Friday, November 18, 2011

Hello, To Whom am I Praying?

One of my favorite parts of camp is the Learner’s Minyan every Shabbat morning. In addition to the special community that we build, it also affords us a zman kavua (set time) to really struggle with fundamental questions about prayer. This summer, each week we discussed a different question regarding our relationship with prayer. We dealt with issues of changing liturgy, the need (or lack thereof) to understand the words, codified vs. spontaneous prayer, and many other difficult paradigms. This week, while reading through the parsha, I was reminded of one of my favorite discussions.

One week, I posed the following questions: when we request something from Hashem, what do our expectation? Do we expect an answer? Do we supposed that He will intercede? Do we even believe He listens (or cares)? Or maybe, we just need to vent a little, and "prayer" is a great outlet. Are we actually just speaking to ourselves? Is prayer more for me, or more for G-d?

In this weeks parsha, Parshat Chayei Sarah, we see two formulations of prayer. In the famous story of Eliezer returning to Abraham’s homeland to find a wife for Isaac, Eliezer describes his preparation for this search with the words “לדבר אל ליבי” speaking to his heart. While contextually it seems to be describing him praying, it is a very strange phrasing. When we see the famous scene of Hannah praying, for example, the TaNaKh uses the word תתפלל, which means to pray. Here it seems as though Eliezer is merely talking to himself; the words, however, are directed at G-d.

This model of prayer seems to be one in which prayer is necessitated by our selves; though prayer does not necessarily affect G-d, it affects us, and that is the ikar (essence). Rabbi Julius Greenstone writes “Prayer does not affect G-d, but ourselves […] G-d needs none of our praises and supplications, but we feel impelled to pour out our hearts to Him and by doing this we come to be in greater harmony with our spiritual selves and with G-d.” Greenstone, importantly, notes that even this model of prayer strengthens our relationship with the Almighty, even though the prayer is not completely selfless.

Later in the Parsha, however, we have a new archetype for prayer. It says that Isaac went out to the field לשוח. While the meaning of the word is unclear, both Rashi and the Gmarah understand it to be prayer. Isaac seems to be in conversation with G-d; a conversation in which he expects a response. This notion, while drastically different from the prayer of Eliezer, fits nicely with our daily plea for G-d to hear our voices and accept favorably our prayers. If we understand prayer in this manner, prayer is for G-d and will potentially even warrant a response.

Somehow I believe that both of these seemingly contradictory models of prayer exist simultaneously. While I initially thought to suggest that every time that we pray with a new kavanah, we fall into a different category, I’m not sure I believe that. I think that each prayer, in itself, is both for us and for G-d. It is completely selfish, and completely selfless. It is both heavenly and worldly. It is local and universal.

Truth be told, I’m not yet convinced that I fully appreciate how this paradigm works. Does prayer exist in this way, or is prayer something different all together. I’d love to hear thoughts! Shabbat shalom!

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