Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 16 November 2019 / 18 Heshvan 5780

Parshat Vayera

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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The first instance of the word for prayer appears in this week’s Torah portion, when G-d appears to Avimelech and warns him to return Sarah to Avraham untouched, and if he does so, Avraham will pray, yitpallel, for him.

The root of this Hebrew word is pallel, which means to judge. The form of the word is reflexive and literally means “to judge oneself.” But judging oneself and praying hardly seem to have any similarity to each other! Rav Hirsch offers an explanation that challenges the way most people think about prayer.

The root pallel is related to the root ballel, which means to admix — the introduction of a foreign element into a substance to create a new substance. According to the Jewish conception, this is the task of the judge. Ideally he introduces justice, the Divine truth of things, into the disputed matter to create a unity where lies, discord and conflict resided.

When one prays — mitpallel — he introduces G-d’s truth into his being. The common conception of prayer is an outpouring from within — an expression of what the heart already feels. There is surely a place for this in Judaism, but it is expressed in other, less commonly used, terms for ‘prayer’ — techinah (supplication), siach (speech). Tefillah, however, means infusing the heart with truths that come from outside oneself.

Tefillah is referred to as “the work that is in the heart” (and not “the work that comes from the heart”). It is the work of refining one’s inner self, to elevate one’s mind and heart to recognition of truth and desire for serving G-d.

This explanation sheds a bright new light on institutionalized prayer. If prayer were meant as an outpouring of our emotions, it would make no sense to have fixed times and fixed texts for our prayers. How could we assume that all members of the community would be imbued with the same thoughts and emotions at predetermined times — three times a day, no less? Our deep inner world which already exists could not find expression in the set phrases formulated by others. Those deep inner experiences find their way of self-expression — in supplication (techinah) or speaking to G-d (sichah), and sometimes more profoundly in tears or in the quiet and protective silence of the soul.

Instead, tefillah is in inpouring to the heart. The purpose of our fixed prayers is to awaken the heart and to revive within it those timeless values that still require reinforcement and special care. One can truly say that the less we feel in the mood for prayer, the more we need it. The soul’s connection to G-d is not the basis of prayer, but its goal.

  • Source: Commentary, Genesis 20:7

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