Shabbat Shalom! This week’s parshah references God’s interactions with Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher). The hakodesh baruchu (the holy one blessed be He) reminds Moshe of the brit promised to our avot (the covenant promised to our forefathers) and instructs Moshe and his brother Aaron to lead the Israelites to freedom. Parshah Vaera ends with the makot of barad (the plague of hail) and we are informed that Moshe prayed that this seventh plague would soften Pharaoh’s heart and that he would agree to let the Israelites go. I generally focus these weekly divrei torah on the parshat hashavua (the weekly Torah portion), this week will be a departure from that norm to discuss prayer. Prayer is not only a connection to Hashem, it is also a tangible bond to our fellow Jews and all of humanity.
The purpose of prayer is not to please Hashem. Hashem does not need our praise or the praise of communities. Prayer assists in personal growth and self-actualization. It keeps us focused on being the best individuals and communities we can be. Personally, immediately prior to praying I spend a few minutes stretching and loosing up my body. I put on my talit and wrap myself in the presence of Hashem. I then put on my tefillin. As I wrap my arm seven times and say the prayers associated with it and then put on the head tefillin with the prayer and complete the wrapping of my hand tefillin I feel a physical connection to my folk and my faith. Upon opening my siddur and looking at the Hebrew language I feel a connection. Hebrew is a holy language and a living modern language. I consciously put my heels together to imitate an angelic being and start to sway slowly back and forth and have a euphoric feeling and an oneness with Hashem. I close my eyes and focus on the words I am saying.
Prayer is not a destination; it is a journey that can be meaningful both alone and when experienced together. Prayer incorporates keva and kavannah, where keva is structure and has a historical connection. There is regularity in it and it is a repetitive indoctrination and sets limits. It is authoritative, keva dictates how we do things and when we do things. Keva provides an overall structure and outline to unite communities. Though it is often kavannah that keeps us connected. Kavannah is a term I define as a transcendental emotional experience, where those engaged in prayer are physically and emotionally present. Prayer is a link to life; this phrase means that to have a meaningful life that is filled with mitzvot, prayer is a major component to achieving Jewish fulfillment.
Prayer is not just what you say or how you move, it is the actions that you engage in before and after. Ideally, before a prayer service beings, everyone should be welcomed by both a physical embrace of some kind and a verbal welcoming. The prayer leader announces the beginning of prayer and encourages the community to elevate this time by putting aside individual distractions in order to come together and fulfill a communal spiritual and religious experience. Musical instruments are used depending on the nature of the service and the leader’s personal preferences. A niggun can also be incorporated to set the tone for the service. As the goal of the prayer service includes praising Hashem, the service would be conducted in Hebrew, a bit of Yiddish, and the vernacular (in our case here in the USA English). Furthermore, there will not be one single source (siddur/text) used for the service, participants would be encouraged to bring the prayer book that they associate with and find meaning in, the only requirement is that it contains the prayers that the community will be chanting. Additionally, in an ideal setting, two or three opportunities would be set aside throughout the service so that participants could share their feelings, passions, etc. if they so choose to.
Returning to this week’s parshah, we know that we do not recall only seven plagues. Moshe’s prayers did not result in Pharaoh realizing the error of his ways and freeing the Israelites. We have discussed many aspects of prayer, but what happens when our prayers go unanswered? Did Moshe stop praying because on this occasion his prayers did not result in what he prayed for? The answer is that prayers impact our lives. It is not about what prayers achieve externally or whether the future is influenced by our prayer because WE are influenced by our prayer. Prayer provides meaning and comfort and allows us to feel productive and useful. As a chaplain and future rabbi prayer is powerful and it helps cement relationships and gives opportunities for greater connection.