Among the many challenges posed by the corona crisis is that of praying at home. Though this a problem that all of us face from time to time for a variety of reasons, it has suddenly come upon us en masse and with no obvious end in sight (though we all hope that we will soon be able to go back to living our lives in an optimal way).
In theory, one might think it should be easier to pray alone with God, rather than with the various distractions of a communal setting. True, Jewish law actually recognizes this and tries to minimize these distractions by recommending a set seat, prohibiting holding objects, etc. Still, the many distractions are impossible to completely eliminate. Yet in spite of its drawbacks, we derive strength from doing things together with a group. Moreover there is another dimension that we lack when we pray at home: The presence of a Torah, religious motifs, holy books (and hopefully holy people) all help to create an atmosphere that lends itself to a more religious frame of mind. In that respect, our homes will never be a perfect substitute for our places of worship (though that is not to say that they cannot become holy places in their own right).
Yet even if not ideal, there are still things we can do to enhance our prayer experience while we are shuttered home. Among them is understanding a timely insight from this week’s parsha: Early on (Vayikra 6:4), the priest is told to change his clothes when finished with the service and taking out the ashes. While commentators disagree on the exact contours of this directive, the Talmud (Shabbat 114a) tells us that this is the source for changing clothes (presumably in preparation for prayer, as per Rashi there).
However the Talmud immediately brings a related teaching which confuses matters somewhat. We are told that this is to teach us the way of the world (derekh eretz), and that “the clothes in which one prepared food for his master, one does not wear to pour his master wine.” Maharal (Gur Aryeh on Vayikra 6:4) points out, however, that this is not completely similar to the verse from which it is derived. There the servant has already “served the wine” (done the service), and he will now “go back into the kitchen” (remove the ashes). Hence if he was to keep the fine serving clothes when disposing of the ashes, and they were to get dirty, he could always get other ones for the next time he would serve.
But perhaps the example given by the Talmud is teaching something more. Perhaps it is teaching that much more important than the message of the clothes to the master is their message to the servant. Granted, it is disrespectful for the servant to be dressed in work clothes when serving the master. But this does not really threaten the master’s understanding of the relationship. And even if it would, there is less at stake. More to the point is that the servant may fool himself into thinking that he need not treat the relationship so seriously. In order to prevent this, he must treat the serving clothes with distinction even after he has served his master.
Of course the significance is ratcheted up many times over when that master is God – and not only because of our insignificance before Him. What may be even more important is the need for humans to find every way possible to relate to a Being who they ultimately cannot fathom, all the more so to understand the nature of our conversation with Him. Hence the Talmud could be teaching us the tremendous importance of creating sensory aids to begin to grasp what it means to stand in front of Him in prayer.
According to the above, it is more than about putting on proper clothes to pray inside the house. Rather the point seems to be to understand that clothes that we use to come in front of God must be treated as if they had a special aura. Obviously that does not mean that they take on the sanctity of a Sefer Torah. But it does mean trying to reserve certain clothes only for prayer – and putting them on even when we are praying at home.
The above serves as an important reminder. The more casual atmosphere created by home life is likely to make us skip what we may see as niceties that we only trouble ourselves with when our prayers are conducted in a house of worship. But if we care about the already fragile nature of our prayers, we should take heed that these are much more than niceties – they are important reminders about the nature of our relationship with God.
(Listen to the accompanying podcast episode: Corona and the Prayers of Nissan)