Staying in Shape for Davening Rabbi Chaim Poupko


Looking at the life of Yitzchak, we find that he plays a fairly passive role in some of the most pivotal events in which he is involved. He appears not to be active during the Akeidah, his wife, Rivkah, is chosen for him by his father's servant, and he administers the blessing for the first-born completely unaware of who was truly receiving it. And yet, we find deep meaning in an apparently mundane activity in which Yitzchak engages. When the servant of Avraham arrives with Rivkah to meet her new husband, the Torah reports that Yitzchak went out “LaSuach BaSadeh Lifnot Arev” “to engage in personal conversation, to meditate, at the onset of evening” (24:63). For the Rabbis of the Talmud, the word “LaSuach” teaches us that he was davening, he was conversing with G-d, and “Lifnot Arev” means it was the time of Minchah. Yitzchak, therefore, is credited with instituting the tradition to daven Minchah in the afternoon.

In fact, the source for the three Tefillot – Shacharit, Minchah, and Maariv – is the subject of a dispute in the Talmud (Brachot 26b). According to one opinion, the three daily Tefillot were initiated by Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. The other opinion holds that the three daily Tefillot were enacted to correspond to the sacrificial service in the Beit HaMikdash.

Rav Jonathan Sacks explains that underlying this dispute is an issue far deeper than the history of our practice, the history of our Tefillot. This dispute represents two different attitudes regarding the nature of prayer itself – attitudes which are reflected by different figures in the Torah who serve God in different ways.

One type, are individuals like the Avot and the Neviim who all had the remarkable ability to approach God in a more direct way than other people. They could hear the voice of God, as it were, more clearly and respond more directly. Our three Avot, our patriarchs, and Moshe were all shepherds and so held no official office or title. They spoke with God when the situation demanded or when they were spiritually inspired.  Each time they were turned to God and prayed in a way different than that of the previous time they spoke to God.

A different type of person who served God in the Torah was the Kohen, the priest, the custodians of the Mishkan and Beit HaMikdash. Unlike the Avot, the Kohen had a formal office and title. He was obliged to remain holy, separate from the rest of the community, and was charged with administering the Avodah, the divine service in the temple, according to strict rules and regulations. The Temidim, the regular daily offerings, for instance, had prescribed times during the day when they were offered, prescribed places where they must be offered, and prescribed procedures how to be offered.

That element of spontaneity which characterized the service of the Avot, was foreign to the Kohanim in the Mishkan. The one attempt by Kohanim to introduce their own offering was that of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, who died as a result of their creativity. The structure of the Temple service precludes such originality.

For divine service to thrive though, it needs both the spontaneity of the Avot and the structure of the Kohanim, because, in reality, they speak to different aspects of the soul. Without spontaneity, the spirit loses emotion; without structure, it can descend into chaos. Without the Avot and their spontaneous prayers, the faith of Israel would have grown old; without the Kohanim and their structured service, it would never have been able to become the standard of living for an entire people.

The dispute in the Talmud, then, is to which tradition does prayer belong, the tradition of spontaneity of the Avot, or the tradition of structure of the Kohanim? Were the prayers enacted to be personal dialogues akin to that of the Avot or were they meant to establish the communal worship of an entire nation like that of the Kohanim? Which approach should form the model for how we approach God?

It seems from the way the Rabbis composed our Tefillot that they contain elements of both, but one must come before the other. Ideally, our Tefillot should be structured and organized, just as they are today: we daven three times a day, at specific times during the day, using specific formulas set down for us. But our challenge is to invest our own emotions, thoughts, and feelings into the words we say. If that's true, that we should be original in our thoughts and feelings when we pray, why do we need set times for our Tefillot? People should be allowed to daven when in the mood, thereby guaranteeing that prayer will be heart-felt and full of emotion. Most often, the prayers that are the most heartfelt are the ones inspired by some particular need or issue. Why not pray only at those times, instead of when we're half asleep or nothing is motivating us?

Perhaps an answer can be found in the following parable. We all know jogging is good for us, it's a cardio-vascular workout. But for someone who never jogs, going out for a half-hour jog can be a disaster, that person is going to collapse before he achieves anything productive. In order to jog productively, we have to start slowly and build up stamina, working a little harder each day. We have to practice and get in shape so that when we need to jog, we'll have the stamina to endure it.

That's what our Rabbis had in mind for Tefillah. Yes it would be great if we only davened when we feel like we need God the most, but when that time arrives, we won't know how to daven, we won't know what to say or how to say it. We need structure, we need to stay in shape, we need to hone not only our davening skills but we need to develop our thoughts about God as well. That's what we do when we daven in a structured fashion, the same prayers at the same time every day. We stay in spiritual shape so that when the opportunity arises, when we need to daven on behalf of someone else or during difficult circumstance, we will know how to daven and we will know to Whom we are davening. 

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