Pekudei — Perfecting your soul

February 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

What happens when you pray regularly?

What happens if you come to services every week and pray with sincerity? Is that a different kind of experience than coming to services once and a while?

According to Maimonides, the answer would be yes: it is indeed different.

Let me explain. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, God’s presence would be made manifest to them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This presence was considered dangerous: there was a clear need to set limits and define boundaries so that no one would be harmed by it.

So, as we read in this week’s portion, the Israelites were commanded to build a Mishkan – a portable tabernacle where they would encounter God’s presence in a structured way. And they became accustomed to offering sacrifices as part of their relationship to God.

Ultimately, the theology grew up around the Temple that these sacrifices were keeping the world in order. They were the activities that kept chaos at bay. And, as the society became more centralized and urbane, these activities became centralized around the Temple in Jerusalem. For the Israelites, the Temple was the very center of the world: the place where heaven and earth touch.

However, in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis were left with the question of what to do about worshipping God. Does it matter that we no longer have the commanded forms of sacrifice available to us? Or are there other possibilities that might be equally valid?

Let’s look at Maimonides’ answer. For Maimonides, the highest form of worship is the contemplation of God. The outward forms of prayer – such as the sacrificial system – are not what matters most. For him, the contemplation of God is what matters most.

The contemplation of God is no small task, as it requires sustained effort. Most of us nowadays are a bit sleep-deprived, so sitting still long enough to engage in contemplation might instead provide an opportunity for a nap. In Maimonides’ time, it’s possible that folks got more sleep – not being distracted by playing Flapping Birds on the iPad or catching up on missed episodes of Downton Abbey on Netflix – but they had at least as many opportunities to get sidetracked by business and family life as we do.

Therefore, Maimonides argues, God commanded the creation of the sacrificial cult, which would provide a physical expression of what their minds could not fully grasp without sustained effort and training. Moreover, engaging in sacrifice helped the Israelites transition from their earlier pagan customs to the correct apprehension of God. 

In other words, he argues, if God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.'”[1]

The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompts God to provide an alternative:

“Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted.”[2] 

These forms of prayer might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’s part, for they were an accommodation to the weaknesses of human beings. 

Immediately following the fall of the Second Temple, however, when the sacrificial cult was no longer available, each worshipper had to create prayer-forms individually. And that was exceedingly difficult.

It was for this reason that the Men of the Great Assembly developed a structured prayer-service. These are the folks who created the ‘baruch atah Adonai…’ formula that is so familiar to us today. They made it possible for us to lean on an existing form, rather than having to make it up ourselves each and every time we pray.

Maimondes also argues that the creators of these forms had a specific goal in mind: They created this structure so that the worshipper might use it to perfect himself or herself. Over the course of many years, he or she might learn the highest forms of contemplation. 

In the Guide III:51, Maimonides lays out the steps to take toward perfection of one’s prayer, using the structure provided by the Men of the Great Assembly. As he begins:

“The first thing that you should cause your soul to hold fast onto is that while reciting the Shema prayer, you should empty your mind of everything and pray thus. You should not content yourself with being intent while reciting the first verse of Shema and saying the first benediction.”[3]

It is not surprising that he chooses the Shema prayer as his starting-point, as it holds a special place in the prayer service. It is found in the Torah, and reflects the perfection of Moses. It is prescribed as the last words for a pious Jew to recite before death, just as it was uttered by Akiba in the last moments of his martyrdom. In addition, it provides a succinct profession of faith, one that affirms the singularity and uniqueness of God. 

We should also note here that the direction of this movement prescribed by Maimonides flows from the simplest and most direct concept––the Shema––to the Bible, and then outward toward the rabbinic literature. This structure reflects the legal distinction of d’oreita (originating from the Torah, the most authoritative source) and d’rabbanan (originating from the rabbis, which is binding, but less authoritative). It also reflects the pattern for the education of the young. 

Once this stage has been mastered, it is then possible to continue. As he explains:

“When this has been carried out correctly and has been practiced for years, cause your soul, whenever you read or listen to the Torah, to be constantly directed––the whole of you and your thought––toward reflection on what you are listening to or reading.”[4]

Here Maimonides is teaching his reader how to develop the capacity for hyper-focused attention: First, learn how to clear the mind and consider just this one thing (a task that by itself takes years to master), and then, apply that focus to the Torah reading. Having done that, one might use the Torah text itself as a source of contemplation:

“When this too has been practiced consistently for a certain time, cause your soul to be in such a way that your thought is always quite free of distraction and gives heed to all that you are reading of the discourses of the prophets and even when you read all the benedictions, so that you aim at meditating on what you are uttering and at considering its meaning.”[5]

Once this step has been mastered, it is then possible to focus on the remainder of the service; one approaches the Haftarah portion next, and then the various benedictions in the service. One should start with this singular affirmation expressed by the Shema, and then work methodically towards expanding this capacity for concentration in prayer. 

Eventually, it might be possible to differentiate clearly between the prayer-state and mundane-state of mind, and to transition between them at will. Maimonides suggests that the quiet time after the day is finished is ideal for this kind of reflection:

“When, however, you are alone with yourself and no one else is there and while you lie awake upon your bed, you should take great care during these precious times not to set your thought to work on anything other than that intellectual worship consisting in nearness to God and being in His presence in that true reality that I have made known to you and not by way of affectations of the imagination.”[6]

Having used the prayer-service as a vehicle for training, it is now possible to achieve, and achieve at will, that state of hyper-focused intentionality.

During these moments at the end of the day when there is quiet in the house, it is possible to think without interruption. Therefore, Maimonides admonishes, do not waste this precious time thinking about business or household concerns; you have had all day to do so. This quiet time is designated for contemplation at the highest level.

So, let us return to our opening questions: what happens when you pray regularly? What happens if you come to services every week and pray with sincerity? Is that a different kind of experience than coming to services once and a while?

According to Maimonides, the answer would be yes: it is indeed different.

Praying regularly helps us develop the discipline to think about the big questions. Our culture teaches us to run away from them: to cover them up with noise and business, to drown them with consumption in excess, to avoid them through diversion and entertainment. But such activity leaves us feeling hollow.

Praying regularly allows us to cut through the noise and clutter, so that when you stop to think about the big questions – the questions that keep you up at night – you have a structured, disciplined way of considering these things, rather than being held ransom by your anxieties and insecurities.

In other words, what happens when you pray regularly, really pray, according to Maimonides? You perfect your soul.  

 

 

 


[1] Maimonides, Guide III:32, p. 526.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maimonides, Guide, III:51, pp. 622-3.

[4] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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