Demonstrating uncompromising devotion to God is the theme of this week’s parashah. Such devotion is expressed through belief, but more importantly, through avodah, meaningful service to God. For the biblical Israelite, service to God meant loyalty to God’s commandments and participation in the sacrificial cult. In Deuteronomy, avodah referred specifically to offering sacrifices to God at a central place of worship: “look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices. . .” (Deut. 12:5-6).
The theme of avodah, sacred service or worship, infuses the following chapter, where we are repeatedly told not to serve other gods but rather remain steadfast in our service to God. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., however, the meaning of avodah was transformed. No longer could the Israelites serve God through sacrificial practice and so the stage was set for the evolution of other forms of service. And so the word, avodah, became bogged down in ambiguity. What does it mean for a Jew to serve God? How are we to understand the depth of this infinitely rich endeavor of avodah? Two commentaries sparked by one verse in our parashah prove instructive.
Deuteronomy 13:5 instructs us: “Follow none but the Lord your God, and revere none but Him; observe His commandments alone and heed only His orders; serve none but Him and hold fast to Him.” How is a Jew to serve God? Maimonides provides us with one clear answer: “[this commandment to serve God] imposes a specific duty, namely that of prayer” (Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, 8). For Maimonides fixed prayer is the essence of one’s service to God. Moreover, it is through participating in a minyan and davening the three daily services—shaharit, minhah and ma’ariv, that one demonstrates one’s uncompromising devotion to God.
On the other hand, Nahmanides, famed Talmudist and mystic of the thirteenth century, argues that prayer is not mandated at all by the Torah. Prayer is nothing less than God’s gift to us. “For prayer is an expression of God’s lovingkindness to us when God hears and responds whenever we pray. . . as part of our service to God we are obligated to study God’s Torah, pray to God in times of distress, and turn our eyes and our hearts toward God ‘as the eyes of servants toward the hands of their masters’ (Psalm 123:2).” Nahmanides’ definition is far more expansive than Maimonides’. While the latter labels avodah to be obligatory prayer, the former argues against Maimonides’ claim of “obligation” and his limited definition of avodah. We serve God not only through the rabbinically ordained prayer services; Nahmanides emphasizes that we serve God in numerous ways. When we call out to God in a time of suffering, we serve God. When we sanctify time through devoted study of Torah, we serve God. And when, through prayer and study combined, we turn our hearts and souls to God—that is avodah, the sacred service of God. I am struck by Nahmanides’ flight from the language of obligation to that of sincerity and lovingkindness.
Sefer Hasidim, a medieval pietistic work, tells a story of a Jewish shepherd who, when he went out to the field each day would offer up a heartfelt prayer: “Master of the Universe! It is revealed and known to You that if You had animals and gave them to me to protect, although I take wages from all others, from You I would take nothing because I love You.” One day, a knowledgeable student of Torah walked past the shepherd and saw the shepherd engaged in his spontaneous prayer. The student rebuked the shepherd, “Fool, do not pray like that!” The shepherd queried, “How then should I pray?” The student taught the shepherd the words of the Amidah and the Shema. After the student left, the shepherd forgot all that had been taught and so was even afraid to say his prayer of the heart. One evening, a messenger of God appeared before the student and rebuked him for quelling the passionate, spontaneous prayer of one of God’s devoted servants: “If you do not tell him to say what he was accustomed to before you arrived, know that sorrow will overtake you. For you have robbed me of one who belongs to the world to come.” The student returned to the shepherd and urged him to recite his heartfelt prayer of old. The author of Sefer Hasidim concludes, “for God desires the heart” (Sefer Hasidim, 5-6).
While fixed prayer is important and central to who we are as Jews, it is only meaningful when it is ignited by the passionate prayer of the heart and soul which serves as the unique signature to each of our prayers. Each of us serves God in our own special way. While Judaism provides a framework for serving God, it is up to each of us to provide the soul. Maimonides challenges us to serve God through obligatory prayer; Nahmanides encourages us to give heed to the heart and soul in that same avodah. The challenge is to combine both of these approaches as we serve God in a heartfelt and genuine way.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Parashah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l)