March 24, 2010
State of Prayer
Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)
As someone who loves to pray, I care deeply about the state of prayer in the American Jewish community. How many of us pray on a regular basis? How many of us are comfortable with Hebrew and are able to participate fully in tefillah (prayer)?
I deliberately call prayer “tefillah” rather than “services,” because the majority of American Jews come to “services” and expect to be served something, given something. Instead, we should give of ourselves and our hearts in the service of God and deeper spiritual connection.
Missing today for many of us is the focused attention, or kavanah, at the heart of a meaningful and rich prayer experience. And it is the idea of kavanah that we learn about in a more nuanced reading of this week’s parasha, Tzav.
While this parasha can be seen as mostly about sacrifice and the role of the priest, our ancient rabbis found some deep meaning and connection between the actions of sacrifice and its spiritual replacement after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.: prayer. In a brilliant and daring move, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and his compatriots at Yavneh rebuilt Judaism into the ritual and spiritual practices that we know today, with the biggest one being daily prayer. Prayer became the spiritual avenue of connecting with God.
At the beginning of the parasha, we read the following: “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the burnt offering; the burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it’” (Leviticus 6:2).
This direction uses the word “tzav” (command) — hence the name of the parasha — which is a much stronger verb than the normal “speak to” or “say to” that we usually see. The midrash in Sifra and the Talmud in Kiddushin 29a teach us that the priests were urged to be especially zealous in performing this service.
The seriousness of the sacrificial process can be a real inspiration, even if the actual sacrifice of animals might not be. And, the fire burning all night till morning is a metaphor for the new light that God gives us each day, each morning, to live and love one another (Sfat Emet).
Today, prayer takes that same kind of zealous attention and focus. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch, the master law code of Yosef Caro, says specifically, “Prayer is in place of sacrifice. Therefore one must be very careful that the priest offering the sacrifice does so with a model of intention and is not involved in extraneous thought, such as thought that invalidates the holiness” (Orech Hayyim, Hilchot Tefillah 98:4).
Coming to pray is not a simple or light matter. Coming to pray involves focus and a deliberate state of mind, which allows us to listen for God’s breath in the world, relax our own egos, become open to transformation and insight. Kavanah provides us the doorway to these opportunities. For me, kavanah is about slowing down and finding ourselves present in the given moment, which can begin the moment we enter the sanctuary or wherever we are coming to pray.
Prayer is less about asking for things and more about listening; it is less about performance and more about concentration and vulnerability; it is less about saying all the words and more about moments of connection and deeper contemplation.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes most beautifully about prayer in his masterpiece, “Man’s Quest for God”: “Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy. ... Prayer is a way to master what is inferior in us. ... Prayer clarifies our hopes and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification, a quarantine for the soul.”
Prayer can be most amazing when it is taken on as a regular spiritual practice. When we stop daily, be it the traditional three-times-daily liturgy or a few moments of deep breathing, concentrated gratitude and honest introspection or a mix of both, prayer has the potential to change our lives.
If you have a regular prayer practice, you can deepen it by looking to see if it has become rote or routine, more fulfilling an obligation than cleansing the heart. Notice and then go deeper. Prayer has the power to change the world by changing the hearts of each one of us, slowly attuning us to what is Divine in each day, in each moment.
As the Zohar teaches on this parasha, “The Blessed Holy One wants the heart. And a person’s will and inner desire is dearer to God than all the sacrifices in the world. Once a person achieves an inner turning to God with sincere desire, then there is no gate in heaven that does not open for him/her.”
May this Shabbat, which is Shabbat Hagadol, and every Shabbat, include some deeper tefillah moments for you. Don’t just go to “services.” Come to pray and be transformed.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher V’Sameach for a beautiful Passover.
Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.