The Essence of Tefillah by Zack Orenshein


Im Olah Korbano Min HaBakar Zachar Tamim Yakrivenu; El Petach Ohel Mo’eid Yakriv Oto LiRtzono Lifnei Hashem,” “If his offering is a burnt sacrifice of the cattle, let him offer a male without blemish; he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the Ohel Mo’eid (Tent of Meeting) before Hashem” (VaYikra 1:3).

Seforno comments on this Pasuk that it is not enough to sacrifice Korbanot mechanically. Rather, the one who is offering the Korban should have the proper mindset and intentions. This Halachah provokes a fundamental question. Why is a specific mindset and intention necessary? After all, isn’t it the same bull being offered either way? Isn’t the same service being done?

The answer to this question may seem obvious, but it is vital for us to take it to heart. We don't understand everything about Hashem, but we know that He doesn’t care about the bull that is being offered. Later in the Perek, the Torah teaches us that if you can't afford to give a bull for the elevation offering you can give a bird instead. This bird offering is described as a “Rei’ach Nicho’ach LaShem,” “satisfying aroma to Hashem” (VaYikra 1:13). The Torah describes the bull offering with the same words. Rashi comments that by describing both the expensive offering, the bull, and the cheaper offering, the bird, as a “satisfying aroma to Hashem,” the Torah shows that what really matters is the personal sacrifice this man or woman is willing to make to show his dedication and gratitude to Hashem. Whether it’s a bull or bird doesn’t really matter to Hashem. He only cares about the level of self-sacrifice we are willing to show on his behalf. We see the same idea expressed in Tehillim (51:19): “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.”

 Nowadays, after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, we can no longer offer sacrifices, “so we will offer the words of our lips instead of calves” (Hoshei’a 14:3). Tefillah is how we connect to Hashem today. Therefore, this concept should apply to Tefillah as well. We cannot be forced to Daven, nor should we Daven simply to dispel our obligation. Many of us read the words of Tefillah without investing thought or feeling into them. The question becomes, “Why Daven?” Chazal (Ta’anit 2a) ask, “What is service [of Hashem] that is in the heart?” The answer is Tefillah, prayer.

One fast day, while reading Selichot, I became frustrated because I realized I hardly knew what I was saying. I was practically sounding out syllables. I went over to a rabbi I was close with and told him about my challenge. He understood my issue, and responded thoughtfully, “Hashem cares where your heart is.” If we don't understand what we say during Tefillah, we are missing the point of the mitzvah. In Megillat Eichah, Yirmiyahu tells us, “Pour out your heart like water before the face of Hashem” (2:19). Tefillah  is about expressing our true feelings and greatest concerns while strengthening our relationship with the Highest Power. Prayer becomes meaningless when the focus is more on purely saying the worlds and pronouncing the syllables. We can only fully praise Hashem and beseech Him for the many needs we have every day if we understand what we are saying. The Anshei Keneset HaGedolah composed our Siddur in an amazing way, but we can only utilize it if we concentrate on the meaning of the words. Finding meaning in Tefillah is essential in our relationship with Hashem. However, just as the elevation offering must be brought LiRtzonechem, with intention, so, too, we must not make our Tefillah forced. May we be Zocheh to find more meaning in Tefillah so that we may become as close to Hashem as we possibly can.

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