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KI TAVO 5775

KI TAVO 5775

Y. L. Peretz, the great Yiddish writer, tells a touching story about Berel the tailor, a simple and pious Jew. His son was a bright, a newly-minted doctor:

          The young man came to visit papa in the shtetl over a weekend, and, naturally, Berel invited him to accompany him to shule on Shabbos morning.

          The young man refuses and asks, “Papa, if you knew that our neighbor, the widow, needed help, would you wait to give help until she came begging?” 

          “Of course not,” replies Berel. “I’d help the moment I knew her need.” 

          And the son says, “Well, God certainly knows when His creatures need help. He doesn’t have to wait for us to come begging.”

          “True,” says Berel, “but asking God’s help is not the only reason we pray. We have to praise Him, too.” 

          “Papa,” says the doctor, “how would you like it if someone were to keep praising you to your face all the time with, ‘Berel is a marvelous tailor. Berel is the only tailor. Berel is the greatest tailor!’”

          “It would make me sick,” says Berel. 

          “You see,” the doctor adds, “Gd is greater and wiser than we are. Do you think He needs or wants our constant praise?”

          Berel nods thoughtfully, “You’re right, absolutely right.” And then he brightens, “But a Jew has to daven, doesn’t he?”

A Jew has to daven, a Jew has to pray! It’s in his kishkes, his guts. It’s a hunger of the soul, an outpouring of longing for Gd, a yearning to connect with our Creator, to feel He is there listening and watching over us. The need to pray is, of course, universal. Human beings are not only thinking creatures but also praying creatures. The secularization of modern society has suppressed this need, but it’s still there—just under the surface.        

The need to pray is woven into the spiritual DNA of every Jew. We’ve always prayed to Gd. Since Abraham, the 1st Jew, we’ve cried out to Him to thank Him for His mercies, beseeched His help, praised His glory, pleaded for His guidance, confessed our failings and begged His compassion.

Too many Jews today have forgotten how to pray. Unlike their ancestors, unlike Berel tailor, they’re not “at home” with Hashem and are practically tongue-tied in His presence. But here and there are Jews who are openly searching for Gd and who are neither embarrassed nor inhibited about opening their hearts to Him. They yearn to rediscover the approach to Gd through prayer. As the very 1st step, perhaps they can learn from the Sanzer Rebbe whose student once asked, “Rebbe, what do you do before you pray?” The Rebbe replied, “I pray that I may be able to pray.”

Truth be told, even for the Sanzer Rebbe, prayer was not easy. Perhaps this is because prayer is a not function of the lips, nor the even mind—but of the heart. Many wonder if their prayers really matter or if their prayers are even heard because they cannot escape the feeling that no matter how hard they might pray, something is missing. So some turn to the synagogue to find Gd. But they cannot expect to just walk into shule and find Gd there because to find Gd in shule, we must 1st find Him in our hearts. 

In this morning’s Torah portion, there’s a fascinating ceremony. Moses instructs his people that after they enter the Promised Land, plant and harvest their produce, they are to take a sample of their 1st fruits, put it in a basket, bring it to the Temple in Jerusalem and before a priest recite the following prayer: My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lrd, the Gd of our fathers, and the Lrd heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lrd freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to the place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the 1st fruits of the soil which You, O Lrd, have given me.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? It’s also recited at the Passover Seder for obvious reasons. This declaration was nothing short of a declaration of gratitude for all that Gd had given us—our Heritage, our people, our land, and the food we eat. But it was a prepared formula—not a spontaneous expression of gratitude. How meaningful can reciting a prayer from rote be?

As I said, prayer isn’t easy—even for those who know the Hebrew by heart and can recite a Bracha faster than you can read it in English. The question for us is, does the Siddur help or get in the way of connecting with Gd? Is there a point to sticking to a set prayer schedule 3 times a day? Why can’t we just pray when we feel like it?

The rift between structured prayer and the need for spontaneous prayer is one of the oldest controversies in Judaism. On one side, we have Maimonides, who argues the commandment in Exodus (23:25), Va-avad’tem et Hashem Elokeychem, “And you shall serve the Lrd your Gd,” means it is incumbent on us to pray whether we are in the mood or not. For Maimonides, the act of praying itself helps put us into a sacred frame of mind and opens us up to the possibility of connection.

On the other side, Nachmanides believes the commandment to pray is rooted in the verse from Numbers (10:9): “When you are at war in your own land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets that you may be remembered before the Lrd your Gd and be delivered from your enemies.” The sounds of trumpet blasts—like the blasts of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah—were to arouse the people to prayer and repentance and to have courage, reminding them Gd is with them. Authentic prayer for Nachmanides is the voice that rises during times of crisis, crying out for help. For Nachmanides, prayer is, “I need you.”

A colleague once suggested if you have trouble learning how to pray, have this kind of a conversation with your teenage child when he tells you:

          “Dad, I’m going out with the guys this Saturday night. Okay?”

          “Where are you going?”

          “Oh, we’re going to a party in the next town.”

          “How are you going to get there?”

          “Jack’s father is loaning him the car.”

Have a conversation like this with your teenager and, believe me, you will learn how to pray!

For Maimonides, prayer is “I serve you.” For Nachmonides, prayer is, “I need you.” Who is right? Our tradition says they are both right! Crisis can be a powerful incentive to pray, but you need not have a crisis in your life to find Gd. Shouldn’t prayer be spontaneous? Of course! However, without a formalized prayer service and a set time to pray, we might never get around to it.

In the synagogue of the renowned Rav Yisrael of Salant—founder of the 19th century Mussar movement—there was a poor ignorant tailor who stood praying the Amida longer than Rav Yisrael did—rocking to and fro with great ecstatic fervor. When he asked this man—who could barely read Hebrew and hardly understood even the plain meaning of the words—how he could pray with such kavana (focus and intention), this is the response he gave:

I’m the most stupid, poorest member of this congregation. The shamas doesn’t even know my Hebrew name and my father’s name to call me up for an honor to the Torah. No one has time or patience to listen to me. I once even conducted an experiment. I stood in the marketplace early one Thursday morning and cornered Reb Shmuel, the banker asking, Do you have time to listen to me? He at least didn’t pass me by, but he hastily referred me to his secretary, who would never dream of giving me an appointment. I even accosted you, the great Rav Yisrael, with my request for time to listen to me, and although you smiled at me more warmly than the others, you had to rush off to lecture your students.

Apparently, no one important has time to listen to me, the lowest of congregants,” he continued, “not Reb Shmuel the banker, not Reb Dovid the judge and not Rav Yisrael of Salant. But I have news for you, great rabbi. When I take a  Siddur in my hand, the same Siddur taken by the banker, the judge and you the rabbi, and when I wrap myself in a tallis, the same tallis taken by the banker, the judge and the rabbi, and I stand in prayer before Gd…Gd has time to listen to me. And if I stand at my prayers longer than you, great rabbi of Salant, Gd has more time to listen to me than to listen to you! Now do you understand my fervor?  

Karov Hashem l’chol korav, “Gd is near to all who call upon Him,” says the Psalmist (Psalm 145).  Gd has time to listen to us all. If this is so, shouldn’t our prayers be spontaneous? Of course! But without a formalized prayer service, we might never get around to praying; and if we really try to bare our souls before the almighty during services together, who knows what POWER our collective prayers may have?

So let us join together in prayer now as we recite the Musaf—the service added to express the additional joy of Shabbat and holy days; and as we pray, let us find a moment to close our eyes and add our own special prayers.  I promise you, Gd has time to listen! Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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