Rabbi Mike Comins on the Talmud
Rav said: Whoever has it in his power to pray on behalf of his neighbor, and fails to do so, is called a sinner.
Talmud Bavli, Berachot 12b
If there is one thing that characterizes Jewish prayer, it is the emphasis on praying as a community, both across time and across space. Whether the constant use of second person, “we” language in our prayer book’s petitions, or the insistence on daily prayer in a minyan, the context of Jewish prayer is communal. So much so that even when davenning alone on top of a mountain, one does not pray in a vacuum. Even my personal, unscripted prayers emerge within the deep sea of my People’s yearning.
In this statement from the third century, Babylonian rabbi Rav, the communal context receives philosophical articulation and is taken to the next level. To pray only for oneself is worse than not praying at all.
Surrender and humility are essential moves in spiritual life. But the way to submit to God is not always to focus directly on God, something particularly difficult for those who do not share the traditional take on a personal God. One important way to serve God, Rav reminds us, is to serve others.
Rabbi Mike Comins
Quoted from: A Rabbinic Anthology
C. G. Montefiore and H. Loewe
New York: Schocken Books, 1974, p. 351
From the Sources
Rabbi Mike Comins on the Talmud
R. Elazar said: Always let a man test himself: if he can direct his heart, let him pray; if he cannot, let him not pray.
Talmud Bavli, Berachot 30b
If a man is riding on an ass [and the time for prayer comes], if there is anyone who can hold his ass, let him get off and pray; but if not, let him remain on the ass and pray. Rabbi said: In either case let him remain on the ass and pray; the only important thing is that his heart should be directed.
Tosefta Berachot III, 18
In the great debate over whether praying according to one's obligation (keva) trumps praying according to one's ability to concentrate, focus and emote (kavanah), here we see those who favor kavanah. Note that neither Rabbi nor R. Elazar advocate disregarding one’s prescribed, halachic duty to pray the liturgy at certain times. Rather, to keep that obligation, one cannot parrot the words. The message seems clear to me. God wants the heart.
Rabbi Mike Comins
A Rabbinic Anthology
C. G. Montefiore and H. Loewe
New York: Schocken Books, 1974
The English word “prayer” derives from the Latin for “beg, entreat or request.” One would expect something similar in Hebrew, but tefillah literally means “to judge oneself.” Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, father of Modern Orthodoxy, offers a compelling, if troubling, explanation.
Shimshon Rafael Hirsch
The word hith-palel (to pray) comes from the root palal, which in turn is related to the root balal…The root balal…denotes bringing a fresh element into a mass, incorporating this element into all parts of the mass, and thus forming a new material out of the mass.
This is the Jewish concept of the judge’s task, [and it is for this reason that the verb palal means "to judge"]. The judge must bring justice and fairness, which are elements of Divine Truth, into the case. This must penetrate all elements of the dispute. Therefore, by bringing true justice into what was angry dissension, the judge transforms it into harmonious unity.
When one does this to himself, he is said to hith-palel, that is, “to judge himself." Hith-palel means to take the element of God’s truth and make it penetrate all phases and conditions of our being and our lives. This allows our entire being to gain a degree of harmony in God.
Jewish tefillah (prayer; a noun from the same root as hith-palel) is hence very different from what is usually conceived of as prayer. It is not an expression from within, or an expression of that with which the heart is already filled. Rather, it is a renewal and penetration of truth which comes from the outside.
If our prayers were not tefillah … working on our inner selves to bring them to the heights of recognition of the truth and to resolutions for serving God, then there would be no sense in having fixed times and prescribed forms for them. But our prescribed prayers are not facts and truths of which we are already conscious; they are concepts which we wish to awaken and renew in ourselves. The less one may feel inclined to recite a prayer, the more necessary it may be to say it.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch
Commentary on Genesis 20:7
Rabbi Hirsch’s commentary is shocking, and no doubt troubling to many, in that it describes prayer as a movement from the outside in. It is not a pouring out of the heart, but an opening of the heart so that it may receive God’s presence.
But Rabbi Hirsch likely had other writings on prayer, and I doubt he meant this to the contradiction of prayer from humans to God. Rather, he highlights one of the central dynamics of fruitful prayer. We pray not only, and for me not primarily, to change God, but to change ourselves. And while that task benefits from pouring our hearts out to God, it also requires listening, and being vulnerable, to what the tradition (through the Siddur) and God (in drawing us close through prayer) call us to be.
Rabbi Mike Comins
Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888) was a German rabbi best known as the father of the Torah im Derech Eretz school of contemporary Jewish thought and driving force behind modern, Orthodox Judaism.
A Call to the Infinite
by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
New York/Jerusalem: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1986, p. 12
From the Sources
The Baal Shem Tov
The founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, considers the inevitable ups and downs in one’s spiritual life.
"To love YKVK your God, to go in all His ways and to cleave to Him” [Deuteronomy 11:22]:—We read regarding this [see Babylonian Talmud Sotah 14a] “Is it possible that one might bind oneself to Him? Is He not a consuming fire? Rather cleave to within His attributes. As He is compassionate, so, you be compassionate.” Indeed one ought always to be able to serve the blessed Name with the enthusiasm of the heart; and this is the true cleaving to Him Whose Name is blessed. However, it is impossible that this be one’s constant state. Rather, one moves toward it and then away, like [the movement of] a flame. And just as with fire, if one breathes oxygen into it, it first becomes nearly extinguished and then the fire becomes greater—and the fire itself is always rising and descending, being always in motion—so too, with one’s enthusiasm. For constant pleasure ceases to be pleasurable. This, then, is the question raised by the Talmud [BT Sotah 14a]: Is he not a consuming fire?”—i.e., Isn’t enthusiasm something that is not constant? Thus the answer given is “cleave to within His attributes”—referring to the letters of the Torah, for it is indeed possible to be always occupied with the letters [of the Torah]; and the Torah is the Divine Garment. Even when talking to people, bear in mind that the 22 letters that constitute the means of common speech are ultimately the substratum of the Torah.
Baal Shem Tov, Amud HaTefilah, #54; Tzava’at HaRivash fol. 5a
In this teaching, the founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, recognizes that one’s passion for prayer and one’s closeness to God cannot be equal at all times. Such is the human condition. But one can always engage in Torah study out of reverence for God, which hopefully re-establishes a sense of the Divine and rekindles one’s enthusiasm for prayer. Rather than dwell in shame for the “failure” to maintain passion for God at all times, which can be paralyzing, one should direct his or her energies in a different, but still God-oriented, way.
Rabbi Mike Comins
Pillar of Prayer
Guidance in Contemplative Prayer, Sacred Study, and the Spiritual Life, from the Baal Shem Tov and his Circle
Translated and annotated by Menachem Kallus
Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2011
Available at Fons Vitae
Thich Nhat Hanh
The second element we need for prayer is energy. We have connected the telephone wire, now we need to send an electric current through it.
In prayer, the electric current is love, mindfulness, and right concentration. Mindfulness is the real presence of our body and our mind. Our body and our mind are directed toward one point, the present moment. If this is lacking, we are not able to pray, no matter what our faith. If you are not present, who is praying?
To pray effectively, our body and mind must dwell peacefully in the present moment. When you have mindfulness, then you have concentration. This is the condition that will lead to prajna, the Sanskrit word for insight and transcendent wisdom. Without that, our prayer is just superstition.
The Energy of Prayer
Thich Nhat Hanh
Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2006, pp 43-44
Mohandas K. Gandhi
…Prayer is either petitional or in it's wider sense is inward communion. In either case the ultimate result is the same. Even when it is petitional, the petition should be for the cleansing and purification of the soul, for freeing it from the layers of ignorance and darkness that envelop it. He, therefore, who hungers for the awakening of the divine in him must fall back on prayer. But prayer is no mere exercise of words or of the ears, it is no mere repetition of empty formula. Any amount of repetition of Ramanama [God’s Name] is futile if it fails to stir the soul. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart. It must be in clear response to the spirit which hungers for it. And even as a hungry man relishes a hearty meal, a hungry soul will relish a heartfelt prayer. And I am giving you a bit of my experience and that of my companions when I say that he who has experienced the magic of prayer may do without food for days together but not a single moment without prayer. For without prayer there is no inward peace.
Mohandas K. Gandhi
edited by John Strohmeier
Berkeley: Berkeley Hills Books, 2000, p. 23
Is prayer a form of talking? Must it involve words? A woman wrote to me, "I feel a deep desire to pray, but I cannot bring myself to use words. They seem unnecessary and silly." Oscar Wilde had similar doubts about his words. He once wrote, "I do not talk to God so as not to bore him."
In its simplest form, prayer is an attitude of the heart — a matter of being, not doing. Prayer is the desire to contact the Absolute, however it may be conceived. When we experience the need to enact this connection, we are praying, whether or not we use words.
That doesn't mean words are wrong. People are often inspired to express verbally their unity with God, Goddess, the Divine, the Universe, the Absolute in some way — to lift their voices in words or song. If we need to use words, we should use them. But the essence of prayer is not something you say on Sunday morning, before meals, or at bedtime. The essence of prayer bypasses all the “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” and goes beyond all thethees and thous….
…we can expand the definition of prayer:
Prayer is communication with the Absolute.
This definition is deliberately broad. It allows people to find communication any way they see fit. It also invites them to image the Absolute in their own way — including the idea that the Absolute is both transcendent and immanent, "out there" as well as "in here."
In prayer, people may fill in the blanks anyway they choose.
Prayer is Good Medicine
by Larry Dossey, M.D.
New York: Harper Collins, 1997
Larry Dossey, M.D., is the former chief of staff at Humana Medical City Dallas and former co-chair of the panel on mind/body interventions for the National Institutes of Health. He is the author of many books, including Healing Words, Recovering the Soul, and Meaning and Medicine.
Brother David Steindl-Rast
There is only one basic rule for prayers alone: Make sure you are left alone. Once this is assured, it will be quite easy to find your own expression of whatever it is that fills your heart at that time. But being left alone in prayer is not as easy as one might think. Especially in religious communities, there are sometimes those whose religious observance consists largely in observing others. When and where and how you say prayers, for how long and what posture—every detail is apt to come under scrutiny. It may be a great blessing to be able to discuss all these points with a teacher of prayer who will guide us to find what is most helpful for us personally. Beyond that, we have a right and a duty to insist: Concerning my prayers alone, leave me alone.
Yes, we have a duty in this respect. The most frequent interference does not come from the outside, but from within ourselves; it is not restricted to those living in communities, but all of us have to struggle against it. There is within each of us, I suspect, that little voice that will not leave us alone. It keeps urging us to conformity with some arbitrary model of prayer, or to non-conformity. In either case we get preoccupied with the model that we imitate or reject, instead of facing the challenge to be creative in our prayers alone. You are unique. If your prayer is genuine, it will be the grateful expression of your uniqueness.
Gratefulness, The Heart Of Prayer: An Approach To Life In Fullness
by Brother David Steindl-Rast
New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1984
Brother David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B., has written several books on the contemplative life and has given lectures in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Born in Vienna, he studied art, anthropology, and psychology there, holding degrees from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and the University of Vienna. In 1953 he joined the Benedictine monastery of Mount Saviour in Elmira, N.Y. He has been involved in monastic renewal in the United States and in the dialogue of Oriental and Western spirituality.
Anthony Bloom writes about kavanah (honesty, sincerity and focus) from a Christian perspective.
I have tried to point out, first of all, that your prayer must be turned inwards, not towards a God of Heaven nor towards a God far off, but towards God who is closer to you than you are aware; and secondly, that the first act of prayer is to choose such words of prayer as are completely true to what you are, words you are not ashamed of, which express you adequately and are worthy of you—and then offer them to God with all the intelligence of which you are capable. You must also put all the heart you can into an act of worship, an act of recognition of God, an act of cherishing, which is the true meaning of charity, an action which involves you in the mind, in the heart, and an action which is completely adequate to what you are. The first thing which I suggest, therefore, is that you should ask yourself what words of prayer make sense for you to offer to God, whether they be your own words or those of other people. Ask yourself also how much they touch your heart, to what extent you are capable of concentrating your mind on them – for if you cannot be attentive to the word you say, why should God? How can He receive them as an expression of love if you do not put your heart into them, if you have only put in a certain amount of courtesy together with a certain amount of absent-mindedness? And then if you learn to use a prayer you have chosen at moments when you can give all your attention to the divine presence and offer God this prayer, gradually what happens is that the awareness of God grows within you to such an extent that whether you are with people, listening, speaking or whether you are alone working, this awareness is so strong that even if you are with people you will still be able to pray.
Anthony Bloom was founder and for many years bishop - then archbishop, then metropolitan - of the Diocese of Sourozh, the Patriarchate of Moscow's diocese for Great Britain and Ireland. As a bishop he became well known as a pastor, preacher, spiritual director and writer on prayer and the Christian life.
Beginning to Pray
by Anthony Bloom
Paulist Press: 1970, New York
Prayer Talk Video
Rabbi Shawn Zevit
Rabbi Shawn Zevit explores the effects of listening to the prayers we pray.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit (www.rabbizevit.com) is a spiritual director and trainer of Jewish clergy in spiritual direction, co-director with Rabbi Marcia Prager of the Award-Winning Davvenen Leaders Training Institute
(www.davvenenleadership.com), a recording and performing artist (www.cdbaby.com/Artisst/ShawnZevit) and has been an organizer for over twenty years of Jewish men's programming and retreats; and co-editor with Harry Brod of the just published Brother Keepers: New Perspectives in Jewish Masculinity (Men's Studies Press, 2010, www.mensstudies.com/content/H44L82/), as well as "Offerings of the Heart: Money and Values in Faith Community" (www.alban.org/rabbizevit/index.asp) and numerous publications on personal, interpersonal, communal and organizational life.
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