Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk



            Recently, my wife gave me a hands free phone device for my car.  Now over the years we've taken the miracle of phone conversation for granted.  It really is amazing that we can talk across the expanses of the earth without even a wire to carry our voices.  The Chofetz Chaim said that we should learn an ethical lesson from telephones.  That what we say here can have an effect at very great distances, so be careful what you say.  But I was reminded of the remarkable nature of this phenomenon when I was talking on my cell phone and walked by my car and the conversation was transferred to the car phone, and I'm yelling and wondering what happened to my connection.  That was until I heard my friend's voice calling back from inside my car.  After feeling like an idiot for a moment, we finished our discussion.  This phenomenon has protocols of priority, which must be observed, and then you'll know where the conversation is.  In this week's Torah reading we encounter similar rules of Tefilla, prayer.

            Moshe has a heavy request of God. The great prophet and leader wants God to relent and allow him to enter the holy land.  He addresses God in a specific mode of prayer called techina.  This is usually translated as supplication, but that's just a fancy word for 'beg'.  The Midrash on this verse uses this as an opportunity to teach us that there are ten words (or types) of prayer:  cry for help (shu'a), cry aloud (tza'aka), sing (rina), encounter (p'giah), call (kriah), fall (nipol), pray (perhaps weigh or judge, pillel), seek (darash), discuss (perhaps converse, si'ach), and beseech (perhaps beg or supplicate, tachanun).  Other sources actually add more words to this list.  We've got as many words for prayer as Eskimos have for snow or Democrats have for spend.   Why is this so important?  Because, prayer is so central to our relationship with God that we must always be defining it and refining it.  If we want to feel close to our God then we must learn how to keep the lines of communication open at all times.  Part of our profound spiritual depression during this month of Av is not only the destruction of the Temple, but also the deep seated sense of detachment from God.      

            To help get a handle on this problem, I want to refer to a prayer which I believe is a primer on prayer.  The prayer to which I refer is the well known Psalm we call Ashrei (Psalm 145).  This great poem begins with the statement that those who feel themselves welcome in the house or presence of God are indeed very fortunate or happy individuals.  But the custom of reciting this poem thrice daily traditionally is attributed to the verse:  You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing with its desire (verse 16).  Many shul regulars have the custom of reciting this line aloud, and feel assured that God will provide for their needs.  There are Chasdidic masters who explain that really this means that God helps sincere petitioners know what their desires should be.  However, there are other verses in this poem which intrigue me much more.

            The Rav (Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, 1903-1993) explained that really the most important verse is:  Each generation will announce to the next Your wonderful and powerful deeds (verse 4).  He believed that to be true because he understood that prayer is very difficult and that the only way we know how to pray is by copying the procedures of the previous generation.   Praying without guidance would have been like Lewis and Clark going to the Pacific Northwest without Sacagawea.  There's a vast uncharted expanse between me and God and trying to jump that gulf without map or GPS is virtually impossible.  There may be in every era an individual or two who can find the path to God on their own, but how many Avrahams have there been?  So, we must observe and then emulate the best practitioners of the previous generation.  The scary part is whether we can adequately serve that function for those who follow us.  I fear for my incompetence.

            However, this poem expresses many ideas about the obligation and privilege to stand before God in praise and petition.  One of the best is:  He fulfills the desire of those who revere Him; He hears their cry for help and delivers them (verse 19).  That's a great definition of prayer.  But for me there's another verse which expresses my highest hope and aspiration for this endeavor, and that is:  God is near to all who call upon Him, To all who call upon Him in truth (verse 18).  The last word of that verse in Hebrew is emet, and although we do usually translate that famous term as truth, in this instance I prefer either sincerity or integrity.  Isn't that what we really want when we pray?  More important than getting what I asked for like in some cosmic game of Go Fish, is to know or, at least, to sense that there is a presence at the other end of the line.  Sometimes when we pray, we feel like John Adams in the play 1776, when he desperately declaimed:           Is anybody there?  Does anybody care?  It is, on the other hand, a breathtaking feeling when you've poured your soul into a prayer that you sense a nearness of the ineffable.  A vast number of my poorly executed and routinely recited prayers seem redeemed with one rare but awesome spiritual experience.

I believe that it really makes sense to read this description of Moshe's petition to God right after Tisha B'av because the greatest comfort for all the disasters that we can possibly get is that God is still listening.  If we feel, sense and discern that there's Someone on the other end of the line when we stand in prayer, then we can go on, even without the holy Temple.  But it would be nice to have it again.

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