Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 95
Just before Rosh Hashanah, a team of masked-men invades the shul and takes the rabbi, the cantor and the shul president hostage. Hours later, the prime minister stands tough: he won't hand over a million dollars, nor a getaway car, nor a helicopter. The kidnappers gather the three hostages in a corner and inform them that things look bad and they're going to have to grant them their last wish.
“Please,” says the rabbi, “for the last two months I've been working on my Rosh Hashanah sermon. What a waste to die now without having delivered it? Just let me recite my sermon. It's an hour to ninety minutes long, tops.” They promise to grant him the wish.
“Please,” says the cantor, “after 50 years I've finally gotten the Hinneni prayer just right. What a waste to die and not sing it to an audience. It's only about 45 minutes long - then I'll go happily.” The masked-men promise to grant the cantor his wish too and they turn to the shul president.
“Please,” says the president with tears in his eyes, “Just shoot me first!”
The Rabbis taught: For three people, the ground was contracted: Eliezer, servant of Avraham, our patriarch Yaakov, and Avishai ben Tzruyah.
Concerning Yaakov, it is written: “Yaakov left Beersheba and went to Charan.” And it is written, “He encountered the place and stayed over there for the sun had set.”
When he arrived in Charan, he said to himself, “How could I possibly have passed by the place my forefathers prayed and not prayed myself?”
He decided to return. No sooner had he made the decision than the ground was contracted for him, and immediately, “he encountered the place.”
Why did Yaakov turn around? Because he realized he had neglected to pray in the place where his forefathers had prayed. Why was he so concerned with praying there? Why couldn’t he simply forge a new path and prayer space, one that would be unique to his personal service of G-d?
We find an interesting dichotomy when it comes to prayer. On the one hand, our prayers seem to be quite fixed and rigid. On the other hand, during certain parts of the service, we are encouraged to be creative and beseech Heaven for our unique set of needs and wants. These two objectives are by no means contradictory; nonetheless, they must be complementary.
Many people today find traditional prayer services unstimulating, stifling, and lacking in personal meaning. And so their solution is to invent entirely new approaches to prayer. While there’s nothing wrong with being creative, you always need to make sure that what you are doing doesn’t go so far off the cliff that it no longer resembles traditional prayer.
Yaakov Avinu, our Sages tell us, created the Maariv prayer in the evening. Presumably, that was his best time of the day for prayer. Maybe he was a night owl. But does that mean that he neglected the Shacharis (morning) and Mincha (afternoon) prayers instituted by his father and grandfather? Heaven forbid! He didn’t say, ‘Well I’m just not a morning person, and so I’ll pray at night instead.’ His Maariv creation was in addition to his ancestral traditions. That’s why he rushed back to ensure he would pray in the place where his parents had prayed. He wanted to make sure that his religious practice was deeply rooted in the traditions of his forebears.
In every generation, new ground is broken in prayer, with shlichei-tzibur (prayer-leaders) designing services that are fitting for their era. In the time of the Lurian Kabbalists, it was the expansion of the Kabbalat Shabbat service (yes, Lecha Dodi is really only that old!); in the early twentieth century, it was chazanut (cantorial music) and in the late twentieth century, it was Carlebach services. These innovations are all wonderful enhancements to the prayers. But they never usurp the tradition. We never forsake the traditional for the newfangled.
We always need to seek exciting ways to enhance both our personal and communal prayers. But if we’re so far off the beaten path that Zeidy wouldn’t know what religion he had walked into, then we can no longer claim to be part of the evolution of Jewish prayer. By returning to his ancestral prayer grounds, Yaakov Avinu demonstrated to his descendents that prayer must always be firmly rooted in tradition. And by fast-tracking his journey, the Almighty demonstrated that He was in lockstep with our patriarch’s decision.
There is no shortage of exciting, creative communal prayer opportunities out there today. And there is no shortage of ways you can make your personal prayers more meaningful. May you always find refreshing – and yet, traditionally-sound – ways to enhance your conversation and experience with the Holy One, blessed be He!