Prayer in the Teachings of Rav Soloveitchik zt"l

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Summarized by Aviad Hacohen



The gemara (Shabbat 10a) teaches:


Rava observed Rav Hamnuna drawing out his prayer.  He  said, 'You are putting aside eternal life and involving  yourself with momentary life!'

[Rashi explains: 'Eternal life' refers to Torah, whereas  prayer focuses on the needs of our ephemeral physical  life, such as healing, peace, food.]

And he [Rav Hamnuna] explained, 'Prayer has its time, and  Torah study has its time.'


             By virtue of his roots and influences, "the Rav" (as Rav Soloveitchik was known to his students) presumably belonged to the school of Rava.  Obviously, as regards the mitzvot of tefilla (prayer) on the minimal halakhic level, the position of Rav Hamnuna - "Prayer has its time, and Torah study has its time" - was recognized in both Volozhin and Brisk.  Halakha follows Rabbi Yochanan's opinion (Shabbat 11a) that Torah scholars' absolute exemption from prayer is limited to those, like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose "Torah is their profession," i.e., those who devote all their time exclusively to Torah study.  Since they are not engaged in matters of this world, they are exempt from prayer.  Other than these rare exceptions, the obligation is binding and is taken for granted in the teachings of the Rav.


             At the same time, in the tradition of Volozhin and Brisk the value and status of prayer - relative both to other areas of Divine service (especially in comparison to Torah study) and to the special status and importance of prayer in the popular view - were quite limited.


             Volozhin and Brisk were guided by the central awareness that, in the words of the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 6:8), "the mitzva of Torah study is greater than that of tefilla."  In truth, the issue was never evaluated in these terms.  Tefilla and Torah study were never placed on two arms of a scale with a view to comparing their respective weight.  The attraction to Torah study and commitment to it were understood first and foremost on the valuational and existential levels.  The obligation of conscientious study day and night, uninterrupted and unwavering, was emphasized over and over.


             Few were those who would have been courageous enough to emulate the pious ones of old, of whom it is told (Berakhot 32b) that they would spend nine hours each day engaged in prayer, and nevertheless "because they were pious their Torah study was preserved and their labor was blessed."  Not many believed that they could rely on this promise.  In any event, I believe that in Volozhin and Brisk they neither desired nor aspired to this.  The prevailing motto was, "'If you walk in my statutes' - i.e., if you labor in My Torah."  The dominant emphasis was placed on the acquisition of Torah through investing supreme effort in its study.


             There can be no doubt that this tradition regarding the relationship between Torah and tefilla left an indelible imprint on the Rav at the outset of his career, and had a determining influence on his way of life and also, to some extent, on his philosophy.


             For a long time, at least until the end of the 1950's, the Rav would not hesitate to pray alone in order to make more time available for learning.  He found support for this decision in Rav Chaim's understanding of the Rambam's approach to the laws of communal prayer.  He also offered an intriguing explanation of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's opinion (Megilla 27a) that "a synagogue may be converted into a beit midrash (study hall)" (but not vice versa, because the sanctity of a study hall is greater than that of a synagogue).  According to the Rav, the sanctity and unique nature of a beit midrash are based not on our preference for the intellectual and rational aspect of our faith, but rather on the greater importance of study than tefilla on the existential plane.  Nevertheless, it is clear that prayer held a central place in the Rav's spiritual world.


             At the start of his career as a Torah luminary, the Rav paid special attention to the issue of prayer - both between the walls of his own beit midrash as well as from various public podiums.  When his father, Rav Moshe zt"l, would invite him to deliver a guest lecture at the yeshiva in New York, the Rav regularly chose to deal with issues in Tractate Berakhot.  There is clearly no need to elaborate on the place which this held in the Rav's teachings throughout his life.  A brief perusal of his annual "Yahrzeit lectures" (collected in the two volumes of "Shiurim LeZekher Abba Mari Z"L") bears adequate witness to this.


             Alongside Torah study, tefilla represented a central and potent ingredient in the Rav's personality and his service of God.  Those closest to him remember with admiration not only his brilliant lectures but also the broken heart filled with longing which characterized his stance as a servant of God standing before his Master during the Ne'ila prayer on Yom Kippur, and the ecstasy and power which burst forth during his recitation of "Nishmat Kol Chai" at the Seder table.  Anyone seeking to understand the Rav's teachings, his philosophy and his essence must therefore turn his attention to his treatment of tefilla both as a subject of study and as a state of being.


             I shall deal with some of the principal points in this regard.  It should obviously be kept in mind, though, that all his teachings - transmitted in great detail both orally and in writing, in the framework of Torah study and its practical application in life, all spanning many decades - cannot possibly be crammed into a single lecture.




             The word "tefilla" is used in two different senses.  One is a wider concept, referring to the contents of the siddur, the prayers which we recite in synagogue.  The content of "tefilla" in this context includes the portions read from the Torah, birkat kohanim (the priestly blessing), pesukei de-zimra (songs of praise), hallel, etc.


             In its narrower sense, the word "tefilla" is used to refer specifically to the Shemoneh Esrei (the "Eighteen Blessings;" also called the "Amida," or "standing prayer").  This differentiation appears in the Rambam, who distinguishes in his Mishneh Torah between the "Laws of Berakhot (blessings)," the "Laws of Reciting the Shema," and the "Laws of Tefilla."  The Rav dealt at length with both areas, but we shall concentrate here on his treatment of tefilla as it refers to the Shemoneh Esrei.


             Through the Rav's teachings, we may examine tefilla on three levels:

             The first is that of tefilla itself, alone.

             The second is an examination of tefilla as typifying a category of mitzvot.

             The third level is the perspective which sees tefilla as rooted and integrated in the totality of the Rav's philosophical thought.




             With regard to the first level, we may highlight several central elements which the Rav focused on:


             1. The primary emphasis on "bakasha" (petition, request).  The Shemoneh Esrei, as we know, is structured such that there is praise (shevach) at the beginning, thanksgiving (hoda'a) at the end, and requests in between.  The Rav laid particular emphasis on the element of bakasha as characterizing tefilla.  This in itself is not surprising, and perhaps not even innovative: the gemara itself uses the words "rachamei" and "tachanunim" (supplications) as synonyms for tefilla.  According to the description which appears in the gemara (Berakhot 34a), "[During] the first [set of blessings in the Shemoneh Esrei,] one is compared to a servant who presents praise before his master; [during] the middle [blessings] he is compared to a servant who requests a favor from his master; and [in reciting] the last [blessings] he is likened to a servant who has received a favor from his master, and now takes his leave and departs."  Here, too, the central element of the tefilla is perceived as residing in the dimension of request.


             The Rav did not stop at emphasizing this fact, reflected as it is in the content of the tefilla itself.  (The Sifri also quotes a number of verses from Tanakh which support this tripartite structure of prayer.)  He also examined the question of the legitimacy of this view, and the extent to which it is necessary.  This examination was carried out keeping other views in mind: mystical perspectives which highlight at length the dimension of praise, and idealistic-philosophical perspectives which regard the status of "petition" with misgivings, and perceive it as an unacceptable egocentric act: instead of a person being full of praise to God, he is merely concerned with his own personal cares.


             The Rav completely rejected these views, insisting instead, over and over, that prayer is indeed - and must be - "supplication and request."  I shall quote a few lines from his article, "Ra'ayonot al haTefilla" (Ideas on Prayer):


"As has been explained, tefilla also requires praise and  thanks.  Nevertheless, the vigor and power of tefilla are  embedded in the bakasha.  Halakha is interested in the  psychosomatic human being - in his actual body.  It is  not pleased by an ecstatic separation of the soul from  the body during prayer." [Printed in Ish HaHalakha -  Galui VeNistar, p. 265]


This tone is echoed in several places and in various contexts.


             2. Moreover, the Rav emphasized the view of tefilla as standing before the King.  He referred not only to the outpouring of one's request, but also to the consciousness of the encounter itself.  This aspect is highlighted especially in the Shemoneh Esrei, as opposed to other prayers in which we recite words before God against a different background.  The Rambam gives expression to this idea while addressing the issue of the "preparation of the body" for prayer (Hilkhot Tefilla 5:4):


"And his heart should be turned upwards, AS THOUGH HE WERE STANDING IN HEAVEN."


            Similarly, the Ramban in this regard explicitly differentiates between the Shemoneh Esrei and the recitation of the Shema (Chiddushei HaRamban, Berakhot 22b s.v. Aval).  The gemara teaches (Eruvin 64a, and see Berakhot 31a) that "a drunk person is forbidden to pray," to the extent that if he does so, his prayer is considered an abomination.  The Ramban maintains, however, that a person who is inebriated is permitted to recite the Shema, and may even be obligated to do so:


"Because in 'tefilla' [i.e. the Amida,] he requires  excessive concentration, FOR HE IS LIKE ONE WHO STANDS  BEFORE A KING, and we know from other sources that the  regulations concerning 'kavana' (concentration) are more  strict with regard to 'tefilla' than with regard to the  recitation of the Shema..."


            The Ramban connects this to the issue of kavana.  The Rav, however, saw the halakhic conclusion as more than simply a result arising from the requirement of "excessive concentration" which would prevent someone who was drunk from praying properly.  He perceived tefilla as an encounter characterized principally by the "standing before the King," presenting oneself before God, a direct appeal to Him expressed in the language of the siddur in the second person singular.  This standing before the King gives rise to both obligations: the first - deep concentration, and the second - sobriety, which a drunk cannot fulfill.


            The Rav would frequently quote Rashi's comment (Berakhot 25a s.v. Aval le-tefilla) on the gemara which states that when it comes to the Shema, it is sufficient for a person to cover only his private parts and leave most of his body exposed, whereas for tefilla he must "cover his heart."  Rashi explains:


"'But for tefilla' - he has to present himself as  standing before the King, and to stand in fear.  But the  recitation of the Shema is not [considered] speaking  before the King."


            The Rav saw in this idea of encounter and dialogue (with consideration for the unique nature of both "the one who stands" praying and "the One before Whom he stands") the central dimension of tefilla.


            3. At the same time, the Rav would frequently speak of an additional dimension of tefilla - one on which he focused extensively in his early years.  As surprising as this may sound, the Rav used to address much attention to the problematic nature of tefilla: is it actually possible and feasible, permissible and appropriate, to pray?


            This subject was familiar to Chazal, and to the Rishonim (medieval sages) who followed them, especially as regards the category of "praise."  The gemara (Berakhot 33a) describes a certain 'shaliach tzibbur' (prayer leader) who, during his repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei, reached the words "ha-gadol ha-gibor ve-hanora" ("the God who is great, mighty and awesome") and then continued with a long list of additional praises: "ha-adir ve-haizuz ve-hayir'ui, he-chazak ve-ha'amitz, ha-vadai ve-hanikhbad."  When he finished his Shemoneh Esrei, Rabbi Chanina scorned him:


"Do you think that you have now exhausted the praises of  your Master?  As for us, were it not for the fact that  Moshe Rabbeinu uttered these three praises ("ha-gadol  ha-gibor ve-hanora") in the Torah (Devarim 10:17), and  that the Men of the Great Assembly later included them  formally in the tefilla, we could not [i.e., would not  have the right to] mention even those three.  Why, then,  did you add on so much?"


            The Rav certainly identified with this approach of hesitation and restraint with regard to praise.  In one of his "Yahrzeit lectures" he spoke about the recitation of the "Shir shel yom" ("Psalm of the day" - the chapter of Tehillim chosen specifically for each day of the week) as listed at the end of Tractate Sukka (55a).  The Rav asked, "Why is this psalm recited specifically on this day, and that psalm on that day?  What significance is there to this selection of psalms?  Why could a person not recite two chapters?"


            Based on these questions, the Rav developed his argument as to the problematic nature of the recital of "shevach" (praise).  Perhaps the appropriate response should be silence, due to both our wonderment at God's greatness, as well as shame at our unworthiness?


            In his essay "Ish HaHalakha" (Halakhic Man), Rav Soloveitchik examined the subject of praise in the course of his discussion of the Rambam's theory of Divine attributes set forth in his "Moreh Nevukhim" (Guide for the Perplexed).  The Rambam maintains that it is preferable to altogether avoid descriptions of God's attributes; however, if one is already doing so, then he should word it in the negative rather than affirming a certain trait or ascribing a certain graphic description to God.


            But according to the Rav, a person may indeed approach God and present his requests.  Human beings who dwell in this physical world have all kinds of deficiencies, wants and aspirations, and as a result they sometimes choose to knock on the gates of Heaven, to break through the barricades, and to present themselves before God asking that He answer their requests.


            Would we dare act in this way before a king of flesh and blood?  Would we shout, demand, request and plead?  Where do we find such audacity?  How do we allow ourselves such "chutzpa" in our relationship with God?


            This led the Rav to speak at length of the necessity for the existence of "permission" (a "mattir") for tefilla, something that would serve as a license of sorts, and in this regard he pointed towards a number of halakhot.  For instance, it is stipulated that tefillat nedava, a "voluntary prayer" (i.e., not one of the mandatory, regular communal prayers), must include something innovative.  It is not sufficient to simply repeat the tefilla which one has already recited, for this novelty serves as his "permission" to add a non-mandatory prayer.


            The Rav brought another example from the Ra'avad, who held that tashlumin, a compensatory prayer, may be recited only in juxtaposition to mandatory tefilla recited at its set time.  Someone who forgets to pray Mincha may make it up by reciting the Amida twice at Ma'ariv.  The opening of the gates of heaven for the obligatory prayer - which a person is "permitted" to pray because he is commanded to - allows him to slip in, as it were, at the same time the tefilla which he missed.  Otherwise, he would have no opportunity of presenting that missed tefilla before his Creator.


            In this connection, the Rav used to quote the gemara in Berakhot (31a) which poses the question, "Can a person pray the whole day long?" and answers, "No, for as we learn from the Book of Daniel (6:11): 'Their times are three.'"  The very question is not whether a person is required to pray all day long, but rather whether he is even permitted to do so.


            According to the Rav, the problem here lies not in our concern for the possibility of "berakha le-vatala" (reciting blessings - which contain God's name - unnecessarily), but rather in the very audacity of the idea of standing before God the entire day.  The issue is not one of 'bitul Torah' (wasting time that should be spent studying Torah) but rather a person's arrogation of the right to stand before God and petition Him for one's needs.  A similar approach can be found in the words of Rabbi Meir in Berakhot 61a:


"A person's words before God should always be few, as it  is written (Kohelet 5:1): 'Do not flurry your mouth and  hasten your heart to issue words before God, for God is  in heaven and you are on earth, and therefore let your  words be few in number.'"


            Admittedly, there are sources in Chazal which point to a different approach.  On the verse, "Even if you offer many prayers, I shall not hear" (Yeshayahu 1:15), the Yerushalmi (Ta'anit 4:1) comments, "From here we learn that anyone who offers many prayers is answered."  (I.e., in the previous quotation God is indicating a situation which is not the usual state of affairs - "Even..."; generally this would ensure God's attention.)  But the Rav was inclined to emphasize the theme of refraining from excessive prayer, not only in the "quantitative" sense of "the whole day long" but also in the qualitative sense - the very directing of requests to God (bearing in mind the approach mentioned above, which holds that the principal component of tefilla is the "bakasha" aspect).


            In this connection the Rav spoke of two types of "permission."  One is to be found in tefilla itself: the praise which comprises the first three berakhot "allows" the subsequent requests.  Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the last berakha before the Shemoneh Esrei (which has redemption as its theme) and the tefilla itself also provides "permission" of a sort (this juxtaposition is known as "semikhat ge'ula le-tefilla").  The same applies to the recitation of "pesukei de-zimra" in the earlier part of the prayer service.  The very joining of the different levels of the tefilla constitutes its "permission."


            But for the Rav this was not sufficient.  He sought historical and halakhic anchoring for a person's standing before God.  In his view, if one were to evaluate purely intellectually the permissibility of prayer and petition, one would be forced to reach a negative conclusion.  Nevertheless, there are precedents.  "The [three] Patriarchs instituted prayer" (Berakhot 26b).  The forefathers prayed; so did Moshe Rabbeinu and King David.  It would seem, therefore, that even if it seems somewhat paradoxical and even if it contradicts the conclusion we would reach were we to focus on the fundamental, theological, ideological-philosophical aspects alone - it is indeed acceptable, and even desirable.


            This is not all.  We are in fact commanded to pray.  We find in Ta'anit (2a):


"'To love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all  your heart' (Devarim 11:13) - what is Divine service that  is performed by  the heart?  This is tefilla."


            This indicates both the obligation to pray and the permission to do so.  Were it not for the obligation, there would be no permission.


            In 1953, the first year in which I studied privately with the Rav in Boston, he taught Berakhot.  Ever since that time I have been captivated by those issues and have even come to feel something of the sensation experienced by a person who simply stands in wonder: "What are we; what are our lives?  What are we in relation to God?"  The Rav's teachings made a deep and lasting impression on me.  Later on, I had certain reservations regarding this line of thought, and even more so regarding such an existential state.  Indeed, the feeling of "What shall a person complain of so long as he is alive, in light of all his sins?" (Eikha 3:39) arises in one's heart.  As the midrash explains, "It is sufficient that he is alive; he should ask for nothing else beyond this."  Moshe Rabbeinu's words, "And I entreated God at that time..." (Devarim 3:23) indicate, according to Chazal, that all is given as a free gift.  God owes us nothing.  At the same time, though, can anyone imagine that God would plant us on earth - weak and dependent as we are - with only Himself for us to rely upon, and then block our channel to reach Him?


            Indeed, can there be any meaningful human existence, either spiritually or materially, without access to our Father in Heaven?  I believe that I was not alone in recoiling from this line of thought (regarding the audacity of prayer and the need for permission); in my opinion, the Rav himself somewhat downplayed it later in his life.


            The Rav dealt further with the "problematics of prayer" both in his lectures and in his writings, but the question was couched differently and his answers conveyed a different tone.  I shall quote just a short excerpt, from which the question clearly emerges: How is prayer possible at all?


"To the extent that the individual approaches God, his finite mortal existence is negated.  The finite is  swallowed in the Infinite and expires in its depths.  Man  sometimes flees from God or hides from Him - "And Moshe  hid his face for he was afraid to look at God" (Shemot  3:6) - lest he be swallowed.  Man's independence and  self-confidence are nullified before God's splendor and  glory.  If so, then the question arises: How can prayer  exist at all?  Prayer is standing before God, before the  Divine Presence.  How can a person be in God's presence  without losing his individual existence?"  ["Ra'ayanot al  haTefilla," p. 244]]


            Here the question is directed not towards the issue of permission to pray - its legitimacy vs. the audacity which it involves - so much as towards man's very ability to pray: Is it existentially possible for a person to stand in God's presence?


            Later on in the same work, the Rav does mention the concept of "permission" to pray, but here the principle and the answer which he suggests are different from those which we discussed previously.  He maintains (p. 245) that "Halakhic thought toiled mightily to provide an answer to this question and to find something which would permit a creature of flesh and blood to approach its Maker."  The Rav lists three fundamental concepts in Judaism upon which this permission rests.  The latter two are the precedents set by the Patriarchs and by the Temple service, to which we shall return later.  But the first concept, about which the Rav did not speak in the '50's, is as follows (ibid.):


"Prayer is a vital need for the religious individual.  He  cannot stop the thoughts and emotions, deliberations and  troubles which surge through the depths of his soul, his  hopes and aspirations, his despair and bitterness - in  short: the great wealth that is concealed in his  religious consciousness.  It is impossible to halt the  liturgical outpouring [of these feelings].  Prayer is  essential.  Fresh, vibrant religious feeling cannot exist  without it.  In other words, prayer is justified by  virtue of the fact that it is impossible to exist without  it."


This is not an answer to the question but rather the negation of the question's very legitimacy.




            Until now we have dealt with the first level of examination: the attitude towards prayer itself, alone.  The second level, as mentioned, looks at prayer as representative of an entire category of mitzvot.  Let us turn our attention briefly to a concept which the Rav developed at length in several contexts.  In Chazal's words, prayer is "avoda she-balev," "[Divine] service of the heart."  This concept itself was developed extensively by the Rav, and is beyond the scope of this presentation.  Inter alia, on the purely halakhic level, the Rav saw tefilla - and the Divine service which it represents - as an example, perhaps the best and most outstanding example, of a certain type of mitzva.


            We rely here on the distinction pointed out by Rabbeinu Bechaye in his "Chovot HaLevavot" between "obligations of the limbs" and "obligations of the heart."  The Rav emphasized that, in these two categories, there is overlap between the action (ma’aseh) required of the individual during the performance of the mitzva, and the actual fulfillment (kiyyum) and realization of the obligation itself.  On Pesach, for example, the mitzva is simply to eat matza, and if the person fulfills the technical requirements, then he has fulfilled the mitzva.  In mitzvot of the "obligations of the heart" variety, if the individual feels awe, love etc., then a certain type of act - even if not physical - is fulfilled.


            In contrast, emphasized the Rav, there are some mitzvot which require of us a certain action - sometimes expressed externally - but whose fulfillment and realization are "in the heart" and are conditional not upon the execution of the act but rather on a certain spiritual state.  The Rav found evidence of this category in various contexts.  For example, the mitzva of joy on the pilgrim festivals ("Ve-samachta be-chagekha"): the eating of the festive sacrifices dictates a certain lifestyle or certain acts, but the fulfillment of the mitzva is not expressed in the eating of the sacrifices but rather in the feeling of joy which bursts forth from the heart in the wake of that act.  A similar idea applies to the mitzva of mourning.


            The Rav saw the central focus of this category in the area of prayer.  In his introduction to "Chovot HaLevavot," Rabbeinu Bechaye included prayer in his list of "obligations of the limbs" (in contrast to the possibility raised by the "Magen Avraham" according to which the mitzva of prayer can be fulfilled through thought alone).  The Rav regarded it as plainly obvious that "Divine service of the heart" takes place in the heart.  But, then, how do we explain the obligation to actually articulate the prayers verbally?


            And here he presents his answer: there is the "action of the mitzva," expressed in the recitation of the words (the reciting of a certain text with a certain structure, in a certain place and under certain conditions, according to all the details as they appear in the Shulchan Arukh), and there is the "fulfillment of the mitzva," which pertains to the essence of the individual, his experience of the importance of his stance before God and the significance of the message which he seeks to transmit to God.


            Here, tefilla is perceived not as an individual mitzva, the halakhic substance of which is open to our investigation, but rather as representing, to the Rav's mind, the epitome of the category of mitzvot which are expressed externally but fulfilled internally, existentially, "in the heart."




            The third level of investigation which we mentioned above forges the connection between prayer and other central philosophical and moral concerns in the Rav's thought.  The Rav raised several questions in his perception of prayer.  For example, in "Ra'ayonot al HaTefilla" there is a long passage which parallels another passage in "Halakhic Man" dealing with the connection between Halakha and the entire expanse of life's experience.  The Rav elaborated on his opposition to the ritualistic view, according to which the nature of a person's life creates a division between the world of worship and the sphere of general activity.  In contrast, the Rav emphasized the integrative, holistic and comprehensive nature of Halakha.  Obviously, this is to be seen against the backdrop of what we have discussed above, i.e., the need to perceive in prayer - beyond the focused halakhic perspective - a broad and natural setting for attention to the problem which occupied the Rav extensively: the relationship between the internal and the external, between the world of emotion and the world of logic, between the world of action and the world of experience.  The Rav addressed this issue throughout the range of his works.


            In his treatment of prayer he also turned his attention to a subject which occupied a profound place in his consciousness: the relationship between the individual and the community.  From a structural point of view, tefilla includes both individual and communal prayer.  Hence, this subject presents a convenient arena for examination of both aspects: the individual - the "lonely man of faith" who stands alone before the Almighty - and at the same time the person as a member of a wider community, "communal man," "national man," an integral part of Knesset Yisrael.


            Despite the fact that the simple meaning of the gemara in Rosh Hashana (34b) suggests that communal prayer is required only in order to provide an opportunity for those who are untrained in prayer to fulfill their obligation, the Rav tended to regard the balance between individual prayer and communal prayer as expressing two components of religious existence.  (Incidentally, a similar line is adopted by the author of the "Tanya" in his "Likkutei Torah.")


            Beyond this, I believe that tefilla should be seen as the focus of a subject which disturbed the Rav perhaps more than anything else: the status of the individual himself, and his stance before God.


            As we know, the Rav spoke extensively, and in different ways, of a dialectical view of man as existing on two levels, as oscillating between two poles.  On one hand, he saw man as possessing power, ability, strength and creativity; on the other hand he is a helpless creature, suspended over the abyss.  He spoke of this on a number of occasions (among others during his eulogy for Rav Chaim Heller, [printed as "Peleitat Sofreihem" in "Divrei Hagut VeHa'arakha," and translated into English in "Shiurei Harav"] and in his Hebrew essay "On the Love of Torah and the Redemption of the Soul of the Generation" [printed in full in "BeSod HaYachid VehaYachad" and slightly abridged in "Divrei Hashkafa"]).  He described the dialectic between "gadlut ha-mochin" and "katnut ha-mochin" which existed in the great Torah luminaries of Israel: on the one hand, he described the great intellects with which they were blessed, depicting them as giants, conquerors, creators and builders, warriors in the battles of Torah; and at the same time he pointed to their innocence, their child-like and almost poetic aspects.


            The Rav gave wide expression to this (and the scope of this essay precludes the opportunity of examining this in depth) in his description of the two types of man in his essay "The Lonely Man of Faith."  This dual perception of man was reflected in his view of the act of prayer.  On one hand, as emphasized above, the Rav stressed the "bakasha" theme in tefilla.  We come and request certain things of God, like a servant who comes before his master.  On the other hand, the Rav emphasized no less the connection between tefilla and the sacrifices in the Temple, a connection which Chazal had already pointed out.  The connection expresses itself both in terms of the source ("The prayers were instituted to parallel the sacrifices") and in terms of the characteristics of prayer and its necessary conditions (cleanliness of the body, concentration, etc.).  There are even those who have compared the washing of the hands prior to tefilla to the kohanim's sanctification of their hands and feet prior to serving in the Temple.


            In his treatment of this topic the Rav did not stop at a comparison of the technical details: he sharpened the view of tefilla itself as a sacrifice.  Not something similar to or representing a sacrifice, but an actual sacrifice in its own right.  The Rav gave expression to this view in his emphasis on the fact that even though practically human sacrifice is forbidden, in principle the individual is actually required to sacrifice himself to God.  He saw tefilla as a state of self-sacrifice by the individual:


"Yet there is another aspect to prayer: prayer is an act  of giving away.  Prayer means sacrifice, unrestricted  offering of the whole self, the returning to God of body  and soul, everything one possesses and cherishes.  There  is an altar in heaven upon which the archangel Michael  offers the souls of the righteous.  Thrice daily we  petition God to accept our prayers, as well as the fires  - the self-sacrifices of Israel - on that altar ("ve- ishei Yisrael u-tefillatam be-ahava tekabbel be-ratzon").   Prayer is rooted in the idea that man belongs, not to  himself, but that God claims man, and that His claim to  man is not partial but total.  God the Almighty,  sometimes wills man to place himself, like Isaac of old,  on the altar, to light the fire and to be consumed as a  burnt offering." ["Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,"  Tradition, Spring 1978, pp. 70-71]


            This theme was repeated in several different contexts in the Rav's works.  To some extent it is not only different from the theme of bakasha, but actually contradictory.


            The Rav dwelt at length on man's dependence, a point which the Maharal saw as standing at the center of the concept of "Divine service."  Man is utterly dependent, helpless.  Should he become disconnected even for a moment from God, he would be unable to continue to exist.  "A prayer of the afflicted when he is faint and pours out his complaint before God" (Tehillim 102:1), "He heeds the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer" (ibid. 18).  Man pleads before God out of a sense of his nothingness; it is a cry of broken-heartedness.  He feels that were it not for prayer he would not be able to bear his situation. 


            In a shiur which he delivered before the Rabbinical Council in 1963, the Rav spoke of the famous dispute between Rambam and Ramban regarding prayer.  According to the Rambam, the mitzva of daily tefilla is 'de'oraita' (i.e., its source is to be found in the Torah).  The Ramban, on the other hand, holds that the biblical source for prayer is limited to the obligation to pray in times of trouble (while daily prayer is mandated only rabbinically).  The Rav's daring comment on this debate ran as follows: the Rambam fundamentally agrees with the Ramban.  Indeed, tefilla is obligatory only "in times of trouble," but the Rambam perceives man as existing in a perpetual state of crisis.  Were it not for God, he could not exist for a single moment, and there can be no greater trouble imaginable than a person who is, heaven forfend, disconnected from God.  Hence, we may deduce that the individual is in a constant state of crisis and needs God's contact and His mercy every day.  Here man appears to us as needy, weak, or - to use the imagery of "The Lonely Man of Faith" - Adam II.


            In the world of sacrifices and sacred items (kodshim) the situation is entirely different.  The key concept in sacrifices, the basis of the whole structure, is that of "ba'alut" (ownership, mastery), either private or communal.  With a few exceptions, e.g. the "kayitz ha-mizbe'ach" (Mishna Shekalim 4:4), a sacrifice always involves ownership.  The individual who brings a sacrifice is the "owner," the master; the requirement to give is addressed only to someone who is able to give.  Thus, in a certain sense, man is considered to be his own master, and only because of this can he be asked to  offer himself as a sacrifice to God.


            The view of tefilla in the Rav's philosophy is therefore complex.  He speaks of tefilla in terms of its dialectical character.  As explained, this reflects the Rav's perception of man's status in general.  To a certain degree, the Rav tended to think in terms of variety: sometimes one aspect expresses itself more strongly while at other times another aspect is dominant.  The same can be said of bakashot of different types.  But, ultimately, the perception of man as a complex and dialectical being remains a central characteristic in the Rav's philosophy, such that tefilla is also seen as complex and dialectical.  On one hand, man has the power to give, to sacrifice.  On the other hand, man's entire existence hangs by a thread; he is weak and powerless.


            The Rav went further than this, though.  He saw tefilla as an expression of giving, requiring total sacrifice on the part of the individual - in a certain sense to the extent of losing his very existence as an individual.  But at the same time he saw tefilla as an incomparable source of gain and opportunity for receiving.  This motif ran throughout his thought and his experience. On more than one occasion he mentioned that Judaism never promises instant happiness.  There is no peace of mind; rather, there are requirements and demands.  But this "long" road is really "short."  It begins with maximalist, ultimate demands and requirements, but culminates in the genuine joy of giving.


            The Rav saw man as able to find two things in prayer.  In his article "Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah," the Rav mentioned that through prayer the individual discovers himself; he reveals his true "I."  Tefilla here is depicted as standing before God with one's heart of hearts exposed before Him.  At this point, man reveals his innermost secrets, clarifying in his own mind what his real requests of God are:  not only those mundane concerns with which he is constantly occupied, but also those goals to which he aspires; that which is needed and that which should be needed; that which is central, that which imbues his life with happiness and meaning, and that which is peripheral.  In the midst of these considerations, man finds his true self.


            Man reveals his own self not only through the process of self-evaluation and self-revelation, but also by virtue of the fact that he has found God.  God takes hold of him, as it were; He communicates with him.  True life and inner happiness are derived from this connection.  Tefilla opens with sacrifice; it demands much of the individual.  But this very sacrifice, the individual himself, this dialectical creature required to give himself completely over to God - he himself reaps the full reward of his tefilla.  To the extent that he rises to the demands of tefilla and is capable of combining his bakashot and his "giving" within it, he will ultimately merit not only the realization of those requests which he presented before God but also his own self-realization.  He receives what he invested and more, on a different plane, with a different significance, with the elevation and intimacy implied in the verse, "... And you who cleave to the Lord your God, you are all alive today" (Devarim 4:4).


            Indeed, there is something dialectical and paradoxical here.  At first, there is an experience of duality, of a torn soul, because this is man's starting point in general.  It is specifically through his tefilla and his stance before God, and through his simultaneous (self-)sacrifice and petition that he rises and is elevated, meriting by means of his tefilla both personal growth and connection with the Master of the Universe.


            In this connection, the Rav spoke of the structure of tefilla, and specifically of the final three berakhot of the Shemoneh Esrei (see "Ra'ayonot al HaTefilla", p. 256).  The following quote (p. 271) is just a brief excerpt of his exposition there, and a fitting summation to this presentation:


"At the end of the tefilla we return to [the theme of the  opening blessing of the Shemona Esrei,] Birkat Avot - the  first approach of the worshipper to God.  His faith in  the Lord of the world is great.  His mercies have no  bounds.  His goodness flows from one end of existence to  the other.  If so, then God dwells within me.  He is my  whole being; His glory fills the world, and we know that  all of existence melts away in His infinity.  What is  existence if not the illumination of the countenance of  the Infinite?  What is happiness if not the gift of God?   What do we want, for what do we long, what do we request  - if not to cleave to Him and embrace Him, as it were?


The God of Avraham, the God of the world, who relates to  all of existence, whether from inside it or from the  outside, is the Master of peace, blessing and goodness.   And then the individual proceeds to request [the final  blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei], 'Grant peace, good and  blessing, life, grace, kindness and mercy, unto us and  unto all of Israel, Your nation.'


In other words, after all the wanderings and circlings  [during the tefilla] from love and mercy to moments of  fear and helplessness, after the descent from the heights  of longing and elevation to the depths of confusion and  terror, after self-nullification and self-discovery,  after self-sacrifice and then the return to mundane  reality - we return once again to calm and gentle  existence, full of joy and security.  God appears as a  serene dwelling place, a secure habitation.  The  worshipper lounges in green pastures, secure in Him as a  son in his father.


His torn and troubled soul finds happiness and calm.  His  fear and anxiety are forgotten; the terrible Mystery is  gone.  In their place reigns happiness, and the rush  towards the Source of all existence.  Man does not flee  from God; rather, he runs towards Him, embraces Him,  nestles close to the Divine Presence.


All is surrounded by calm and peace.  The blessing and  bounty of the Infinite One rain down on everything; the  mercies of the Holy One, Blessed be He, fall like dew on  Mt. Chermon and the entire world is illuminated with the  precious light emanating from the Infinite."



(Translated by Kaeren Fish and Ronnie Ziegler.

Adapted from a lecture delivered at a Memorial Assembly for Rav Soloveitchik, Iyar 5756 [May 1996].  This adaptation was not reviewed by Rav Lichtenstein.)



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