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Prayer and Action: the Integral Connection


Rabbi Avi Weiss

Rabbi Avi Weiss

The Talmud states that the source of prayer is the biblical phrase “and you shall serve Him with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 11:13). Service is usually associated with action. One can serve with his or her hands or feet but how does one serve with the heart? The Talmud concludes that service of the heart refers to prayer (Ta’anit 2a).

Interestingly, Maimonides quotes a slightly different text from this week’s portion as the source of prayer. He states that “It is an affirmative commandment to pray every day as it says ‘and you shall serve the Lord your God’ ” (Exodus 23:25). What is the conceptual difference between using this source as the basis for prayer and using the text quoted in the Talmud?

Rabbi Yosef Caro suggests that the verse from Deuteronomy cited by the Talmud may be understood as simply offering good advice rather than requiring daily prayer. It may alternatively refer to the service of learning Torah. The text in Exodus, however, deals clearly with prayer.

Another distinction comes to mind. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin notes that the text quoted by Maimonides is found in the context of sentences that deal with liberating the land of Israel. It is possible that Maimonides quotes this text to underscore the crucial connection between prayer and action. Prayer on its own is simply not enough.

It can be added that the Talmudic text quoted as the source for prayer may be a wonderful complement to the text quoted by Rambam. Remember the sentence quoted in the Talmud states “and you shall serve Him with all your heart.” Note the word all. In other words, while one should engage in action, prayer has an important place. Even in a life full of action, the prayer one must find time for must be done with one’s full and complete devotion. It may be true that quantitatively prayer may have to be limited, but qualitatively it must be deep and meaningful.

The balance between action and prayer is spelled out in the Midrash where it says that when Yaakov prepares to meet Eisav, he prays deeply. Yet at the same time he is fully active by preparing for any outcome of this most unpredictable family reunion. The balance between prayer and action comes to the fore. (See Rashi, Genesis 32:9)

More than ever, we need to internalize the integral connection of productive action with deep prayer. In that way we can truly serve God with all our heart.

About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.


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