5753 - #15

There is a famous argument among the Rishonim concerning the mitzvah of tephilla, prayer. Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvah Aseh 5 states that there is a mitzvah d'oraita, a Biblical command to pray. (For the exact details of the d'oraita command as distinguished from the more detailed Rabbinic command that includes Shemona Esreh and demands tephillot at different times of the day, see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tephilla 1:2,3). Ramban, on that mitzvah, however, disagrees stating that there is no Biblical command to pray. His language is most instructive:

...clearly, the entire matter of prayer is not a [Biblical] obligation at all, however it is from the attribute of chesed (loving kindness) of the Creator, blessed be he, upon us that He listens and answers whenever we call to Him...

In many ways we consider prayer to be a given. To many, in fact, prayer is the very essence of a religion; it marks our very connection to G-d and provides the basis for the spiritual pursuit. Ramban, however, is postulating that prayer is not automatic, that man is able to recognize the Divine reality and respond to that Reality can exist, on some level, without tephilla. According to him, there is no mitzvah to pray. Prayer is, in fact a tremendous gift from G-d that does not necessarily have to be (m'midot hadin). What does this say about Judaism and what tephilla truly represents as distinct from what we may think prayer is now?

There is a parable concerning blind individuals and the elephant. Each blind person touched a different part of the elephant and, without recourse to seeing the entire animal, arrived at vastly different perceptions of the animal. Those who touched the tail or the trunk compared the elephant to snakes or eels. Those that touch the legs compared the animal to tree trunks. Those that felt the ears thought of it as a large bird or butterfly. I have often considered those individuals who only attend shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to be similar to these blind people; they perceive Torah based on the experiences of a singular event, for which they are largely unprepared and unable to perceive in whole, with consequent distortions. I always wondered how the yomim noraim became the High Holidays that drew people back to the synagogue once a year. Within Halacha, while Yom Kippur does have a unique kedusha beyond that of other holidays, the perceived overriding importance that the general population sees in these days cannot be defended. If I was choosing a Jewish holiday to make my yearly return to the synagogue, I think it would be Simchat Torah or Purim. The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that the yomim noraim are the most religious of days. If you want to make a mistake and to think that Torah Judaism is like any other religion, then only celebrate Judaism on the yomim noraim. Afterall, they must be most important for we spend more time in the synagogue and pray more on these days.

To most, religion is perceived as the vehicle for spirituality, as the method by which we connect with the Divine. The objective is the spiritual experience, the feeling of transcendence that must be associated with G-d. If that is the goal of religion then the days on which, it seems, we focus on that must be the most important days. Prayer, attendance in the synagogue, is considered the manifestation of the spiritual experience and therefore we, at least, return on these days of focus (and those not involved in the spiritual still attend, although they find it redundant and boring, for it is the right thing to do).

Yet, Ramban states that Torah can exist without tephilla. Obviously, connecting with the Divine, achieving closeness with Him, is extremely important to Torah, so what is Ramban postulating. He is stating that our goal is not the spiritual experience. We don't pray because it is the path to the spiritual, the way to achieve transcendence. We pray because, simply, we wish to talk to G-d. This is basic to Rambam as well. The reason we daven more on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is simply because we have more to talk about at this time; it is our "meeting" with G-d concerning our productivity of the past year and our plans for the one upcoming. And, in the words of Ramban, this is a tremendous kindness from G-d to "meet" with us and to listen to our concerns and include them in His plans. The strange paradox is that the very importance of these days lie in their connection to the rest of the year.

The sad reality is that our behaviour on the yomim noraim allow individuals to see Torah through the eyes of religion. We pray; religions pray. We pray more on these days therefore these days must be the High Holidays, of the greatest significance. But, why do we pray? If you see the whole elephant then you understand the role of the trunk - understand the uniqueness of the elephant and its trunk. If you are blind and only experience the trunk then you consider it to be like any other snake. And since this is your religion, you go to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

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