Parashat Mishpatim: Prayer power

Many individuals find prayer to be difficult to master or meaningfully express every day.

bible jewish 88 (photo credit: )
bible jewish 88
(photo credit: )
"And you shall serve the Lord your God, and He will bless your bread and your water; and I will remove sickness from your midst" (Exodus 23:25). Maimonides, the great Sephardi jurist (11th-12th centuries), begins his Laws of Prayer: "It is a positive commandment to pray every day, as it is written 'and you shall serve the Lord your God.' They taught from tradition that this 'service' refers to prayer, as it is written 'to serve Him with all your heart' (Deut. 11:13), about which our sages have taught, 'What is the service of the heart? Prayer!'" Hence, the biblical source for prayer is our portion of Mishpatim (literally, laws). It is interesting to note that prayer, such a cardinal religious experience, is not derived from a source which clearly teaches, "Thou shalt pray." Moreover, many individuals find prayer to be difficult to master or meaningfully express every day. It is recorded that when Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Hassidism (late 18th century), decided to attend the hassidic center of Mezritch rather than the talmudic center of Volozhin, he explained to his disgruntled father-in-law: "In Volozhin I would learn how to properly study difficult texts; in Mezritch I would hopefully learn how to pray. It is far more difficult to learn how to pray than it is to learn how to study." I would imagine that in choosing our particular verse as the biblical source for prayer, Maimonides is teaching us an important lesson in the "act of prayer." What is that lesson? I would like to remind you of a difficult interpretation of Rashi (1040-1105) on a verse which we read only two Sabbaths ago. The Israelites are being chased by the Egyptians, who want to bring them back to Egypt as slaves, and are faced by a roaring sea. They fearfully pray to God (Ex. 14:10); Moses too cries out to God. "And the Lord says to Moses, 'Why are you crying out to Me?' Speak to the children of Israel, and let them get moving [into the waters of the sea]" (14:15). Rashi (ad loc) expands the dialogue: "The Holy One, blessed be He, said 'This is not the time for lengthy prayer, when the Israelites are in such distress.'" But then when ought we engage in lengthy prayer? What does Rashi mean to teach us? I believe that Rashi wrote this commentary with a striking aggadic account before his eyes, wherein Elijah the Prophet chides R. Yose for having entered the ruins of a destroyed synagogue to pray for redemption after the destruction of the Second Temple. He should have prayed "on the road" - while planting, building or even waging war) rather than in a hopeless ruin, teaches Elijah. If you are afraid of the enemy, you should pray a shortened prayer, but one combined with action. And this is precisely what God was telling Moses: This is not the time for lengthy prayer; let the Jews begin to act. Once Israel initiates the movement toward redemption, God will assuredly respond. From this perspective, we can much better understand Maimonides' biblical source for prayer, which comes at the end of a segment which begins (Ex. 23:20): "Behold, I shall send a messenger [Moses] before you to guard you on the road [to the conquest of the Land of Israel], to bring you to the place which I have prepared for you... My messenger will go before you [in battle], and bring you into the Amorite, Hittite, Perizzite, Canaanite, Hivite and Jebusite [lands], and I will cut them off... and you shall serve the Lord your God..." (23:25). From this context it becomes clear that prayer is not an expression of total dependency upon God; it is, rather, a request for strength and courage, for empowerment from our "senior partner" who has joined Himself to us in the grand march toward redemption. It is also fascinating that Nahmanides, a younger contemporary of Maimonides, disagrees with Maimonides as to the source and frequency of prayer. He maintains that it is only biblically mandatory for the individual to pray in times of stress. (I once heard from my revered teacher Rav J.B. Soloveitchik that, practically speaking, there is no dispute between them: Nahmanides understood that existentially every mortal is in distress every day). His biblical proof text is: "When you go to wage war in your land against an enemy who oppresses you, you shall sound the broken staccato sounds of the trumpets, and you shall be remembered before the Lord, and you shall be saved from your enemies" (Numbers 10:9). Here, too, it is prayer within the context of action! In most Sephardi prayer books, the biblical invocation before one begins daily prayer is neither of the two proof texts just cited, but rather, "You shall love your neighbor like yourself, I am the Lord" (Lev. 19;18). This introduction to prayer, initiated by Rav Haim Vital, would be completely inexplicable were it not for the thesis of "prayer as a request for divine empowerment." If indeed prayer is an attempt to come close to the divine (korban, sacrifice, stems from the Hebrew karov, to come close), the purpose of prayer is to enable us to be like God: to bring about a more perfect world, to show love, patience and kindness toward every created being. And from this perspective, the most meaningful prayer ought to be: "Father in heaven, I don't ask You to make my life easy; I only pray that You help me be strong." The end of Tractate Sota gives frightening signs of what will occur at the end of the days: "Insolence will reign supreme, inflation will increase... leaders will be involved in harlotry... Wisdom will be vitiated... truth will be absent... a person's enemies will be his family members... the face of the generation will be the face of a dog... and the only one we will have to rely on is our father in heaven." It seems to me that the last thing mentioned, "the only one we will have to rely on is our father in heaven" is not a solution but the worst of the problems. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.