Eat, Pray, Love

   Well, forget the “eat” part. But what is the connection between “pray” and “love”?

     The Torah restricted donations to the Tabernacle to those people “whose hearts motivated them” to give. But it is the only mitzva in the Torah that is so circumscribed – the Torah never says observe Shabbat only if your heart is into it, eat kosher food only when your motivation is pure, or learn Torah only when you are in the mood. Those are absolutes – we are commanded to perform those mitzvot regardless of our internal state. Yet, here the Torah constrains the participants of this mitzva. Why ? What should it matter to the treasurer how you feel when you pay your dues ?

     Of course, this mitzva – and another that partakes of a similar framework – both come under the rubric of avoda – service of G-d. The Talmud (Taanit 2b) quotes the famous verse we recite daily in Sh’ma and comments:  “‘…to love G-d and to serve Him with all your heart.’ What is the service of the heart ? Prayer.” Both prayer and contributions to the Sanctuary depend on and are defined by the engagement of the heart. But how do we engage the “heart” in these activities?

     A recent visitor raised a question about a common phrase in our davening that I had never noticed before. More than one thousand times a year, we recite in the amida the (17th) blessing that begins “Retzai”, that “G-d should find favor with the Jewish people and their prayers, and restore the service to the Sanctuary, “v’ishai yisrael u’tefilatam b’ahava tekabel b’ratzon.”  Leaving aside the question of to which clause “v’ishai yisrael” (the fire-offerings of Israel) belongs – former or latter – please focus on the last four words: “u’tefilatam b’ahava tekabel b’ratzon“/ ArtScroll translates as “…their prayer…accept with love and favor;” Metzuda Siddur: “accept their prayer, lovingly and willingly;” and the new Koren siddur: “Accept in love and favor …their prayer.”

      Unfortunately, unanimity here trumps exactitude, because the translation does not precisely convey the meaning of the words. The translations would be correct if the words were juxtaposed – “b’ahava u’v’ratzon” – “with love and favor” (just like that phrase b’ahava u’v’ratzon  is utilized every Shabbat in Kiddush – “in love and favor You gave us Your holy Shabbat  as a heritage.”) But here it does not say that. It reads “u’tefilatam b’ahava tekabel b’ratzon”- the “love” and the “favor” are separated.

      What are we saying, according to the exact translation?  That You, G-d, should “accept our prayers that are offered with love.” It is obvious: if the tefilot are not offered with love, then how can we ask G-d to find favor in them ?

    I only found corroboration for this elucidation in one of the commentaries – that of Rav Shimon Schwab in “Rav Schwab on Prayer.” He too was troubled by this phraseology, and he explained it the same way, and stated that when he recites this blessing, he mentally places a comma after b’ahava:“u’tefilatam b’ahava, tekabel b’ratzon“/ In context, in this blessing, he suggests, we are asking nothing for ourselves. It is out of our pure love of G-d that we want His presence to permeate the world – so that “our eyes should witness Your return to Zion in compassion.”

      But perhaps the intention is even more expansive, and is meant as a commentary on prayer generally. A prayer that is not offered out of love is simply… words. Words. A contribution given to the Tabernacle in which the heart is disengaged – and is done perfunctorily, without feeling, sensitivity, or gratitude – is unwelcome, and unworthy of us. The arena of divine service demands engagement of the heart, because the whole purpose of the mitzva is perfection of the heart. It is not only the action of prayer that has to be carried out with love, but the person himself must be in a state of love when he recites his prayers. That is much rarer than we care to admit.

    Rav Kook wrote that the study of Torah is divine service with our minds and intellects. We develop and perfect our minds, all in line with G-d’s word. But prayer is divine service with our emotions (Orot Hakodesh I:252), another dimension of the human personality. For sure, the intellect is more reliable than the emotions in ascertaining truth, and is also more exalted – but the emotions are a more credible determinant of who we are and of how we perceive ourselves. We sometimes know things that we do not internalize, that do not animate us, and that do not even speak to us. We can know things that are not really a part of us. But we are how we feel. It is therefore that internal state that we bring to our davening – and that makes it either vacuous and mechanical or meaningful and heartfelt.

     We are experts in the obligations of prayer, and in satisfying those obligations often monotonously. A popular book on tefila contains a chapter on “Twelve Strategies to Getting Your Prayers Accepted,” as if that is a primary goal of tefila. Of course, some strategies are valid, some are better than others and some are just shtik (in deference to the modern dumbing down of Judaism). But entirely omitted was our simple phrase “u’tefilatam b’ahava tekabel b’ratzon” – “accept with favor their prayers that are recited with love.” Prayers that are recited with love are accepted; prayers that emanate from our hearts and that reflect our inner world find divine favor. To pray (properly) is to love, and to love is to desire to pray.

    And even more: those who pray with love find “eternal favor.” In a world that is filled with uncertainty and in which our enemies abound, the only certainty we have is in tefila – in our direct line to G-d that is contingent on the “offerings of our heart.” Only then will we merit beholding His return to Zion, and His protective hand that nourishes our eternal bond with Him, and our eternity as a people.

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