Stand By Your Word

Parashat Matot-Mas’ei 5777

Meir Sendor

תהלים פרק סה פסוק ב

לך דמיה תהלה אלהים בציון ולך ישלם נדר:

To You silence is praise, God, in Zion, and to You shall vows be fulfilled.

Tensions are high on the Temple Mount this week, after an attack last Friday by Muslim terrorists who killed two border guards at the Lions Gate and on the Temple Mount itself, using weapons apparently hidden in one of the Temple Mount mosques. In the wake of the attacks, the Israel government ordered installation of metal detectors for those entering the Temple Mount area. This led to a boycott by Muslim worshippers and the Waqf who refused to enter the Temple Mount for worship if they need to go through metal detectors. A bit ironic, since for decades the rest of humanity has been required to go through metal detectors and other indignities at airports and other public venues, including synagogues throughout Europe, because of Islamist terrorism worldwide.

Also ironic is that the boycott by Muslims made things a little easier for a few days for Jews visiting the Temple Mount, including some friends of ours. There are certain areas of the Temple Mount periphery that halakhically observant Jews can visit after having prepared carefully and immersed in a mikveh. More central areas are off limits these days due to more severe ritual impurity that requires a more stringent purification not yet available. These are halakhic restrictions we accept upon ourselves. But for the last few decades, Jews visiting the Temple Mount have been prohibited by the Muslim Waqf from praying in any way, whether using a written text or just standing and appearing to be speaking to God. Jews who appear to be praying are harassed verbally and sometimes physically. It’s a religious discrimination that has been ruled illegal by Israel’s Supreme Court but is still enforced with the assistance of Israeli security, for the dubious purpose of trying to keep a lid on tensions. But this week the silence in Zion was temporarily broken:  Jews came and prayed on the Temple Mount without harassment, including a group of devout Jews who said Kaddish for one of the border guards on the site where he was murdered. Both of the border guards were members of the Druze community in Israel. A moving commemoration.

In truth, prohibition of prayer is absurd. Ritual expressions, including words and devotional actions, can be obstructed, but a human being cannot be stopped from communicating with God. Maimonides tells us that our consciousness emanates from God’s own awareness (Guide 3:52) and he alludes to the fact that we can communicate fully and effectively with God through pure thought (Guide 3:32). “To You, God, silence is praise,” that is, mindfulness of God without words can be a high, even higher, level of praise and devotion.

An incident brought in the Gemara Berakhot demonstrates that there’s a limit to the use of words in tefillah. A prayer leader deviated from the fixed liturgy of the Amidah to try to magnify the praise of God by adding adjectives:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף לג עמוד ב

ההוא דנחית קמיה דרבי חנינא, אמר: האל הגדול הגבור והנורא והאדיר והעזוז והיראוי החזק והאמיץ והודאי והנכבד. המתין לו עד דסיים, כי סיים אמר ליה: סיימתינהו לכולהו שבחי דמרך? למה לי כולי האי? אנן הני תלת דאמרינן – אי לאו דאמרינהו משה רבינו באורייתא, ואתו אנשי כנסת הגדולה ותקנינהו בתפלה – לא הוינן יכולין למימר להו, ואת אמרת כולי האי ואזלת! משל, למלך בשר ודם שהיו לו אלף אלפים דינרי זהב, והיו מקלסין אותו בשל כסף, והלא גנאי הוא לו!

A certain person descended (to the podium to serve as prayer leader) in the presence of Rabbi Hanina. He said “God the great, the powerful, the awesome, the noble, the majestic, the fearsome, the strong, the mighty, the absolute, the glorious…” [Rabbi Hanina] waited until he finished. When he finished he said to him: “have you concluded all the praises of your Master? Why do we need all this? For us, the three [words of praise] that we say, were it not that Moshe Rabbenu said them in the Torah and the men of the Great Assembly established them in the liturgy, we would not be able to say them. And you say all these and keep going on? It’s like a mortal king who has thousands upon thousands of gold dinars and they praise him for having silver – wouldn’t it be an insult to him?”

The context is the first blessing of the Amidah, in which HaShem is praised with just three adjectives, taken from Dt. 10:17: “God the great, the powerful and the awesome.” Rabbi Hanina’s point is that even these three adjectives are not sufficient, and we wouldn’t be entitled to say them were it not that we have a precedent from Moshe and from the men of the Great Assembly, who used Moshe’s three words of praise when they composed the fixed liturgy. Piling on more words does not enhance praise of God, in fact it detracts, by cheapening the meaning of words. Saying those select three words with as much feeling and understanding as we can is a more effective approach to praising God who is really beyond our ability to praise. Rashi on Psalms explains:

רש”י תהלים פרק סה

(ב) לך דמיה תהלה – השתיקה תהלה לך לפי שאין קץ לשבחך והמרבה בשבח אינו אלא גורע:

“To You silence is praise” – silence is praise to You because there is no end to the praise due You, and one who increases praise only detracts.

Speaking words meaningfully is the opening halakhic issue of this week’s parashah.

במדבר פרק ל פסוק ג

איש כי ידר נדר ליקוק או השבע שבעה לאסר אסר על נפשו לא יחל דברו ככל היצא מפיו יעשה:

Whoever vows a vow to HaShem or swears an oath to prohibit something upon himself, he shall not desecrate his words; all he utters from his mouth he shall fulfill.

The technical halakhic context is the honoring of vows and oaths, formal modes of speech that invoke God as Witness, in which we commit to the truth of what we say and to fulfill what we promise. These serve as models for all speech, to say what we mean and mean what we say – especially in tefillah, in which we speak directly to God.

This is why the sages endorse meditation as a preparation for tefillah:

 תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף ל עמוד ב

אין עומדין להתפלל אלא מתוך כובד ראש. חסידים הראשונים היו שוהין שעה אחת ומתפללין, כדי שיכוונו לבם לאביהם שבשמים.

We do not stand to pray except from a state of solemnity of mind. The early righteous one would delay an hour and then pray, in order to direct their hearts to their Father in Heaven.

Maimonides comments:

רמב”ם על משנה מסכת ברכות פרק ה משנה א

וענין שוהין, ממתינים, כלומר שהיו ממתינים לפני התפלה שעה ובה מפסיקים השיחה והמחשבות ואז מתחילים להתפלל.

The matter of delaying is waiting, that is, they would wait before prayer for an hour, during which they would stop speaking and thinking and then begin to pray.

In other words, the early righteous people would clear their minds of verbal thinking and cultivate mindful awareness to facilitate focused prayer in which every word said to God is meaningful.

Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher in his great halakhic code the Tur comments more expansively and takes the practice of meditation before prayer even further:

טור אורח חיים הלכות תפלה סימן צח

צריך שיכוין לבו שנאמר תכין לבם פירוש שיכוין פי’ המלותא שמוציא בשפתיו ויחשוב כאילו שכינה כנגדו שנא’ שויתי ה’ לנגדי תמיד ויעיר הכוונה ויסיר כל המחשבות הטורדות אותו עד שתשאר מחשבתו וכוונתו זכה בתפלתו ויחשוב כי אילו היה מדבר לפני מלך ב”ו שהיום כאן ולמחר בקבר היה מסדר דבריו ומכוין בהם יפה לבל יכשל ק”ו לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא שצריך לכוין אף מחשבתו כי לפניו המחשבה כדיבור כי כל המחשבות הוא חוקר וכן היו עושין חסידים ואנשי מעשה שהיו מתבודדים ומכוונין בתפלתן עד שהיו מגיעים להתפשטות הגשמיות ולהתגברות רוח השכלית עד שהיו מגיעים קרוב למעלת הנבואה

It is necessary to focus one’s heart, as it says “make right their heart,” meaning to focus. That is, regarding the word that one expresses with one’s lips, to consider that it is as if the divine Presence is before you, as it says “I place HaShem before me always,” and arouse intent and remove all distracting thoughts until one’s mind and attention remain pure in one’s prayer. Consider that if one were speaking before a mortal king, here today and gone tomorrow, one would order one’s words and focus them well so as not to stumble, all the more so before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, must one focus even one’s thoughts, for before Him thought is like speech, for He examines all thoughts. And that is what the righteous ones and men of great deeds would do – they would meditate and focus in their prayer until they arrived at a stripping away of corporeality, to strengthen the intellective spirit until they arrived at a state close to the level of the angels.

In the Gemara and the Tur, meditation as preparation for prayer is cited as a practice of especially pious people of the past. In the Shulchan Arukh Rabbi Yosef Karo makes it an obligation for all of us (O.H. 98). Meditation helps cultivate a quiet awareness that enhances the meaning of the words of tefillah, and connects us with God even beyond the words.

We gave a series of shiurim this week at Midreshet Nishmat in Jerusalem dealing with meditation and tefillah. One series taught traditional Jewish meditation techniques for quieting and focusing the mind. Another series was an in-depth read of part two of Nefesh HaHayyim of Rav Hayyim of Volozhin, a kabbalistic approach to tefillah. The third series presented a kabbalistic meditation method for perceiving the aura and its fine structure. Learning together and sharing insights into our relationship with HaShem and each other with these mature and thoughtful students was an extraordinary experience, deepening the meaning of prayer and meditation for us all. 

And this puts into perspective the struggle over prayer on the Temple Mount, especially now, during the Three Weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Beyond all the political posturing, the deeper issue is meaningful awareness. Rav Hayyim of Volozhin explains that while the Babylonians and Romans destroyed the First and Second Temples physically, in fact the Temples had already lost their meaning, not because of our enemies but because our own misbehavior reduced the Temple service to an empty mechanical expiation process:

It was by our sins that the supernal power was reduced and weakened. “They defiled the Temple,” as it were, the supernal Temple. Because of this, Nevuchadnezzar and Titus had the power to destroy the lower Temple that corresponds to the supernal Temple, as the Rabbis say in Eikhah Rabbati “you ground already ground flour.” For it was our sins that already destroyed the heavenly dwelling, supernal and holy worlds (Nefesh HaHayyim 1:4).

Our enemies from among the Palestinians and their supporters are hoping to wear us down with their decades-long campaign of violence and vicious propaganda. Ultimately it comes down to a struggle of wills. Do we understand clearly and truthfully the meaning of our presence in our own Homeland, the meaning of the holiness of Jerusalem, and our sacred mission in this world? Only with this understanding can we maintain the strength of will and commitment to stand tall and strong in our Land and prevail. With this depth of awareness and will, our silent, peaceful self-restraint is highest praise. 

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