June 8, 2006
Pray at Your Own Risk
Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21 -7:89)
A number of years ago I was invited to spend Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, in Germany. I fell asleep on the outbound Lufthansa flight, and somewhere over the Atlantic I woke up as the sun began to shine through my window.
With tallit and tefillin in hand, I began my walk to the back of the plane where no one would be disturbed as I davened Shacharit. As I walked down the aisle, I spotted a curtained area near the kitchen that would be perfect for prayer.
It turned out to be the space where stewardesses sit, but it wasn't occupied. Two stewardesses were seated on the opposite side of the plane, and I went over to ask if I could use the unoccupied area to pray for about 20 minutes. One of the stewardesses looked at me and pointed to the seat belt sign.
"Sir," she said, "the seat belt sign is on."
I noted that there had been no turbulence during the flight and that the sign had been on since we left LAX.
"OK," she said, "but you are going to have to pray at your own risk."
Prayer can be a risky endeavor when it's not done right. In our Torah reading for this week we encounter the ultimate Jewish blessing in the words of the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing.
The Torah introduces the blessing with the following words: "Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying: In this way you shall bless the children of Israel. You shall say unto them...." (Numbers 6:23).
Wondering why the word for "say" was spelled in an unusual way, with the letter "vav" to read "emor" instead of "amor," the classical medieval commentator Rashi, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma, notes that this spelling was not by accident; rather the full spelling with the letter "vav" implied a lesson about blessings. He wrote, "Do not bless them in haste and fright but with proper intention and a full heart."
Rashi offers us insight into what prayer is all about.
First, he notes that prayer cannot be effective if it is done in haste. When one hurries through life as if engaged in a marathon and can't even stop to thank God for life itself, then one misses the blessings of life.
There is also a second characteristic of blessing. We cannot bless if we feel fright. Most people live under stress and tension, amid frightening emergency. Blessings, however, never occur unless one is at peace.
On a trip to Israel a friend suggested that if I wanted to see something truly exciting and magnificent, I should visit the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. I found his suggestion intriguing because we all know that Israel has many exciting places to visit, but museums hardly qualify.
Perhaps a museum can be "interesting," but certainly not "exciting."
So I asked my friend what possibly could be so compelling. True, the museum houses outstanding collections of art, exhibits from the Diaspora and even ancient artifacts from pre-biblical Canaan.
But those weren't what my friend wanted me to see. Instead, it was a tiny fragment from the First Temple period, more than 2,500 years old. This fragment is the oldest surviving biblical text, written in an ancient Hebrew script that became obsolete by the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were written.
What makes this fragment so exciting is that it contains 15 Hebrew words still said to this very day. On it is written the 15 words of the priestly blessing.
Throughout history, even when peace without did not exist, these words inspired all Jews to risk retaining peace within themselves. As I looked at this oldest surviving biblical text, I realized it continues to teach us that we must take risks if we want to attain meaningful blessings in life.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin is spiritual leader of Young Israel of Century City.