Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21 - 7:89) In the desert, the people of Israel built the tabernacle so God would dwell among them. In Exodus, the artisans completed their work and gave an accounting of how they used the contributions from the people. In Leviticus, the priests were consecrated and began offering sacrifices. In this week’s portion, the tribal chieftains bring sacrifices, gifts to ensure the ongoing function of the tabernacle.
Twelve chieftains, twelve identical gifts.
Abarbanel explains that each gift, although identical, is listed separately because each chieftain brought it with an individual intention (kavana).
This is similar to communal prayer to this day. The maintenance of a synagogue still requires generous gifts. We, too, use a uniform ceremony and text but the intention, the inner content, is different for each person.
We often hear complaints about the length and repetitiveness of the service – like this week’s portion. Then we look for external ways to improve our prayer experience because it is always easier pass the responsibility on. But the improvements can and must come from within.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote at length about problem of prayer in the modern synagogue: “The problem is not how to revitalize prayer; the problem is how to revitalize ourselves… Kavanah requires preparation. Miracles may happen, but one must not rely on miracles” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, MGSA).
The challenge we face is preparing ourselves so our prayer will come from within. There were 12 chieftains, there are more than 12 ways prepare for prayer. Here are a few.
The study of liturgy, the origin and history of prayers is my first love in the field of Jewish studies. We study the fixed text (keva) and then move through it to intention. Heschel calls this a prayer of empathy, the “more common type of prayer… There is need be no prayerful mood when we begin to pray (MGSA).” We need do to be open and allow the words to lead us. This is the method I usually teach.
However, today I want to focus on intention ab initio*.
Start with a few quiet moments – – perhaps take a deep breath. Then…
Be thankful. We have done nothing to merit our lives, and therefore we must daily express our gratitude for them. The custom is to begin each day with “Grateful am I (Modeh ani).” In the Amida, we say “Grateful are we (Modim anachnu).” To be a Jew means to follow in the footsteps of the matriarch Leah and be thankful for what we have (a fourth son) even if we are lacking something else important (Jacob’s love). Who is rich? The one who is happy in her lot. (See Genesis 29:35: the name “Yehuda” is derived from the root to “thank,” or “admit.”)
To be grateful for what we have and be content with our lot, does not mean that we do not feel what is lacking. For Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the main intentions for prayer is the admission that we cannot achieve everything we want on our own. As we enter into prayer, we must distinguish between our needs, our worthy desires and our less than worthy desires. He emphasizes that this is not a simple task because,
An entire technology is bent upon generating more and more needs in order to give man the opportunity to derive pleasure through the gratification of artificially-fabricated needs” (“Redemption, Prayer and Talmud Torah”).Soloveitchik wrote this 35 years ago. Consumer culture and the influence of advertising has only become stronger since then. Prayer gives us a moment to reestablish our priorities and break free of the dizziness of acquisitiveness.
Heschel approaches prayer from a different direction. For him, “To pray is to take notice of the wonder (Man’s Quest for God).” Prayers of praise burst forth from this wonder. Heschel considers praise far superior to petitionary prayer, even claiming that the true moment of prayer occurs when the person praying for bread rises above the request and is aware only of God’s mercy (MGSA).
That moment passes. It is not the experience of daily prayer. If you experience it, treasure the memory. On a grey day, the memory wonder can open a pathway to intention.
Before concluding, a favorite quote from Heschel, one of my favorites and apparently one of his, too, because it appears in his writings several times.
We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub but the spoke of the revolving wheel… Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy (MGSA). We are to step aside, try seeing the world as it really is and the many tasks before us. In a popular song Julie Gold wrote, “From a distance we all have enough and no one is in need. God is watching us from a distance.” No. We affirm that our God cares for orphans and widows (Deuteronomy 10:18 and elsewhere), sees the truth and asks “Where are you? (Genesis 3:9).”
In the time of prayer, we must reply, and identify our task in this world, what we can give in response to the needs of the other. This doesn't come easily. The pressures of life drag us down and cloud our vision.
Prayer is difficult, intention acquires effort and discipline. Even Heschel testifies, “I am not always in the mood to pray... But when I am weak, it is the law that gives me strength (MGSA).”
It’s not likely to the chieftains in the wilderness were wealthy. Their gifts were sacrifices. Giving was difficult but brought them closer to the holy.
We are not required to sacrifice cattle rather time, effort and the words of our lips.
May we know how to do the work and answer the call.
Shoshana Michael Zucker, Hod Vehadar, 5574-2014
*I am grateful to Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon and Yeshivat Hadar, New York, whose writing and teaching about Heschel and prayer helped me organize my thoughts about things I have been thinking about for a long time.