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Bo: Ordinary Prayer

Submitted by on January 5, 2019 – 10:42 pmNo Comment | 250 views

Does G-d listen to the prayer or ordinary people?

Would you pray for me, is a rather common request that people make of rabbis.

People assume that Rabbis are pious. They also assume that G-d listens to the pious more than He listens to ordinary people. I won’t quibble with the first assumption though it might not be entirely true in my case… But Judaism rejects the second assumption unequivocally. While it is true that prayer comes more easily to pious people, G-d listens to everyone. Especially to ordinary people.

Two Prayers

There are two kinds of prayers, Shacharit, the morning prayer, and Minchah, the afternoon prayer.

In the morning, a Jew wakes up and spends an hour or so enwrapped in prayer. This is a holy prayer because at this hour of the day we have yet to immerse ourselves in worldly affairs and can focus on G-d. In the morning, before the distractions and challenges of the world have encroached, all Jews are pious. Our minds are on G-d, on holiness, and on goodness; our intentions for the day are noble.

Then comes the Minchah prayer in the afternoon. Minchah occurs after our minds have been polluted by the worries, challenges, and pressures of the day. We have been tempted during these past hours to cut corners, tell fibs, succumb to anger and give in to temptation. By this time, it is no longer true to say that the average Jew is in a pious frame of mind. By now, we are rather ordinary.

Yet, when the time for Minchah arrives, we forcibly set aside our worldly concerns and focus on G-d. The Minchah prayer is short, perhaps fifteen minutes in duration, but it is powerful precisely because we are not in a holy frame of mind, and yet force ourselves to pray. We have calls to return, texts to send, emails to write, sales to close, irritations to resolve, and yet amidst the tumult, we pull away and pray. This is precious to G-d.

It comes as no surprise that we feel commitment and love for G-d during Shacharit, when we are divorced from worldly affairs and cloistered in the immersive holiness of prayer. Of course, we would feel inspired during Shacharit. But disrupting our daily agenda by pulling away from our hectic schedule, critical commitments and important meetings, to spend time with G-d demonstrates that despite the energy that we expend on our affairs, they are not our true masters. Only G-d is our master.

The Ordinary Prayer

Shacharit is the prayer of the pious. Minchah is the prayer of the ordinary. And though the prayer of the pious is holier, G-d appreciates most the prayers of ordinary people. Prayer is not the exclusive domain of the pious and righteous, who spend their day cloistered in synagogues and study halls immersed in prayer and Torah study. Prayer is the domain of every ordinary person.

Every Jew can pray. And G-d listens to every Jewish prayer. When we pull away from our ordinary affairs to focus on G-d for even a moment. G-d pulls away from His affairs and pauses to listen.

G-d of Legions

The difference between Shacharit and Minchah helps us understand a curious aspect about the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah describes our ancestors during the Exodus as G-d’s legion, “In the midst of this day, the legions of G-d left Egypt.”[1] This is the first time that Jews are described as G-d’s legion. The fascinating thing is that after this, the Torah never reuses this name. It is only in later generations that the prophets began to use this name to describe G-d. They coined the name, G-d of Legions, or as it is commonly translated, G-d of Hosts.

This leads to two questions:

What happened at the time of the exodus to render our ancestors G-d’s legion and why were they not G-d’s legion until that time?

If our ancestors were G-d’s legion at the time of the exodus, why didn’t Moses use the name G-d of Legions? And if this name is not appropriate, why did later prophets adopt it?

The Legion and G-d

A legion is comprised of ordinary soldiers who are not known for piety and scholarship. Legionaries don’t understand the country’s principles, interests, or values. They don’t know the king or understand his goals for the country. They are ordinary and often crass people, whose behavior the king would likely disprove of. But they are soldiers. They are prepared to fight for their king and die for their country even if they don’t understand the reasons for their orders and the dynamics behind their war.

The legion represents the ordinary Jew who is not immersed in prayer and Torah study. Such Jews don’t know the Torah or appreciate G-d on a personal level. At times they even feel detached from G-d and invested in their own agenda, ego, and interests. Yet, when the time for Minchah arrives, they pull away from their interests and do G-d’s bidding because they are soldiers and soldiers obey their orders.

When the legion is at war, they are more connected to the king than the king’s most prestigious ministers and advisers. They are devoted life and limb; their connection is essence to essence.

We now understand why it is only after the exodus that Jews merited the label, G-d’s legions. Before Egypt, the family of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were holy, studious, and devout people, who lived with G-d every moment of every day. They never thought of themselves, they were always devoted to G-d. Such people can’t be called legions. They were not ordinary people who lived their own lives, separated from the king. They were the king’s inner circle whose entire lives revolved around the king.

It was only in Egypt that Jews developed a mindset that was so detached from G-d that they could be called legionaries. Yet, when they left Egypt, they were so attached to G-d, that in that moment they were more connected to G-d than the Patriarchs. At that point, they were G-d’s legion.[2]

But then Moses brought down the Tablets and gave them the Torah. Moses taught them and nurtured their spirits until they slowly became devout and scholarly Jews. Once again, their lives revolved around G-d; they thought of nothing else all day long and identified themselves simply as G-d’s servants. Therefore, Moses never used the name G-d of legions. At that point, G-d was the G-d of servants.

In later generations, Jews returned to their ordinary ways and became legionnaires again. The later prophets urged them to return to G-d and to become G-d’s legions. Hence, they revived the term G-d of Legions.

Today, most of us can be described as legions, but when we divorce ourselves from our affairs, and connect with G-d for even a moment, we are for that moment, G-d’s legions.[3]

[1] Exodus 12:41 and 51. Se also Exodus 6:4.

[2] In truth, Jewish soul are always holy and can never be called legions. The true legions were the Divine sparks that our ancestors extracted from Egypt. They were imprisoned in Egypt, and then became connected again.

[3] This essay is based on Mayim Rabim 5690, Chicago, and Torah Or on this Parsha.

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