Parashat Tetzaveh 5778

Rabbi Jackie Tabick – 23 February 2018

A little while ago, one of our younger members asked me, “Do I think the world would be a better place if everybody prayed”? And the question, in its very simplicity, took me aback. Indeed, after all these millennia of millions of people praying, there seems no corresponding increase in morality! So is it all a pointless exercise? Shall we pack up shop and all stay home?

Well, of course, the answer must be, as I said to the youngster, it depends what you mean by ‘pray’. One part of the answer to that question is found in this week’s sedra, Tetzaveh. There we read of the incense altar where Aaron and his sons burned the incense twice daily, morning and evening, as a continual offering, a Ketoret Tamid, before the Eternal One. Not a once in the while offering. Not a ‘whenever I feel like it’ offering, but continuous, or regular.

Many of us confine prayer just to Shabbat, and the time we spend in synagogue on that day. Some of us confine prayer to just one or two days of the year. Or when we feel we need an extra boost of Divine help in a difficult situation. Any more feels like a drag on our precious time. Many have decided to limit prayer; we take it into our lives in inadequate doses where like an inadequate dose of medicine, it may do us more harm than good; we say the words without concentration or understanding their implications. Daily, regular practice and study is needed to make the words live. And we don’t feel it’s worth the time or the effort.

But there is a second even more important part of the answer to that youngster, and that arises from the architecture of the ancient Temple. A Midrash says: When people built houses in ancient times, they would make the windows narrow on the outside and wide on the inside, so, in the absence of electricity, the light from outside could illuminate the inside of the house. And castles were built that way so that people could sit comfortably on the window sills while firing arrows at their enemies outside.

But when King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, he did something very strange. He made the windows in the opposite way! The windows were narrow on the inside, and wide on the outside! Why do this? So the light from the prayers said inside the Temple could bring light to the troubled peoples in the market places of our ordinary lives. Prayers which end just as words are not true prayers but part of a selfish longing for individual spiritual connections with God. And I’m not sure that constitutes true prayer.

To me, one of the spiritual exercises that must go with prayer is discovering the questions that the prayers throw out at us about our actions. In Grace after Meals we say that God provides sufficient food for the world. We look at the starving millions and feel that is a lie. But look again! God provides, it is us who don’t share in an equitable manner. It is us who buy so much of the world’s food that we then cause mountains of rubbish with the stuff we waste, or who ruin the ecology of the world so that not sufficient is produced for the its inhabitants. Or another example, in the morning blessings we thank God for opening our eyes to see. But what should we be seeing? Only our own needs? Or also those of those around us? Only our own pain? Or the pain of those in our family; at our work; in our communities; in our world?

‘Thoughts and prayers’ are an absolute waste of time to commemorate the lives of those who are killed by merciless gun fire. And they certainly don’t bring much comfort to the bereaved or the wounded in such circumstances. Thoughts and prayers alone have very limited use unless they can influence us to work to change the world for the better.

But we have our problems with prayer. We don’t engage in them regularly enough. We don’t understand the power they can have on the way we see life. We don’t let them affect our daily actions and relationships and the result is that many feel that yes, prayer is useless and that therefore religion should know its place and that that place is limited. But maybe if all of us could really engage in true prayer, and let the Divine light within them spill into our actions and out into the real world, then the result for all of us in this world would be truly wondrous.

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