FIRE OF INITIATIVE
Rabbi David Walk
There is an embarrassing reality that I must deal with. For the next few weeks, those of us in the Diaspora will be a week behind the Torah readings in Eretz Yisrael. Therefore I must apologize to my readers in the
My very bright seventh grade Talmud class has been learning the fourth chapter of Tractate Berachot this year. This section called Tefilat Hashachar (Morning Prayer) discusses a plethora of prayer issues, many of them are technical like when to pray or what to do if you've missed a prayer. However there are a few fascinating discussions about the philosophic aspects of prayer. The topic that, perhaps, sparked the most animated discussion was the Mishneh which states: Rabbi Eliezer says: If a man makes his prayers a fixed task, it is not a genuine supplication (Berachot 4:4). The Hebrew word I translated as 'fixed task' is keva. This word can mean 'set' or 'unchanging.' The Gemara then offers four explanations for what negative concept Rabbi Eliezer had in mind. The first is that the worshipper views prayer as a burden, another chore which must be accomplished and checked off every morning, like brushing teeth or taking a shower. The second idea is that the person didn't pray in a style of supplication. There was no feeling of begging and pleading before one's Maker for our needs. It was recited like a shopping list or a telephone directory. The third response (which we will return to soon) is that the supplicant didn't add anything new. It was just a repeat of yesterday's prayer. And the final answer is that the person didn't prayer with the rising or setting of the sun. Those are propitious times for spiritual endeavor, and one's prayer is lacking a certain spark at any other time.
I'm really concerned with answer number three, that there was nothing novel in my prayer. It seems like a good answer. My prayer is fixed, because I made no effort to inject anything new. But, in fact, it's the only answer which has an objection attached to it. Rebbe Zeira said: I could request something new, but I fear lest I get confused. Rebbe Zeira could do it, but refrains because it might make saying the regular version more difficult or even corrupt them. Perhaps Rebbe Zeira adheres to rigid routine and is afraid of spontaneity. When the Sages instituted a fixed daily prayer (our Shmoneh Esreh), did they intend to guide our entreaties to God or to replace them with a compulsory list of requests? I think that we can get guidance on this issue from a remarkable incident in this week's Torah reading.
Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, are divinely executed for bringing an eish zara (foreign fire) into the newly inaugurated sanctuary. Although our rabbis suggested a number of possible crimes which might have been committed (they entered drunk, they decided legal issues in the presence of Moshe their mentor, they were arrogant), it seems that the literal meaning of the text is that they brought a fire into the Holy precinct unbidden by God, on their own initiative. Does that mean that we eschew all spontaneity in our divine service? I don't think so, because we see personal initiative praised by God on numerous occasions. The most famous was when Moshe broke the Tablets. So, how do we reconcile this contradiction? Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks makes a clever and persuasive argument that spontaneity is encouraged in prophets but prohibited to priests. He says, 'The Cohen serves God in a way that never changes over time. The prophet serves God in a way that is constantly changing over time. When people are at ease the prophet warns of forthcoming catastrophe. When they suffer catastrophe and are in the depths of despair, the prophet brings consolation and hope.' Beautiful! But I'm neither prophet nor priest, so, I'd like to suggest another approach.
We want both. We demand that every Jew worships God within their own idiom and style, but these random thoughts and emotions must be expressed in the context of the format designed by our Sages. It's a continual balancing act between the spur-of-the-moment and the prescribed. On pages 16b and 17a in Tractate Berachot there are about a dozen marvelous prayers which all begin with the same formula: Rabbi Somebody used to say this after he finished his regular prayer. Many of these private prayers are truly gorgeous and a number of them have been incorporated into our prayer book, but the main point is that none of these rabbis tried to replace his normal prayer. These prayers were recited after the normal, compulsory prayer was completed.
Now we can take another look at what bothered Rabbi Zeira. I translated his objection as 'I might get confused.' That would mean that he was afraid to add anything new, because it might prevent him from successfully reciting the authorized prayer correctly. The Aramaic he used mitradna, which literally means 'troubled' or 'concerned.' So, what bothered Rebbe Zeira? Maybe he was worried that the traditional text would be consigned to a lesser place, and my personal prayer would overshadow it. He was apprehensive about the phenomenon of Nadav and Avihu, namely an emphasis on my subjective worship over the service demanded by tradition or law. It's a legitimate fear, because we see Jewish movements which regularly discard traditions.
It's a problem. How do we maintain ancient custom while making our practices relevant? We do it very carefully. We add cautiously, and delete judiciously. The degree of difficulty hopefully keeps us sharp and aware. It's an eternal balancing act. I hope that the tension helps us to maintain the critical equilibrium. The general formula is set, but we are free and encouraged to add our words, ideas and feelings. Good luck!