asks how is it possible to serve G'd with our heart? The Talmud answers that this refers to prayer. Although prayer is expressed with our mouth, the main organ we use for prayer is our heart. Obviously, we fulfill our obligation to pray by saying the words of prayer, even if we do not understand the meaning of the words, but this is merely "lip service". The proper way to pray is with intense feeling and concentration. This comes from the heart.
There is a famous saying: "Prayer without concentration (kavanah) is like a body without a soul" (see Abarbanel Pirkei Avos 2:13). This does not mean that if we do not understand our prayers, they have no value. Rather, this means that we should make an effort to understand our prayers. Rabbi Chaim Valozhin (Nefesh HaChaim 2:13) explains that our prayers have an effect even if we do not understand what we are saying. On the other hand, the Rosh (Orchas Chaim paragraph 36) strongly encourages us to concentrate when we pray. 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 focusing on what we are saying? Lest we be like a servant who has been honoured with a special job, for his own benefit, but messes up the entire job. Would he dare to approach the king? We ought to ask forgiveness for asking 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."
Beg for compassion
We cry out and pray to G'd when calamity strikes. However, Rabbeinu Yona, in his commentary on Pirkei Avos (2:18), teaches that whether it is a time of war or peace, of illness or health, of poverty or wealth, intensive prayer always has to be part of our daily routine. With this Rabbeinu Yona explains what Rabbi Shimon says (ibid): "When you pray, do not make your prayer a set routine, but rather [beg for] compassion and [make a] supplication before G'd …" Says Rabbeinu Yona: "When we pray, we 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 neither feel like a burden, nor as an obligation. We have to realize that we all need the mercy of G'd. Even when things go well, we cannot know whether we really deserve what we have or if this is due to G'd's being slow to anger. For there's no one who is so totally righteous on earth that he only does good and never sins (Koheles 7:20)".
Pour out our hearts in prayer
Our prayers can tip the scale to bring about that G'd acts with mercy. Therefore, we must constantly pray that nothing bad should happen. However, there is more to prayer than that. We must remember that G'd does not need our prayers. Rather, G'd allows us to pray for our sake. The Kuzari explains that just like the body needs three meals a day to function properly, so does the soul need three daily prayers to sustain it. In general, we think that it is time to pray when we have a problem. However, our sages teach that this is not the case. On the contrary, G'd brings difficult situations on individuals and communities in order to bring us to pray. Our Matriarchs had no children until late in life. The Talmud (Yevamos 64b) teaches that part of the Divine plan for this was to encourage them to pour out their hearts in prayer. Similarly, 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. And G'd heard their moaning, and G'd remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob."
After the exodus, when the Jewish people arrived at the Red Sea and the Egyptians pursued them, it says (Shemos 14:10), "And Pharaoh approached, and the Children of Israel raised their eyes and saw how the Egyptians were chasing after them, and they were frightened. And the Children of Israel cried out to G'd." At that point the Jewish people were in a very perilous situation. Their enemies pursued them from behind, and in front of them was the sea. To add to their misery, they were surrounded by wild animals. It was a hopeless situation. They knew that they only had one option. They raised their eyes and cried out to G'd.
The king saves the princess
The Midrash asks why did G'd put them in such a situation? The Midrash answers that G'd wanted them to pray. The Midrash compares this to a king that once during his travels was beseeched by a princess who cried out, "please save me, robbers are attacking me." The king promptly saved her. The king took a liking to the princess and wanted to marry her. However, 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 again came crying to the king. Said the king, "This is what I was waiting for." So, says the Midrash, in Egypt the Jewish people cried out to G'd from their hardship. G'd came and saved them. But after the exodus the Jews stopped praying. So G'd sent the Egyptians after them, and once again they cried out in prayer to G'd.
Let me hear your voice
This is how King Solomon describes the events at the Sea in the Song of Songs (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." This clearly teaches us that prayer is not just 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 we slack in our prayer, G'd will bring a peril to bring us to pray. If we pray when everything is well with more sincerity, who knows how many calamities we could avoid. The Jews in Egypt were saved when they prayed. They were saved again when they prayed by the sea. And so, throughout our history, we have been in so many difficult situations. We always eventually have turned to G'd and survived as a nation.
Master of War and of Peace
We have to learn from the past and understand what G'd expects of us. He wants to hear our voice to re-establish the close relationship between G'd and the Jewish people. At the Song by the Sea, the Jews referred 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 shall make peace for us and all Israel." No war can be won without the Master of War. No peace can be achieved without the Master of Peace. We have to realize that only through re-establishing a strong bond between us and G'd, 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, we were only saved when we listened to the Torah sage of the Time, the righteous Mordechai, and turned to G'd in earnest prayer. So we must follow the instructions of our Torah sages and pour out our heart to our merciful Father in Heaven. Then, no doubt, He will hear our voices. He will save and redeem us and put a stop to all our suffering and bring peace to us and the entire world with the coming of Mashiach. Amen.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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