In many ways, the prime element upon which our relationship with Torah would seem to be based is our commitment to observing the Will of God, namely following His commandments. A dominant aspect of our allegiance to Torah would seem to be this realm of obligation and duty. The concluding view of T.B. Kiddushin 31a that, in the performance of mitzvot, it is better to be commanded than not to be commanded would seem to reinforce this perspective. Duty and obligation are primary values within Torah.
It may be somewhat interesting to discover, though, that Sefer Vayikra, the principal presentation of the rules and laws of karbanot, sacrifices, begins with the nedava,1 a sacrifice brought because of the personal desire of an individual to bring a korban. There are clearly, of course, many sacrifices that do emerge from the sphere of duty and obligation, both of a communal nature and an individual one. The question is, though: why would the Torah begin the entire presentation of sacrifices with one outside this realm, with the nedava that reflects personal desire and neither obligation nor duty? This would seem to bring into question the overriding significance of duty and obligation.
When one further considers that, in our world sadly without the Beit Hamikdash, tefilla, prayer, is often seen as a substitute for sacrifices, the essence of this issue would seem to actually become even more intense and more complicated. According to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, our daily prayers were instituted in place of the daily communal offerings.2 The term avodah, meaning specifically spiritual work in the service of God, applies to both sacrifices and prayer.3 The place of the nedava in prayer, though, it would seem based upon experience and what I have observed, is extremely limited. The fact that the nedava is the first sacrifice presented in Vayikra would seem to give this type of offering a certain level of primacy. In the world of prayer, though, this primacy does not seem to exist. This distinction must have some significance as we attempt to understand, within Torah and, specifically, within avodah, the role of personal desire in comparison to the role of duty and obligation.
It could, however, be contended that personal desire does indeed have a significant role in relation to prayer notwithstanding my observations. Ramban, Commentary to Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot, Aseh 5 even contends that Biblically there is actually no commandment to pray and that the various references to prayer in the Torah actually reflect a permission to pray, a permission to approach God in fulfillment of a desire to approach Him. Even Rambam only presents a minimal Biblical obligation. Rabbinically, though, the essence of our prayers still does seem to emerge from the realm of obligation. When, in fact, can any of us honestly remember solely praying out of personal desire without any element of duty or obligation? Rabbi Yochanan in T.B. Berachot 21a, still declares, though, how wonderful it would be if only one could be able to pray the whole day. This statement is seen as, obviously, encouraging tefillot nedavot, non-obligatory prayers. The actual position of the Halacha, though, is perhaps best presented in the words of Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 107:4. One who wishes to pray a tefilla nedava must be sure that he can meet the highest levels of kevana, proper concentration, before undertaking to approach God in prayer, solely motivated by personal desire. Applying the same word used by Rabbi Yochanan, hali’vei, if only, the Shulchan Aruch further concludes with the refrain about how wonderful it would be if only we were able to meet the correct standards of kevana in our obligatory prayers. In retrospect, perhaps, we should actually conclude that also within prayer just as in regard to karbanot, personal desire may have a place. This place, however, can only correctly be determined once the demands of duty and obligation are met. This, in fact, may be the standard that needs to be applied in the entire realm of avodah.
In reviewing the famous words of Avot 1:2 that declare that one of the pillars of the world is avodah, commentators state that this is applying to the mitzvoth bein adam l’Makom, the commandments between man and God. In that all mitzvot are commandments of God upon man, what does this categorization actually mean? The simple answer is that just as the focus of other mitzvot is on improving our connection with our fellow human beings or on improving ourselves, the focus of the mitzvot bein adam l’Makom is on improving our relationship with God.4 The key word here is relationship. A relationship necessarily implies a meeting of both parties, not simply the imposition of one on the other. The desires and wishes of both parties must be considered in the formation of a strong relationship.
This understanding must also be applied to Torah, specifically and especially in the realm of avodah. A mitzvah, a command of God, reflects His Will. We meet God, within the limitations of our humanity, in hearing, contemplating and observing His commands. This alone would only, though, reflect one side of a relationship. Our own being, as reflected in the expression of our personal desires, must also have a voice in the formation of a relationship. It should, thus, not be surprising that in introducing karbanot, the realm of avodah, the Torah, after focusing on commandments, begins with the personal desire for God. The actual practice of tefillot nedava, though, reflects the other side necessary in the formation of a relationship. What occurs so often in religion is that individuals, with a personal desire for spirituality, create a deity in their own image. It is not The Other to Whom they are relating but some personal vision of their own that yields to them the spiritual ‘fix’ that they desire. The obligatory side of avodah is thus so necessary for thereby we truly confront the Will of God, The Other to Whom we wish to relate. It is important for us to recognize our desire for God and to be told of the availability of the opportunity to approach Him motivated by our personal desire. Hali’vei, if only, though, we were first to truly meet Him within the parameters of His Own Being, and not clouded by our own subjectivity and desires. Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 See Rashi, Vayikra 1:2 and Ramban, Introduction to Sefer Vayikra.
2 T.B. Berachot 26b.
3 Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvot, Aseh 5 is a well-known example of the application of this term to prayer. Bartinura, Avot 1:2 presents the classic view of this term meaning sacrifices. Tosfot Yom Tov, Avot 1:2 should perhaps be noted, though, as he specifically defines this mishna’s use of the term as meaning only sacrifices and, by inference, not prayer. This, though, does not take away from the general understanding which perceives prayer and sacrifices as both forms of avodah.
4 Of course, this method of categorization does not mean that a mitzvah is exclusively within one area and not another. Many, if not all mitzvot, touch upon all these facets. The method of categorization simply reflects the dominant focus not the only one.
© Nishma 2010
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© 2010 NISHMA