The superiority of Tefillah

Tefilah lends itself to a more flexible expression of our relationship with G-d.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg, | updated: 15:20

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

As we get closer to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the theme of tefilah, prayer, weighs on our minds. When looking through the Torah portion of Ki Tavo, we come across a verse that seemingly has nothing to do with tefilah, and yet, through a cryptic Midrash, highlights some of the fundamentals how we should relate to God.

The Torah highlights a special day, “this” day, in the following verse (Devarim 26:16):

“This day, the Lord, your God, is commanding you to fulfill these statutes and ordinances, and you will observe and fulfill them with all your heart and with all your soul”

What is “this” day referring to? For many of the commentaries, it was the day Moshe completed teaching the commandments to the Jewish people. This seems like a reasonable approach. The Midrash offers a more challenging explanation. There is a verse in Tehilim which states (95:6):

“Come, let us prostrate ourselves and bow; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker”

The Midrash questions the use of both the term “prostrate” and “bow”, as they are both contained in each other (one could ask about the strength of this question, but that is for a different time). What is the idea here? Moshe had a prophecy that revealed the future destruction of the Temple and the cessation of the bringing of the bikurim (first fruits).

He reacted by instituting the obligation of the Jews to pray three times a day. Why? The Midrash answers that tefilah is “more beloved” to God then both good deeds and sacrifices. The Midrash then brings a proof. God punished Moshe by not allowing him to continue his mission into the Land of Israel. Moshe, who personified the performance of good deeds, prayed to God to be allowed to see the land. God responded by permitting Moshe this opportunity, thus demonstrating the tremendous love God has for tefilah.

There are some clear problems with this Midrash. Moshe’s prophecy was both about the destruction of the Temple and the stoppage of the bikurim. Thematically, one can understand the mention of the bikurim, as this is the focus of the Torah in the previous verses. However, we should still ask why the issue revolves around these two specific events.

As well, the comparison of tefilah to both good deeds and sacrifices is difficult to comprehend. For one, the idea of tefilah being more “beloved” in comparison to these two other concepts is an odd description. Why should this be the case? Furthermore, there are many references throughout the Talmud as to the primacy of the sacrificial system. In fact, the termination of the sacrifices, at least according to some in the Talmud, was what led to the very development of reciting tefilah three times a day. Yet the Midrash seems to view tefilah as “superior” to the sacrifices.

Moshe’s prophecy is the catalyst to the introduction of tefilah as we commonly know it today. Putting aside its historicity, we can understand fairly easily the concept of the destruction of the Temple and its impact on tefilah.

The Temple was the focal point of the worship of God. It functioned as the objective representation of how mankind should serve God, and the workings of the Temple reflected the nature of the Divine relationship to mankind. The system of tefilah, then, was to be found in the Temple. Naturally, its destruction would require some type of replacement. Why specifically the bikurim, when there are so many other lost commandments that emerged throughout our history?

We are aware of the various commandments associated with giving up a percentage of our produce to the Temple and its various “employees”. The concept on a basic level is the clear recognition that while much human effort went into the process of planting to harvesting, our control is more limited that we want to believe. We do not have complete knowledge of the natural world, nor can we know with any true degree of certainty how any agricultural process will turn out. As such, giving up a percentage of our produce indicates our attitude that we are ultimately dependent on the Creator when it comes to success in our endeavors.

The bringing of the bikurim personify this ideal, as an individual attaches a greater degree of significance to that which first emerges from his crops. To give up the first of anything truly expressed a person’s internal acceptance of his relationship with God.

Thus, we can now take a step back and see the two components fitting together nicely. The Temple represents the system of Divine relationship to mankind, while the first fruits capture the attitude of one’s relationship with God. Tefilah would need to be available to the Jews, as it encompasses both the ideal of the Temple and the mindset of the bikurim. The Jewish people had to know this “alternate” system was in existence.

Why, then, does tefilah occupy a high perch in the eyes of God? Let’s look at the contrast with sacrifices and good deeds. As mentioned above, worship in the Temple was personification of objective worship. The systems of sacrifices were the method one engaged in to access this type of worship. While this method was the greatest expression, it was also centralized and occasional. A person could not bring a sacrifice wherever and whenever. Tefilah, though, lends itself to a more flexible expression.

When we think of good deeds, we think of humans invested in the fate of other humans, selfishness pushed to the side for the sake of his fellow man. Good deeds are the core of ben adam lechavero, the way one treats another. The result of properly being involved in good deeds is the correct viewpoint of the self in relation to others, comprehending that we are all equal existences.

Tefilah raises us to an even higher level. When a person prays, and understands he is a dependent existence, the effect is to create the ideal psychological state in the individual. He truly understands who he is in relation to God. While good deeds capture all that ben adam lechavero is about, tefilah guides us down the path to a deep understanding of ben adam lamakom, man’s relationship to God.

The method of tefilah expands the boundaries of the system of sacrifices while also bringing man to the greatest realization of who he is in relation to God. Understanding how tefilah works would seem to be a critical component as we prepare ourselves for the coming days ahead.

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