|Prayer Skills-Vayikra-The Voice of Torah-Prayer as Dynamic Offerings|
The Book of Vayikra introduces us to the legacy of Korbanot – bonding offerings that elevate the sacrificial instinct to an expression of yearning for ultimate connection.
In today’s pitiable absence of the entire Temple protocol, our Sages tell us we have a substitute:
Our lips (in prayer) will serve in place of our bullocks. [Hosheia 14:3]
And so the initiation of Sefer Vayikra gives us an opportunity to explore certain aspects of prayer, particularly those aspects into which we need to gain insight before we can appreciate the ability prayer has to transform us in a way no other connective device can.
All those who are serious about prayer have to ask themselves at some point, why is prayer a constant repetition of the same exact words, day after day, multiple times a day?
I once heard about a group of students at Ohr Somayach who approached their spiritual advisor and asked why they had to say the same pre-scripted words at every prayer service. They petitioned to be able to do their prayers freestyle, and the rebbe allowed them to try it for thirty days. After four days, they broke down, declared it impossible to do, and went back to the canonized prayer service. It almost seems as if regular scripted prayer is a cop-out necessary because our true ability to communicate with God is compromised, and yet it is the system our Sages designed. How are we to understand the value of set, unchanging daily prayers?
Picture an unlearned Jew participating in a biblical tour of the Jordan River valley. He is shown sites encompassing vast stretches of mountains and deserts. He is impressed with what he sees, but his reactions are those of a nature enthusiast, as the scenes have no meaning to him other than the impressiveness of their rugged natural beauty. Sometime after the tour, he enrolls in an intensive study program that enlightens him about the history, narrative, and spiritual significance of the sites he had witnessed on the tour. He goes once again on the same tour. This time, he feels overwhelmed as he contemplates the fact that he is standing where Joshua crossed the Jordan, overlooking the plains that held hundreds of thousands of Israelites returning to reclaim their ancestral land, and witnessing the mountain paths on which Jews would walk in pilgrimage to Shiloh, Nov, and Givon to offer sacrifices on the Shalosh Regalim.
Now, imagine if instead of revisiting the same sites he first visited uncomprehendingly, he takes a different tour the second time around. He is very excited on this tour too, but what is the nature of his excitement? Is it his growing biblical awareness or is it just more ruggedness and beauty like the kind that impressed him the first time. He has no clear way to know. It is only by repeating the same tour and observing the contrast between his initial reactions of purely topographical interest and the excitement he feels FOR THE SAME SITES after immersing himself in Biblical knowledge that he can effectively measure how much spiritual growth he has experienced between the two tours.
Prayer works the same way. To pray, in Hebrew, is l’hitpallel, a reflexive infinitive that suggests an action I am conducting upon myself. Indeed, what I am doing when I pray is gauging my inner responses as contrasted with previous personal experiences reciting the same prayers before. If I have a stirring reaction to the prayerful words I utter, it might be because of their linguistic or poetic beauty. If the next time I pray, I say something different, and I feel a strong reaction again, it may again be because of the liturgical power of the text.
But what if I prayed Refa’enu – God, Heal us – in the morning without fully appreciating what it means to experience God in a healing capacity, and then later on that day I have a medical miracle that alerts me to how much it truly means to say that God heals us? It is when I go back and repeat the same Refa’enu at Mincha full of new feelings and new awareness that I know I have experienced genuine growth in my comprehension of the Almighty, as reflected in the intensified reality of my dialogue with Him.
The protocol of daily prayer, when done with the above insight, is far from a dry ritual recitation of pre-packaged platitudes. It is a dynamic tool for recognizing, measuring, and experiencing my advancing cognizance of the Creator in a most intimate and personal way, matched by a growing recognition of His unending love for me as expressed in the kindnesses outlined and confirmed in our regular prayer text, composed and designed so wisely by our knowing and comprehending Sages.