16 Elul 5780

September 4, 2020

At the beginning of our Coronavirus lockdown, there was one question I was asked more than any other: What about prayer? Just when we needed it the most, we found ourselves unable to participate in public communal prayer. Our most sacred prayers are communal. They require a minyan, a basic assembly of community. There was an argument between Rambam and Ramban as to whether, originally and essentially, the command of prayer was directed to individuals or to the community as a whole. But there was no disagreement between them as to the importance and value of praying as part of a community. That is supremely how we, as Jews, come before God, not primarily as “I” but as “We.” How then were we to find spiritual strength without this communal dimension?

This is hard and for many of us, a deeply felt loss. Praying together, we seek, not private good but the common good. Communal prayer is not just an expression of community. It is also a builder of community. Hence the psychological cost of the pandemic lock down. We are social, not solitary beings. We long, most of us, for company. And even the marvels of Zoom, Skype, YouTube, Facebook Live, WhatsApp and Facetime cannot compensate for the loss of the real thing: face-to-face encounter.

But there was one gain to our praying in isolation. Communal prayer involves going at the speed of the congregation. It is hard to slow the pace so as to be able to meditate at length on any of the prayers themselves – their meaning, music, rhythm and structure. Prayer is essentially a kind of counterpoint between speaking and listening. But communal prayer often involves more speaking than listening. The lock down meant that we could listen more to the poetry and passion of the prayers themselves. And prayer is about listening, not just speaking.

This week, we read Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8), which consists of the Tochachah (“Rebuke”). After listing the blessings with which God will reward the people when they follow the laws of the Torah, Moses gives a long, harsh account of the bad things—illness, famine, poverty and exile—that shall befall them if they abandon God’s commandments. Moses concludes by telling the people that only today, forty years after their birth as a people, have they attained “a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.”

When we listen, we are personally engaged far beyond the way we participate when we simply watch. Scholars regard this as one of the special features of the Hebrew Bible. God creates the universe through words. God reveals the Divine Presence to the people in words. God makes a covenant with them in words. The last and culminating book of the Torah is Deuteronomy, or Devarim, “words.” The Hebrew for “word,” davar, also means an event, a happening, something that generates momentum in history. If the greatest thing God does is speak, then the greatest thing we can do is listen.

One of the greatest gifts we can be given is to meet someone who really listens to us. Sadly, it happens all too rarely. We are often so focused on what we are going to say next, that we don’t really listen in depth to what the other person is saying. And so it is with prayer. Someone once defined prayer as listening to God listening to us.