Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5)
Finding the Spark in a Life of Dark
And if a person brings a meal offering to the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour. He shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it. (2:1)
Rabbi Noah Weinberg used to ask students, in his Judaism 101 classes, if they believed in G-d. After doing that for a while he noticed that many students were afraid to raise their hand because others might consider them intellectually inferior. He tweaked the question a bit and from then on, most students answered in the affirmative. His new question was, “how many of you have prayed at some point in life?” He continued, “how many of you felt that your prayer had been answered?” I have found many people who are unsure about their belief in G-d but pray to Him from time to time. Some prayers are more heartfelt than others but many people, regardless of whether they are affiliated to a religious body or group who holds a theology, find themselves praying at some time or another.
In the 15th century, Spain’s minister of finance was one of the most illustrious rabbis of the Middle Ages, Don Yitzhchak Abarbanel. He made a pithy comment on prayer that has since become famous: “Tefilla (prayer) without kavana (focused thoughts; intentions) is like a body without a neshama (soul).” This seems to be a harsh criticism of people who go through the external action of prayer but do not think about what they are saying. However, the Vilna Gaon has an original understanding of the statement that provides solace for those who have a challenge concentrating when they pray.
He begins with an introduction. The Talmud (Brachos 26b) says that our two daily prayers correspond to the two daily offerings in the Temple. The Talmud (Menachos 110a) also notes that when talking about the three basic types of offerings-large animals, birds, flour-the same expression is used to describe the result of the offering; a “pleasant smell” (rayach n’cholah) comes in its wake. This is obviously not a reference to a pleasing aroma; the “pleasant smell” is a spiritual concept that represents the Almighty being pleased with the person’s offering. A “pleasant smell” is the outcome of a costly offering (large animal) as well as an inexpensive offering. If one has modest means and cannot afford to buy an animal for an offering, it doesn’t make it any less. The main thing is the person’s intentions; the willingness to give of one’s self.
The same applies to Abarbanel’s statement that prayer without intention is like a body without a soul. Animal and bird offerings are brought from live creatures who have a soul. Although they don’t have the ability to make moral decisions, they have the power to react, flee, eat, and do other things to keep them alive. They have a soul, albeit and animal soul. However, flour is inanimate; it cannot react or do anything to sustain itself. Flour has no soul. But when bringing sacrifices, it doesn’t matter whether the offering has life potential or not; the main thing is that the person brought something.
So, too, with prayer. A person should not be discouraged and think, why pray; I find it hard to concentrate and connect. That should not be a reason to desist, rather the person should just do it. What then is the benefit of prayer?
It reminds us-NOT G-D-of the situation we are in. The act of prayer is not about attracting God’s attention (He already knows), it is a vehicle to focus our attention on the fact that we are not G-d. We cannot heal someone with a terminal cancer, we cannot cure someone with mental illness, we cannot give someone we love the confidence (s)he is lacking. The Serenity Prayer has no Jewish source but provides comfort and meaning for many people.
G-d, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
People bring so much misery on themselves and others when they try to change the unchangeable-especially other people.Others sink into depression by wrongly thinking they don’t have the strength or ability to change or lead a happy and emotionally stable life. No matter where one finds himself or herself in life, prayer is a wonderful tool to help get them to out of themselves for a moment; it helps me to realize that there is something bigger than me.
If one looks in a traditional Siddur (prayer book), (s)he will notice that the first blessing of the morning blessings is a blessing thanking G-d for giving the rooster the ability to differentiate between night and day. Why is this blessing said every day; why is it said first?
The Hebrew word for rooster used in this blessing is “Sechvi,” a word with two meanings; it not only means rooster but also heart, which refers to a human’s capacity to differentiate between night and day. Still, why does a person need deep intuition to tell between dark and light?
Some see this as an allusion to a larger spiritual concept. The rooster begins to crow while it is still dark; it senses that day is about to begin. The rooster senses the imminent light from within the darkness, a unique endowment granted to this creature. This is also an analogy to the endowment of human wisdom. Every day has periods of light, representing clarity, peace of mind, success. However, there are also times of darkness; times of confusion, challenges, and difficulties. It takes wisdom, patience, and maturity-in addition to trust in G-d-to avoid the black forest of darkness. We all have the ability to find light-it is a gift G-d has given to every human being and it is worthy of our thanks to the One who bestowed that gift.
Prayer is like an offering because when we pray, we offer ourselves. We demonstrate that we can’t do it all and that we are not G-d. We can’t fix every person or institution that frustrates us but we can pray for guidance and for the ability to see daylight even though we seem to be living in an endless night.
(Sources: Abarbanel Commentary to Pirkei Avos 3:13; Peninim m’Shulchan HaGra p. 248)