We’ve now reached the Avodah section of our service. In Pirke Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, we read that “the world stands on 3 things: Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim” – or to put it in English: wisdom, work, and acts of loving-kindness. Avodah is translated as “work,” but there’s more to it than that. In addition to our jobs, which give us meaning and security, Avodah also references the inner-work that goes on throughout our lives. Avodah is the work that we need to do in order to align our will with G-d’s will, and this is accomplished through tefilah, or prayer.
When I was growing up, I was strongly influenced by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There was one episode where the bad guy brainwashed the entire city. Everyone in the city lost the ability to think for themselves, and they all mindlessly repeated whatever they were told. So one day when I was sitting in Synagogue, I had an epiphany during one of the responsive readings…”These people are brainwashed! They’re like robots who don’t know what they’re saying!”
Many of us come to Synagogue to pray, not really knowing why we do it, how we do it, or what the point of it is. We know we’re supposed to understand these words and mean these words, but how many of us actually do? By reciting these words, are we guaranteeing ourselves a good year ahead? If so, how?
Around 100 years ago, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, said, “No wonder in a sophisticated society people can be disgusted with prayer, because the common man thinks that prayer is all about trying to coax G-d to change G-d’s mind.”
The first thing you need to know about Jewish prayer is that there is no such thing. Jews do not pray. If you look into the root of the word, “prayer,” it comes from a Latin word which means, “to beg.” And that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing in Synagogue. We’re not trying to beg and bargain and convince G-d to change G-d’s mind. What we do is something in Hebrew called lehitpallel, or doing tefillah. Some Hebrew words don’t have a corollary in another language, and tefillah is one of them.
Prayer is really the wrong translation. If the implication is “I’m trying to change G-d’s mind and I’m trying to beg and grovel, and get G-d to see I’m in so much pain, and maybe, somehow, bargain something off.” That’s not what we’re supposed to be doing here. What we do is mitpallel. And to mitpallel or lehitpallel is a completely different experience, and when you understand it, you’ll understand what it means to get your prayers, or better, your tefilot answered.
So what does lehitpallel, translated as “to pray” – what does it really mean? In Hebrew, verbs get conjugated in vastly different ways than in English. In Hebrew there are reflexive verbs that we do to ourselves, and verbs that we do to other people. For instance, the root for getting dressed is lavesh. If I dress myself, ani mitlabesh. Notice the T sound. But if I’m going to dress someone else, then ani malbish oto. It’s 2 different conjugations of the same root.
So if what we do in Synagogue is lehitpallel, then we’re really trying to change ourselves! Is that a paradigm shift for some of you? We don’t pray, because to pray means to try to change G-d, what we do is mitpallel so that we can change ourselves.
When we go to Synagogue and open up a Siddur, we’re not talking to G-d because we think G-d needs to hear what we have to say…WE need to hear what we have to say, WE need to change OUR mind. If you know that you’re going to talk to G-d, then you better listen up to what you want and what’s really on your mind.
So what does pallel mean? Lehit means to do something to yourself. But what are you doing to yourself? What does Pallel mean? The best way to find out what something in Hebrew means is to go to the original book, the Torah, and see how the word is being used. The word “pallel” is used at a very touching moment. Jacob is nearing his death, and his son Joseph came and asked him for a blessing for his two children, Ephraim and Menashe. You may recall the story, how Jacob was led to believe that Joseph was killed. 22 years later, he discovered that he still had this son, and that Joseph had 2 children! The end scene of Jacob, Joseph asks for a blessing for his children. And Jacob says, “lo pallalti” I never palleled that I would have ever seen your face, and yet the Divine has graced me to see the face even of your children. So what does pallel mean? I never would have imagined, I never would have dreamed, never would have anticipated, thought.
Rashi, the great commentator from the 11th century explained what Jacob said in this verse. Lo pallalti, I didn’t pallel…I didn’t fill my heart to think the thoughts that I would have ever seen your face again, and yet I have been graced to see the face of even your children.”
This is what we should mean when we come to Synagogue and open up a Siddur or Machzor. It means we’re involved in an exercise of filling our hearts to think the thoughts, to dream the dreams, to want those ultimate wants in our lives.
What we’re doing here in synagogue is a self-induced experience of envisioning peace in the world, redemption in the world, justice, livelihood, health. And that’s why the leader is called a Chazan. A “singer” would be a zamar. Chazan comes from hazon, which means to envision. The Chazan leads us in a collective exercise in envisioning. Master of the Universe, may we align our vision with Your will.
The Chazan is leading a congregation in an exercise of visionary thinking, dreaming. We’re envisioning and anticipating peace on earth, health, happiness, and security for everyone in every level of society. The more we want what G-d already wants, the more the will of G-d can come into our lives.
In other words, most people think that the point of prayer is to try to get G-d to want what we want. And that is the point of prayer, but not the point of tefillah. Our unique experience is not how to get G-d to want what I want – it’s about how to get me to want what G-d wants. The more I align my will with the Divine Will, according to traditional Jewish belief, the more we become a channel, or a receiver, for G-d’s will in the world.
And now I’d like to introduce some more mystical aspects of what tefilah can accomplish. The founder of Chasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, explained that a curse in your life is actually an unwanted blessing. A blessing is trying to get into your life, but because you’re not oriented to it, receptive to it, you’re experiencing it in a negative way.
Jewish mysticism teaches that only light and only G-dly presence is coming into the world, but if we’re not tuned in, or aligned in mind and will, then that blessing can transform into something painful, only for the sake of trying to help us retune ourselves.
How does tefilah work? How do you get your prayers answered? Answer them! Don’t sit around passively waiting for G-d to change something, rather the way we can change our situation is by getting in touch with ourselves. What do I really want? What is my greatest vision for myself, my community, my world? Is this aligned with G-d’s ultimate vision of the world? And if there’s an alignment, then the blessings come into the world.
Sometimes you look up on a gray, cloudy day and it seems like there’s no sun in the sky. It’s there, it’s just that clouds are obscuring it. Similarly, according to the mystical tradition, we can through the things we think, do and say, can create these clouds that prevent blessing from enter into our lives.
When you open up our siddur, the sages have given us an amazing exercise of what’s really worth wanting. In other words, right now there is hip hop music playing. Is anyone here hearing it? That’s because nobody’s tuned into it. If we turned on a radio, we’d hear it immediately. The mystical masters taught that the Garden of Eden is right here right now. We never left the Garden in essence, only in mind. When we close our minds to the blessing and abundance of divinity in our lives, then we live in a dark world. But that symphony of G-dliness is trying to penetrate into our lives, and we need a lifestyle, through what we say, think, and do, to align ourselves and allow for that incredible music to come into our lives. The more we want what G-d all along has been wanting to give us, the more G-d can come into our lives.
There was a great 20th century non-Jewish sage, who sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you’ll get what you need.” Jewish tradition teaches that you won’t always get what you want, but you’ll always get what you need. Even if what you’re experiencing might be very painful, then the first thing is saying, if this is what’s happening, then there must be a reason for it. Because if it’s coming into my life now, then somehow it’s a blessing for me, it’s an opportunity for growth. I’m going to work with that and grow through that, and seek to bring more of G-d’s guidance and light into my life.
Sometimes we’re trying to align ourselves to G-d’s will, but G-d has a different plan. For whatever reason, that soul is ready to leave the world. Some of the greatest leaders in Jewish history died young…Rabbi Isaac Luria, Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzato), Rebbe Nachman of Breslov – all BRILLIANT minds that perished before the age of 40. We didn’t come here to stay. As our Yom Kippur liturgy says, we’re just passing through, “like a cloud that’s passing, like an ephemeral dream.” So we pray for people’s health because we’ve been commanded to
Noah, interestingly, isn’t considered to be an amazing personality because he didn’t do tefillah on behalf of his community, he didn’t pray for the world. He was told the world would be destroyed and he said, well, ok, where do I start building my boat? He didn’t try to be a vehicle for G-d’s blessing in the world. The Zohar explains that the generation of the flood was actually positioned to receive the Torah, but because they had so distorted their ways of thinking and relating to each other, the waters of Torah came into the world, and it turned into a flood, but it was really meant to be Torah, but they weren’t receptive so it came in a different format.
38:30ish All the bargaining back and forth, Abraham on behalf of Sodom and Gemorah, G-d wanted Abraham to ask to save them. Moses
Our tradition teaches that G-d only wants to give us the absolute best, only wants to heal us, help us grow, and give us what we really want. One more rock reference, Janis Joplin’s famous prayer. “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me, a Mercedes Benz…” We’re in a society that wants the wrong things. Billions of dollars are spent trying to convince us to buy things we don’t need. This causes some people to become fixated on buying things and having the newest and best products, or a bigger house so there’s somewhere to put all those products! Ultimately we shouldn’t want things. I saw a bumper sticker once that read, “The Best things in life are not things” We’re all yearning and searching for want love, meaning, happiness.
You don’t need to have things to be happy. PIRKE AVOT – WHO IS HAPPY? HE WHO REJOICES IN HIS OWN PORTION. The teachings of Judaism help us focus on what’s really worth wanting, what’s worth dreaming about. When you’re thirsting for that in your life, it increases the chances of you noticing it when it does come into your life.