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FRAGILE -- HANDLE WITH PRAYER

by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

At the end of this week's Torah portion, Hashem tells Moses to ascend the mountain so that He can give him the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments and teach him the entire Torah.

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At the end of this week's Torah portion, Hashem tells Moses to ascend the mountain so that He can give him the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments and teach him the entire Torah. Moses would have probably been able to assume that he would be remaining on the mountain for an extended period of time, as the job of learning the entire Torah is not easily done while standing on one foot. Certainly, Moses would remain upon the mountain until Hashem commanded him to descend. Yet, in Exodus 24:12, Hashem adds the words, ". . .Ve'yeh sham. . .(literally meaning `and be there')" in His instructions to Moses. Why were these words necessary? Was it not obvious that Moses should be there?

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, one of the leading Chassidic rabbis in the 19th-century, answers that there is, in fact, such a thing as going to a place and not actually being there. It is possible for a person to expend a great deal of energy en route to his destination, yet arrive there with his head and thoughts remaining at his original point of departure. Hashem was telling Moses not only to ascend the mountain, but to be there fully, with his complete attention and concentration, leaving behind all of his extraneous thoughts. Only then could Moses properly receive the Torah and be capable of passing it on to the Children of Israel.

A similar idea is expressed by Reb Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk in explanation of an apparent contradiction regarding the minimum requirements for prayer in the Rambam's (Maimonides) Mishneh Torah, his comprehensive code of Jewish law. In one place (Hilchot Tefilah 4:15), the Rambam states that a person must have complete kavanah (loosely translated as concentration) during his Shmoneh Esrei in order to fulfill his obligation to pray. However, in another place (Hilchot Tefilah 10:1), he says that it is sufficient to have kavanah during only the first paragraph.

Reb Chaim Soloveitchik, based upon the context of the two statements and upon the source passage in the Talmud, answers the contradiction as follows: The first passage is speaking about the requirement for a person to remove all outside thoughts from his mind, and to realize and understand throughout the Shmoneh Esrei that he is standing before and speaking to Hashem. Without such an understanding, his prayers serve little purpose and he must therefore repeat the Shmoneh Esrei with the proper kavanah.

However, the second passage is speaking about the necessity to understand every word that he is speaking. While it is important to understand everything being said, it is sufficient if one only understands the meaning of the first paragraph. That is assuming he knows he is standing before Hashem, having a conversation to which Hashem is listening.

Very often, we get so caught up with our jobs and school work that we are unable to collect our thoughts for even a few minutes of total concentration on the important things in life. We are inflicted by this problem in all facets of life, whether it be to converse with Hashem in prayer as in the passage in the Rambam, to study His Torah as Moses was to be doing in this week's Torah portion, or to spend quality time with our families. Whatever the activity may be, we must tear ourselves away from the tedium of our daily activities, as critical as they may be, to focus in on the truly important and meaningful joys of living.

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Note: Reb Chaim Soloveitchik was a late 19th, early 20th-century Torah scholar in Lithuania, equally renowned for his genius in Torah learning and his saintly qualities.

Rambam was a leading Torah scholar and thinker in the Middle Ages, living in Spain, Egypt, and the Holy Land in the 12th-century.

Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, is currently studying at Yeshiva University in New York.

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