Is Prayer Sacrifice? Berakhot 26

We begin chapter four today, leaving behind the Shema and starting to focus on the Amida, the silent prayer at the core of our service.  The Talmud is trying to understand the framework for saying the Amida, and it leads into a reflection on the fundamental roots of prayer:

It has been stated: R. Jose son of R. Hanina said: The Tefillot (the Amida) were instituted by the Patriarchs. R. Joshua b. Levi says: The Tefillot were instituted  to replace the daily sacrifices.

Ultimately we arrive at a compromise: there is some sense in which they were instituted by Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, but the Rabbis used the framework of the Temple sacrifices to flesh out their structure and timing.

From our point of view, they have two sets of ancient roots, one in our forefathers, the founders of our nation, the other in the history of our ritual, in the primordial structure where our religious impulse first found its expression.

Sacrifice is a tricky concept, without even touching on the ethics of animal offerings.  (We’ll get there, I’m sure.)  In at least two posts recently, I’ve highlighted the sense in which religion is not just about sacrifice, on dapim 14 and 23.  And yet, the key word here is ‘just’.  Religion is not solely about sacrifice, it is not a competition to see who can punish themselves more, who can endure more suffering.  But it would be wrong to suggest that sacrifice has no role to play at all.

Perhaps we can soften the idea of sacrifice by connecting it with the word ‘commitment’.  To commit to something is ultimately to sacrifice something else, whether it is a clearly defined alternative or simply the possibility of some unexplored freedom.

I think the concept of ‘commitment’ carries reasonably positive associations nowadays; it is taken as a given that commitment is indispensable if one wishes to be in a relationship, to build a community or to excel in one’s vocation.  It is less clear why one would commit to religious practices which stretch back thousands of years.

In response to this challenge, people sometimes cite the ideals of ‘discipline’ or ‘routine’, but to the free spirited being who is feeling a little penned in and restrained by the vast web of halakha, these values only beg the question.  How can discipline be a value in itself?  Isn’t ‘routine’ simply a word grown ups use to plaster over the monotony of their lives?

There is some truth in these counter-claims – I retain the right to be suspicious of people who assume those terms to constitute a decisive argument in favour of commitment.  If we are to make sense of commitment, we need to think about what we are committing to, and of what we might gain from that commitment.

As we touched on in discussing freedom and the self, it is less than clear cut exactly how we come to have a personality, how we develop character and exhibit freedom.  Experimental psychological research has shown recently that our will power under difficult conditions is actually a lot weaker than we would imagine.  David Brooks talks about this in his book The Social Animal, and he concludes that one of the biggest factors in our decision making is the way we perceive the challenge, the manner in which we frame our dilemma.  To change our behaviour requires changing our perception.  He says:

This learning-to-see model emphasizes that it is not once crucial moment that shapes a character.  Character emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences.  This model emphasizes the power of community to shape character…It also empahsizes the power of small and repetitive action to rewire the fundamental mechanisms of the brain.  Small habits and proper etiquette reinforce certain positive ways of seeing the world.  Good behaviour strengthens certain networks.  Aristotle was right when he observed, ‘We acquire virtues by first having put them into action’. (p128)

Aristotle was indeed wise to see that we are in the business of trying to acquire virtues.  It is often  in those very moments where we see that we wish to live a certain kind of life, a life which exemplifies our most cherished values, that we are paralysed by the failings of our personality as it is.  We sense that there is something missing, but it is deeply unfashionable to suggest that must set to out to fix it.

There is, however, no easy path.  The only way to get to the personality we desire is to work at it, to commit to it.  If we wish to embody a certain sort of Divine light in the world, then we must build a temple which might house and contain it.  And, as our tradition teaches, the core of that temple must be sacrifice, a voluntary spirit which curbs the excesses of the ego.

To commit to regular prayer is to make a sacrifice.  But, it is not only to make a sacrifice.  It would not be enough, whatever Yeshayahu Leibowitz may contend, to recite the phone book.  We make a sacrifice, but in that moment, in those minutes of the day when we relinquish our other projects and deisres, we focus on our highest values, on our deepest needs, on the ways in which we might be genuinely true to ourselves.  We connect to various streams within our tradition, and we try to draw strength from those roots.

We make a sacrifice in establishing a routine, we commit to a discipline, but we do so because we desperately desire the ends that they promise.  We want to experience our better selves more of the time, we want our being to be graceful and light, we want to feel the joy and cheer in the most everyday situations, in the places we too often miss them.

These are the benefits of a developed personality. There may be a contemporary myth which suggests that some people simply live their whole lives in a state of easy happiness, of effortless harmony.  And perhaps it is true of the odd person here and there.  But for most of us, it doesn’t come easily, the labours and responsibilities of life drain our spirits and dampen our enthusiasm.

We opt for routine over freedom, not because we fundamentally value routine, but because we believe that the routine may give us a sort of freedom that we would never have if we embraced a life without structure, if we abandoned our personality to its whims.  Beauty is often built out of the most painstaking detail, and that is nowhere more true than in the human soul.

And we commit to that routine, because we know that we are more likely to be inspired regularly if we are committed to turning up, because we concede that we are rarely going to jump out of bed at 6.45 in the morning and spontaneously praise the source of our Life.

In prayer, the deepest commitment creates the highest and most inspired form of freedom, a place where our spirit can truly soar, an event which can change our entire day.  We must be careful with sacrifice, it must not become an idol worship of its own.  But we must not think that we can live without it, to do so would be to starve our soul of some essential nutrients.

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