Falling Into Prayer – Ekev 5779

At the end of Parashat Ekev, as Moses is exhorting the Israelites to remain faithful to God and the covenant, he makes a speech that may sound familiar:

וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְוֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־י-ְהוָֹ֤ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶם:

“Now it shall be, if you listen to my commandments which I command to you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all of your hearts and with all of your souls…”  (Deut. 11:13)

We know this passage as the second paragraph of the shema.  It is the one that we usually recite silently.  Notice that it is not the language of prayer at all.  It is Moses telling the Israelites to listen to and serve God.  If they do, they will be rewarded with abundance.

So how did it come to be included, not just in our prayers, but in the Shema, which serves as the central biblical passage of Jewish worship, the anchor of our service?

The answer is found in the Talmud (BT Ta’anit 2a).  The word avodah, meaning service, usually refers to the Temple rituals: Priests and Levites offering daily animal sacrifices. But here, Moses modifies the usual expression when he speaks to the Israelites: וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם — “to serve Him with all of your hearts.”  He is not talking about Temple rituals and animal sacrifices.  The Talmud cites this phrase and then asks: Eizo hi avodah she-hi ba-lev?  What kind of service is performed in the heart? Hevei omer: zo tefilah.  You must say that this is referring to tefilah — prayer.

Maimonides summarizes the matter succinctly, as usual.  He declares that “It is a positive commandment to pray every day, as it says: and you shall serve the Lord your God”  (Ex. 23:25).  He then cites this passage in the Talmud to explain that the service in question is the service of the heart; that is to say, tefilah.

The Torah is silent regarding the specific content of our prayers.  Nowhere does it say that we need to recite these particular words that appear in the prayer book.  Our siddur is the product of human beings striving to express themselves to God.

So what is tefilah?  What is prayer?

There are a few examples of prayers in the Torah.  As it so happens, one of them appears earlier in this morning’s Torah portion.

As Moses continues his recounting of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness over the previous forty years, he comes to the episode of the Golden Calf. As you may recall, the Israelites encountered God at Mount Sinai.  That is when they received the Ten Commandments.  We read them in last week’s parashah.  The first two commandments are:  I am the Lord your God.  You shall have no other gods before Me.  And, Don’t worship idols.

Forty days later, there is a bit of confusion about when—or whether—Moses is coming back.  So what do the Israelites do?  The obvious thing: build a statue of a golden calf and start worshipping it.

For those keeping track, they have just broken commandment numbers one and two.  Not a good start.  It sure didn’t take them long, did it?

Now, Moses has to intercede on the people’s behalf to prevent God from annihilating them.  He describes what happened in his own words:  וָאֶתְנַפַּל֩ לִפְנֵ֨י יְהֹוָ֜ה — “I threw myself down before the Lord like the first time; forty days and forty nights, bread I did not eat, and wine I did not drink, on account of all your sins that you committed…”  

The Torah likes to the play with language.  It is full of puns and patterns.  Hebrew is built on three letter root words.  Most verbs, nouns, and adjectives are constructed by manipulating those three letters in various ways.  In this case, the root for אֶתְנַפַּל is נפל, which in english means “fall.”  אֶתְנַפַּל makes it reflexive and forceful – I threw myself down.  

While נפל is a pretty common root word in the Bible, אֶתְנַפַּל is not.  Moses did not just fall to the ground.  He threw himself to the ground.  But there is more.  God was also furious with Aaron for his role in constructing the Golden Calf.  Moses again describes his courageous actions: וָאֶתְפַּלֵּ֛ל גַּם־בְּעַ֥ד אַהֲרֹ֖ן  — “Then I prayed on behalf of Aaron…”

Here, the word is אֶתְפַּלֵּל.  Sounds a lot like אֶתְנַפַּל.  But with one letter different.  Instead of נפל, the root is פלל, which in English means “intercede” or “pray.”

A few verses later, Moses recites the actual prayer that he had used to intercede for the Israelites and for Aaron.  Again, he pairs the words אֶתְנַפַּל and אֶתְפַּלֵּל.  “When I threw myself before the Lord… because the Lord was determined to destroy you, I interceded to the Lord and said…” and so on.

The Torah, very deliberately, juxtaposes these two nearly identical words to tell us that there is a connection between praying and throwing oneself on the ground.

It is clear, from this and other passages, that tefilah involves directing one’s words to God.   Looking at the various prayers that appear in the Bible, they tend to involve consistent themes.  The worshipper praises God, reflecting on God’s power and might.  Usually God is addressed as compassionate and forgiving.  Those are the qualities the worshipper is hoping to awaken.  After praise comes request.  The worshipper asks for something: a child, healing, mercy, victory.

In this passage, Moses asks God to have mercy on the Israelites and Aaron and forego the plan to destroy them.  But with the added element that he physically throws himself on the ground.

What does throwing oneself on the ground mean?  It is the most extreme form of bowing: full prostration, which nowadays we only perform during the High Holidays. It is a physical expression of humility: to lower oneself as close to the ground as possible.  It would certainly convey that message to the recipient of the prayer.

Think also about the effect that it would have on the worshipper.  How is the meaning of Moses’ words enhanced by him saying them with his face in the dirt, as opposed to if he had been standing tall?

To really pray, we have to first become aware that we are, in fact, powerless before our Creator.  The true act of service of the heart, real prayer, can only come from a position of losing oneself, of putting everything on the line, honestly and openly.  

Moses’ throwing himself on the ground is his way of praying with his whole self.  Literally, his entire body.  His physical posture contributes to his emotional state.  Ironic that, in order to most fully serve God with his heart, he has to also use his body.

The Thirteen Attributes of Parenting (On the occasion of my son’s Bar Mitzvah) – Ki Tissa 5779

It is a special privilege and joy to officiate at my son’s Bar Mitzvah.  Over the past year, as we have been preparing for today, Solly and I have learned a lot about each other.  I have learned about myself.  I hope you feel the same.

This experience has made me reflect a lot on being a parent.  Specifically, how to be a better one.

The Torah is filled with stories of parents and children.  The ultimate purpose of the covenant is for parents to pass down peoplehood to their children, including: religious practices, historical memories, cultural traditions, and language.  And yet, they so often have trouble understanding each other.  

The Torah also makes us face the Ultimate parent-child relationship:  that between God and human beings.  God, the parent, wants us to just behave and do what we are told, already.  From the very first humans, Adam and Eve, we can’t seem to quite live up to those expectations.  That is what you spoke about, Solly.

God places demands on us, but we also place demands on God.  Our demand, our plea, is for God to accept us for who we are, rather than for who God wants us to be.  

As Parashat Ki Tissa begins, Moses has been up on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights.  He has left the people at the base of the mountain under the care of his brother Aaron.  Thinking he is gone, some of the Israelites build and worship a golden calf.  God wants to wipe out the people in response to their lack of faith and start over with Moses.  Moses successfully convinces God to forgive the Israelites.  On a role, Moses goes for it.  “Hareini na et k’vodekha,” he says to God.  “Please show me your glory.”

What is he asking for?  Moses wants to know more about this unseen Being whom he represents.  He wants to understand something about the essence of Divine nature.

“Nobody can see My face and live,” says God.  “But I’ll tell you what.  Stand in the cleft of the rock.  I’ll cover you with My hand.  Then, I’ll pass all of my goodness before You.  After I have passed, I’ll remove My hand and you can see My back.”

Face, hands, back.  God sounds a lot like a person.  

Rabbi Yochanan, in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b), finds it hard to believe that God could be described this way.  “Were it not written, it could not have been said.”  But it was written, so Rabbi Yochanan imagines the scene further.  The Holy One is wrapped up in a tallit like a shaliach tzibbur, a prayer leader.  God then recites the Thirteen Attributes.  They might sound familiar:

Adonai, Adonai – The Lord, the Lord.

Eil rachum v’chanun – God of mercy and compassion

Erekh apayim v’rav chesed ve’emet – Patient, full of kindness and faithfulness

Notseir chesed la’alafim – Extending love for a thousand generations

Nosei avon vafesha, v’chata’ah – Forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin

v’nakeh – and pardoning

Rabbi Yochanan continues imagining the scene:  “Whenever the Jewish people sin,” God tells Moses, “let them recite this prayer.  I will forgive them immediately.”

These qualities are all about kindness and forgiveness.  Of course the Rabbis would gravitate to these words.  They establish the recitation of these Thirteen Attributes of God on the High Holidays, when we come together to pray for forgiveness.  It was so popular that seventeenth century mystics added added it to Passover, Shavuot, and Succot, but not Shabbat.

The only problem is, the Rabbis have cut off the quote in mid-sentence, completely distorting its meaning from its original context.  Here is its continuation.  You may recall that the last word is v’nakeh – “and pardoning.”  But the following words are:

lo y’nakeh – “He does not pardon”

poked avon avot al-banim v’al b’nei vanim al-shileshim v’al ribe’im – but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.

This changes things.  While God may be kind, compassionate, and forgiving, God also holds us accountable for our actions across generations.  This is a covenantal text.  It makes sense here, as Moses has just successfully argued God down from wiping out all of Israel.  Instead, only those who are guilty will be punished, while the rest of the nation is spared.  God sticks to the covenant.  There is both compassion and justice.  Carrot and stick.

But the Rabbis don’t feel like bringing up the stick.  They cherry pick only those attributes that they want.  What gives them the right?

Well, they are not the first.  The Bible itself misquotes the attributes—frequently.  The first Temple Prophet Joel, offering comfort to the people, reassures them that God will accept them if they return, because God “is compassionate and merciful, patient and full of kindness…”  (Joel 2:13)  No punishment mentioned.

The anti-Prophet Jonah, who disobeys God’s instructions to prophesize to the sinners of Nineveh, explains his reasoning.  “This is exactly what I said would happen.  I ran away because ‘I know that you are a God who is compassionate and merciful, patient and full of kindness…’  (Jonah 4:2)”  Notice that Jonah cites the exact same Divine attributes as Joel.  Only, he is angry that God is not behaving more vengefully.  He wants the Ninevites to be punished.

Several other biblical texts treat the attributes similarly.  It is not sloppy editing.  These numerous texts simply do not want to invoke a judgmental God.  They want a God who will accept them with their imperfections.  They know that they have screwed up and probably do not deserve it, but they want forgiveness anyway.

When the Rabbis incorporate only the first thirteen attributes into our worship, leaving off the punishment, they are in good company.  Rabbi Yochanan even goes so far as to claim that God is the One who first came up with the idea of uprooting the text from its context.

The Thirteen Attributes are among the most memorable prayers in the liturgy.  Perhaps it is due to the music, or the threefold repetition in front of the open ark.  Behind all of the aesthetics of how we recite it is the message that it conveys:  we want our God to give us a second chance.  Just like we want our parents to give us a second chance, and sometimes a third, and a fourth.

Human beings have a need to be seen.  When I visit the Nursery School students, they rush over and say “Look at me.  Look at me.”  Although most of us stop being so blatant about it as we mature, the essential loneliness of “Look at me,” persists.  We all want to be seen.  Most of all, I think, by our parents.  As we mature, though, we become aware of our faults and struggles.  That knowledge can complicate our desire for acknowledgment.  What if they see my imperfections and reject me?

When we turn to God, we only mention the compassionate and forgiving qualities because we fear that God might not accept us with our imperfections.

I think children want the same thing from their parents.  A child becomes Bar and Bat Mitzvah precisely at the time when the centrifugal and centripetal forces are most intense.  They want to create distance—to differentiate from us.  But it is also a time of great vulnerability, when the need for assurance and acceptance is strong.  These forces that attract and repel us from each other can be exasperating, to both sides.

I am going to read the 13 Attributes again.  Only this time, don’t think about them as Divine qualities.  Think about them as the qualities that children want from their parents, especially when they are 13.

The Lord, the Lord, God of mercy and compassion, patient, full of kindness and faithfulness, extending love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and pardoning.

Solly, I don’t get it right all the time, but that is what I strive for.

One of the fun parts of being a father is watching how your kids think through problems to find solutions.

You are a person with strong opinions and convictions.  I have tried to convey that answers in the real world are typically not as straightforward as good and bad, right and wrong.

That was the problem with the first set of Tablets of the Covenant, as you explained to us earlier.  The Israelites needed a lawgiver like Moses who understood that it is possible for two people with different opinions to both have a point.  And who could look beyond simple right and wrong answers to guide imperfect people towards the right path.

That kind of patience is an important quality to cultivate.  It applies to our relationships with friends and classmates, teachers, parents and siblings, and religion.

As much as I may want to dictate to you the commitments that you are going to embrace in your life, I know that it would not be appropriate, or even possible, to do so.

Solly, as you grow into adulthood, I hope that you learn to recognize the nuances in life.  The Torah is not central to Judaism because it is true or false.  It is central because generations of Jews, going back thousands of years, have committed their lives to studying it and living by it.  By embracing that tradition, you pursue a life of meaning side by side with your ancestors.

As your father, I pray that you will find your path in Jewish life through learning, commitment to Jewish practice, and involvement in Jewish community.

Mummy and I have tried to surround you with meaningful experiences in our home and with our community.  Keep at it.

Mazel Tov.