Parshat Chayei Sarah: Types of Tefilla

There is a seeming paradox within Jewish prayer. If the times we pray and the words we say are fixed by halakha, how can tefilla also be flexible, individualized and filled with kavanah (intention)?! Parshat Chayei Sarah provides some insight into this question.

The Talmud, drawing on the parsha, contains a debate about the origin of the three daily prayers in Talmud Berachot. One opinion is that tefilla is modeled after the Avot: Avraham instituted shacharit, Yitzchak – mincha, and Yacov – ma’ariv. Alternatively, tefilla is based on the daily “tamid” offerings from the Beit Hamikdash. What is the difference? Tefilla which parallels the daily offerings is characterized by constancy and consistency, infusing holiness into our day at prescribed times. Tefilla modeled after the Avot conveys diversity and spontaneity in prayer. Each of the forefathers is associated with a different time of day/night for tefilla and with a distinct word for prayer in the Torah. Avraham’s prayer is called “standing.” Yitzchak’s tefilla is called “lasuach” (conversing?) and Yacov “encounters.” By drawing on both these sources of tefilla – tamid offerings and avot – the Talmud encourages us to engage with tefilla both from obligated regularity and from voluntary inspiration. 

The source of Yitzchak’s mincha prayer, found in parshat Chayei Sarah, reinforces this duality in tefilla. The verse states, “And Isaac went out “lasuaḥ in the field toward evening.” Some commentaries understand the word “lasuaḥ” as meaning “to converse,” as in “sicha” (conversation). Others see a connection between “lasuaḥ” and “sichim,” (plants and trees). Hence, Rav Kook, in Olat Reiyah, explains that tefilla is related to both: It is an opportunity for an individual to converse with God; and, tefilla enables a soul to blossom with renewed energy, so that a person can emerge from praying and branch out like a tree in the world.  

Tefilla as “sicha” establishes a framework for continuing to engage in regular conversation with God, while also leaving space to renew ourselves and our relationship with tefilla. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson 

Parshat Lech Lecha: Morning Mindfulness

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I…?” – Pirkei Avot 1:14

Avraham is the paradigm of chesed and compassion, of doing for others. For this reason, it is surprising to read Rashi’s commentary on the opening words of parshat Lech Lecha. Rashi, noting the “kefel lashon,” double language, interprets the words “lech lecha” as: Go for YOURSELF. Going on this journey to an unspecified destination was for Avraham’s own benefit: “להנאתך ולטובתך.” By going forth and having faith in Hashem, Avraham will be rewarded with becoming a father, not only of his own children, but also of a great nation. The Zohar, similarly interprets “lech lecha” as “go unto yourself…to know and to fix yourself.” Before Avraham could inspire others he needed to journey inward and strengthen himself. 

A similar idea is expressed by two great thinkers on mindfulness as we awaken. Rav Kook, in Olat Reiyah, comments on the “Modeh ani” prayer: When we wake up and are awestruck by the vastness of the universe, we might feel small and insignificant. By emphasizing the I (ani), and drawing on our inner strength and gratitude to God, “the individual self remains undaunted, the ‘I’ finds divine confirmation and validation.” Rebbe Nachman of Breslav shares a similar thought in his commentary on the opening words of the Shulchan Aruch – that a person should awaken with zest like a lion. Rebbe Nachman, sensitive to human nature, understood that sometimes people wake up and feel unhappy with themselves, distant from God and unmotivated. Hence, he suggests finding a “nekuda tova,” a good point to focus and build on within oneself. 

This is a particularly relevant message for our time, as increasing numbers of people are feeling unhappy and unmotivated. “Modeh ani” provides an opportunity each morning to go to/for oneself and discover one’s personal uniqueness and potential. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson