Vayetze: Learning How to Pray

“He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and the angels of God were going up and down it…. Jacob awoke from his sleep [mishnato] and said, ‘Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it!’ Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to the heaven.’” (Breishit 28: 10-17)

What is it that Jacob did not know? What was the exact nature of his light-bulb realization? In this week’s shiur, Avivah Zornberg shared a drash from the Hasidic commentator the Meor VaShemesh, which I translate/paraphrase in these next two paragraphs:

**There is a midrash that says that Jacob awoke not from his sleep (mishnato) but from his Mishnayot (mimishnato). From this we learn that the essence of man’s worship is to come to perfect service of God and to grasp the meaning of God through both Torah and Tefilla. There cannot be one without the other, because an ignoramus does not become a pious Hasid; and conversely, one who says, “there is nothing in the world for me except Torah” does not have even Torah. It is true that by studying Torah for the sake of heaven and cleaving one’s soul and one’s very being to the letters of the Torah, a person can achieve great holiness; but a person can only truly fear and love and yearn for God through prayer, and through the surrendering of the self that prayer entails, as we know from all our holy books.

Our sages of blessed memory taught that when Jacob had his dream at Beit El, he established the evening prayer Arvit. Until this point, Jacob had not known the secret of prayer. God did not reveal Himself to him until he became aware of its tremendous power. And this is the meaning of the midrash that says that Jacob awoke from his Mishnayot – that is, he awoke from his study of Torah, for he had been studying for fourteen years in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever. Upon awakening, he realized that Torah alone would not bring him to a full awareness of God. Jacob said, “Surely the Lord is present” – meaning that though prayer, he was able to better understand God than he ever could through Torah alone. “And I did not know it” – meaning that I did not know the tremendous power of prayer, which enables us to come to know God in full fervor, and brings us, therefore, to the gates of heaven.**

This Shabbat, in which we read parshat Vayetze, will mark the first Shabbat that I am no longer gabbai of our minyan in Jereusalem. I am excited to be yotzeit y’dei chovati – to be free at last of my formal responsibilities and to pass on the mantle of leadership. No more running around the shul to find someone to leyn the accidentally-unassigned aliyah; no more setting up kiddush during musaf; no more fretting that the shliach tzibur sounds like a cross between a foghorn and a bilious pigeon. I am excited; but I am also nervous. In the role of the busy gabbai, I have had the best excuses not to daven; now, it seems, many of my excuses have run out. I might just finally have to learn to pray.

Why am I still so woefully oblivious to what the Meor Vashemesh calls “sod ha-tefilla”? Though I can’t claim to have spent fourteen years in a yeshiva, I do, like Jacob, privilege study over prayer. And so I manage to find the time to attend a 45-minute daily daf yomi shiur, but rarely feel I can spare the full half hour for shacharit afterwards. I go to a morning minyan at my yeshiva once a week, but I come late, sit in the very back of the room, and hide my head in a Gemara. I forget my tallit and tefillin more often than I care to admit; the accoutrements of prayer seem like just an additional nuisance. Shabbat, as I have said, is not much better. On Friday nights, when I do go to shul, I take a chumash rather than a siddur and read through the parsha in a last-minute attempt to come up with a dvar Torah for the Shabbat that everyone around me is so joyously welcoming.

I am not proud of that fact that whenever Torah and Tefilla compete for my time, Torah wins hands-down. It might be tempting to chalk it up to hyper-intellectualism, and to say that I am just so absorbed in my studies that I can’t be bothered to daven. But any time I find myself drawn to such excuses, I remember a story that my Talmud teacher told me three years ago. Once upon a time, he related, he used to learn Gemara during minyan. His rav noticed that he would do this every day. One day his rav came up to him and said, “Shmuel, you must be such a talmid chacham given all the Gemara you learn during davening. But I have to ask you: If you’re such a talmid chacham, don’t you know better than to learn Gemara during davening?”

This question haunts me when I find myself reaching for the chumash instead of the siddur on Friday nights, and when I learn in the back of the room during morning minyan. I know that it is not just a love for Torah that keeps me from appreciating the power of Tefilla. Rather, there is something about Tefilla that is agonizingly difficult for me. There are essential differences between Torah and Tefilla that draw me so passionately to the one, and exclude me so frustratingly from the other.

Though they are both ways of coming to know God, Torah and Tefilla are quite different from one another. Torah is about novelty—about conquering as much new territory as possible, and synthesizing more and more information, and coming up with chidushim that cast everything that came before in a whole new light. Tefilla, on the other hand, is about repetition and return. Each day and each week and each year, we recite exactly the same tefillot as the day and weeks and years that came before. The Amidah of Tuesday is the same as the Amidah of Monday; the Shabbat musaf this week is identical to the Shabbat musaf last week; and we will say the prayer for dew this Pesach as we said it last Pesach. Whereas Torah study is about taking the unfamiliar–the next daf of Gemara, a new sugya, a new perush–and internalizing it until it becomes familiar, Tefilla is about taking the familiar–the same words we say day after day–—and saying them with such kavana that it is as if we are renewing each day the miracle of their creation.

Learning Torah is about forging onwards, plowing ahead, breaking new ground. The metaphors we use for studying Torah are those of forward motion and expansion. People who love the study of Torah are those who are never content to stay in one place, or to bask in what they already understand, for it is for this purpose that they were created. They know that Torah demands that we keep moving, that we keep turning it over and over, and that we do not stop even for moment to notice, say, a beautiful tree by the roadside. Tefilla, in constrast, is about standing still and looking inwards. The central prayer—the one that is called HaTefilla (the prayer) by the rabbis—is called the Amidah (standing) because it must be recited while standing in place, our feet pressed together like angels. If I want to daven, I have to wholly inhabit myself and my space. I have to be comfortable enough in my body to sit and stand and bow freely, all without ever stepping out of a very narrow imaginary circle drawn around my feet. I have to be focused and present and at peace. I have to be, in short, everything that I am not.

The shift from being a person who learns Torah to being a person who also knows to daven is the transformation we witness at the beginning of this week’s parsha, as the Meor VaShemesh so beautifully articulates it. Jacob wakes up suddenly from his dream and realizes, for the first time, that dwelling in the house of God means embracing the divine through prayer. It is not a lesson easily learned, even after many years of study; indeed, it was only when he went out–vayetze–from the yeshiva that Jacob fully grasped the power of Tefilla. And so how do I effect this transformation within myself, I who spend every free minute studying Torah, and I who have never dreamt of ladders with angels ascending and descending from heaven to earth and back? I do not know. But perhaps if I put down my Gemara, close my eyes, press my feet together, and raise my voice in song with those around me–not just tomorrow, but the next day and the next day and the next–I might surprise myself one day and find that I, too, am in the company of angels.

One thought on “Vayetze: Learning How to Pray

  1. Ittay says:

    hey buddy,i feel the same as you in regards to doing everything except davening at shule. i was also at the same shiur with aviva that week, about how yaacov found his “anochi”i wrote about it on my blog.


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