Shiur #09: The Connection between Redemption and Prayer

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #09: The Connection between Redemption and Prayer


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



The master said: "One should read Keri'at Shema and then pray [the Amida]."  This supports Rabbi Yochanan, as Rabbi Yochanan said: "Who will merit the World to Come (Olam Ha-ba)? One who juxtaposes redemption [the blessing of Ga'al Yisra'el] with the evening prayer."

(Berakhot 4b)


Rabbi Yochanan said: "The vatikin [pious people of old; literally, veterans] would finish Shema at sunrise in order to juxtapose redemption and prayer and pray when it is day…"  Rabbi Yitzchak ben Elyakim testified in the name of the holy community of Jerusalem: "Whoever juxtaposes redemption and prayer will not be harmed for the entire day."  Rabbi Zeira said: "But I juxtaposed and was harmed?"  He said to him: "How were you harmed?  By the fact that you brought a myrtle branch to the king?  There too, you must pay a tax to see the face of the king…"  Once, Rav Beruna juxtaposed redemption and prayer, and a smile did not leave his face for the entire day."  (Berakhot 9b)


Many commentators explain that Rabbi Yochanan certainly does not intend that anyone who juxtaposes redemption and prayer immediately merits the World to Come irrespective of the kind of life that person leads in general; rather, Rabbi Yochanan teaches that juxtaposing redemption and prayer could make the difference for the individual whose portion in Olam Ha-ba hangs in the balance.  Nevertheless, Rabbi Yochanan was certainly trying to convey the great value in this juxtaposition.  Why is this so important?


Presumably, Rabbi Yochanan refers not only to the mere act of reciting these two texts in succession, but also to actualizing some meaning conveyed by the combination of these two texts.  This enables us to understand Rav Beruna's smile as well; after all, why smile at something most of us accomplish easily all the time?  Rav Beruna said his prayers in the same order every day, but he was once especially successful at internalizing the joint message.  Yet what precisely is this point?


Rashi (4b) cites an explanatory parable from the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 1:1).  In the parable, a close friend of the king knocks on his door but departs before the king answers the door.  Apparently, mentioning redemption consists of knocking on the door and praying would mean encountering the king who responds to that knock; not praying means leaving before receiving a response.


We can further explain this parable as follows. The theme of redemption emphasizes our faith in God as the redeemer; having asserted such faith, it would seem natural to then turn to God in prayer regarding our own crises.  If we do not turn to God, it suggests that our initial blessing of redemption was not truly serious.  In other words, it is as if we knocked, but we did not actually want to wait for the answer involved in encountering our Maker in prayer.


The students of Rabbeinu Yona (2b in the Rif's pagination) suggest another interpretation.  We link redemption and prayer because prayer, often referred to as avoda she-balev (service of the heart), exemplifies service of Hashem. This illustrates the fact that we do not view the exodus from Egypt as a self-sufficient act.  No one can deny the joys of freedom, but the question remains what a person will accomplish with such freedom.  Therefore, the Exodus from Egypt (Yetzi'at Mitzrayim) was only complete when the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Sinai (Matan Torah).  We convey this point each day by following up our prayers about the Exodus with the quintessential avodat Hashem.


            Those familiar with classical Torah sources will associate this point with the Sefer Ha-chinukh's classic explanation for the mitzvah of counting the forty-nine days of the Omer, that such counting links Pesach with Shavuot and helps us see Matan Torah as the crucial culmination of Yetzi'at Mitzrayim.  Those with a bit of a philosophical background may instead associate this idea with a famous distinction drawn by Isaiah Berlin.


In his essay entitled "Two Concepts of Liberty," (found in his Four Essays on Liberty) Berlin distinguishes between "negative liberty" and "positive liberty."  The former means the ability to act unobstructed by others.  It refers to the freedom to do as a person chooses.  The latter view posits an ideal actualization of a human being and attempts to remove those things preventing that actualization.  Unlike its negative counterpoint, "positive liberty" possesses a specific vision of human flourishing.


Berlin sees an advantage for the positive conception but also as a danger as well.  Once one is convinced that he or she knows what humanity truly needs, one may set up a totalitarian regime to help bring it about.  In the name of liberty, governments can terribly restrict human freedom and choice.  Berlin fears that we will "bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their real selves."  At the conclusion of the essay, Berlin essentially calls for "negative liberty."


The students of Rabbeinu Yona apparently reject Berlin's position.  Ultimately, freedom is not meaningful without a vision of how to live a noble existence.  Jewish history is significant not because we became free, but because we accepted the divine laws of the Torah.  We will need to think about how to avoid Berlin's totalitarian nightmare, but throwing out a collective vision of the ideal and the true is not the answer.


Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg offers a different perspective in his Li-frakim (p. 377).  For Rabbi Weinberg, redemption means thinking about the glorious happenings of the past, while prayer symbolizes turning our eyes towards the future.  Juxtaposing the two teaches us that healthy Jewish life demands a combination of past and future. 


There have been Jews who only saw Judaism in terms of the past.  Some of the fathers of the academic study of Judaism saw it a distinguished historical relic with no contemporary relevance.  Steinsehneider famously said that he viewed his bibliographic endeavors as an attempt to give Judaism a decent burial.  Some observant Jews may have felt this way after the terrible tragedies of World War II.  They viewed their task solely in terms of memorializing the world that was destroyed. 


At the funeral of my grandfather, Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Teitz, Rabbi Berel Wein made this point in his eulogy.  He said that in the 1950's, most European rabbanim talked only of the world that was.  My grandfather, on the other hand, spoke of the world that could be.  We can value the need to talk about the glories of our past while also understanding that we view our heritage as eternally relevant and a contemporary challenge.  (It need not be said that the above is not meant as a criticism of anyone who suffered during the war.)


Yet the opposite danger exists as well.  The constant temptation for radical innovation leads some to imagine that they can restart Judaism without a serious grounding in our years of tradition.  Arguably, secular Zionism represents such an attempt.  For Rabbi Weinberg, such an approach cannot succeed.  It is the sense of continuity with the past that both gives people the strength to persevere in difficult times and also provides a model for the goals we must fulfill.  The power of collective identity depends upon a heritage and a tradition.


This point leads Rabbi Weinberg to offer a novel reading of two famous aggadot.  One gemara (Chullin 91b) suggests that the entire land of Israel was folded up and placed under Ya'akov's head during his famous dream.  Another well-known gemara (Sota 34a) says that Kalev went to the graves of our patriarchs to pray for help in dealing with the challenge of the Meragelim.  Rabbi Weinberg argues that each of these sources instructs us that our ability to accomplish Jewish goals depends upon on our being rooted in the past.  Thus, the concept of the entire land of Israel being folded up under the head of Ya'akov is not about a special miracle; rather, it refers to the fact that our current connection to the land draws its power from the fact that our ancestor Ya'akov was connected to this land.  In a similar fashion, the story about Kalev conveys much more than the need to find an effective place to pray: it reflects Kalev's understanding that overcoming difficulties requires the vitality that comes from a strong tradition.


Each day's juxtaposition of redemption and prayer allows us an opportunity to reflect on both our version of "positive liberty" and on our need to draw from the reservoirs of the past as we look forward to the future.