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Vayikra 5781 ~ March 19

A few days ago, I was asked what the difference is between “davening” and praying.  Can one simply not state that the latter is simply an English translation of the former?  The answer might not be as simple as one may think.  The art of prayer involves more than reciting the words as children are taught with the repetition of reading prayers and the melodies that are sung. The same might be true vis-a-vis the difference between reading the words of the Haggadah at the Passover Seder versus experiencing the exodus or sensing the excitement that Elijah the prophet might simply walk through our doors, ushering in a Messianic age.

The Torah reading for this week “Vayikra” speaks in terms of the Biblical modality of prayer -- sacrifice.  Several years ago, one of my bat mitzvah students wanted to go beyond Maimonides’ explanation that prayer was the natural form of sharing our thoughts with God, and that sacrifice was the means for the ancient Hebrews to arrive at prayer without sacrifice.  She was intrigued by the fact that, in modern yeshivot, young students still began their studies of Torah by first learning Vayikra and sacrifice.  She was disturbed by the fact that anyone would study about the lost art of sacrifice of animals, a practice that was abhorrent to her or that traditional prayer books still suggest that, with the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem, we would return to the ancient ritual of sacrifice.

As we delved into the text, we began to see the text in a different light. According to the reading it was not simply a sacrifice that made the offering “pleasing to G-d.”  The action of placing one’s hand upon the head of the animal has a significant role in the ritual process.  The Hebrew word “v’samach” simply does not mean placing one’s hand upon the animal’s head.  That would be similar to learning to read a prayer, but not feel a prayer.  It might be compared to the difference between learning how to drive by reading a book or being instructed by video without a car, versus sensing the feel of the road while having one’s hands on the steering wheel and one’s foot on the gas pedal or brake.  The word “samach” implies that the individual is counting upon the animal… counting that it be pleasing to G-d, or perhaps that it fulfills his or her prayer or request of the Eternal.

As we began to delve further into the term “samach,” the meaning became clearer: when one places one’s hand upon the animal, one was transferring a piece of one’s soul to the animal; that is the defining act that changes the animal of simply one of God’s creatures to a sanctified part of God’s world.   “V’samach,” in psychological terms, might be referred to as “transference” as in the “transference” of one’s essence from one’s soul that now elevates the animal in “kedushah,” in holiness.  And from that we inferred that the significant act of our prayer is not simply reading the words, but the art of feeling the words of prayer, davening, so that we are transposing a piece of us, our soul…. our thoughts…. our inner being, to that prayer. It is in a similar fashion that a bride and groom grasp a handkerchief, a pen or another object as the ketubah, the Jewish marriage document, is being completed just prior to the wedding ceremony. Or how chametz is traditionally transferred just before Pesach to the agent who will complete the transaction. As Ella shared with me the other day, how different it is that this year Paypal has become the new norm of transference for mechirat chametz, the transference and sale of chametz, prior to Passover.

The challenge of living in a cultural surrounding is finding the manner in which to transform the written word on the page of the Siddur into davening.  It is not only learning how to read or sing a prayer by rote, but by making the prayer come alive. It is teaching ourselves how to dig down deep within one’s soul as one reads the words to change the words of prayer into “davening.”  The same may be true regarding the difference between reading the Haggadah so that we can get to the delicious matzah ball soup, or feeling our Jewish soul as we try to understand how the lessons and experiences of the Haggadah remain true to our lives today. It’s the difference between simply eating the matzah ball and how we taste the love that the chef put into the matzah balls and the chicken soup. It’s no different than the art of making the matzah ball itself and ensuring that we get it right, be it firm or soft in texture.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782