hazzan Diana Brewer was ordained through the aleph ordination program. she leads prayer services regularly at the jewish community of amherst, and is on the staff of the davvenen leadership training institute.

(Why) Is Prayer Better than Sacrifice?

I contend that it is. 

Classes are back in full swing now, reading is battling for time territory with vocal practice and preparation for High Holy Days, and blogging has taken a definite hit in the crossfire. But I'd like to bring my series on thrice-daily prayer to a close with this topic. 

As I've discussed, our practice of worship has been a long-evolving one, more details about which I am learning all the time! For instance, I have learned that it is not just my instinct and the way I read the Torah that tells us that polytheism was all the rage, but there is much archeological evidence to tell us this. We do not just infer from the story of the binding of Isaac that child sacrifice was in common practice, but it is made explicit in many other passages in Tanakh, as we are told to not do that like THOSE OTHER PEOPLE.  There is also considerable archeological evidence of this practice. So, among the earliest evolutions in our Jewish practice were the novel idea of One G8d, and the abandonment of human sacrifice in favor of animal sacrifice.

Then came the first Babylonian exile. We had to figure out how to take our spirituality with us. We had to admit the notion that, perhaps, G8d was not only dwelling in the Temple, but could be contacted elsewhere, and in other ways besides the daily slaughter and burning of animals. This was another novelty of spiritual technology - the idea that G8d was everywhere and anywhere. Very convenient! This idea started to catch hold, and continued to grow in popularity, even after the return from exile and the building of the second Temple, which enabled the return to the sacrificial rites.  

So, apart from the obvious  fact that our modern minds find the practice of sacrifice (human or animal) abhorrent, what makes prayer actually BETTER?  I have three words for you: relationship, relationship, relationship. That may look like the same word, repeated three times for effect, but it's bigger than that.

In the times of Temple sacrifice, there were an elite few who had the privilege of performing these duties. The High Priest alone was allowed to enter the "Holy of Holies," the room deep inside the Temple in which G8d was actually thought to dwell. He went in once a year, at Yom Kippur, as part of an elaborate ritual, of which this was the culmination. The people waited in suspense to see if he would come back out, unharmed. One of the most beautiful piyyutim of the High Holy Days liturgy describes the High Priest as he emerges from the inner sanctum. "Like the heavenly canopy stretched out over the Angels was the appearance of the Priest; Like the image of a rainbow appearing in the midst of a cloud...; Like love that appears on a bridegroom's brow...; Like the appearance of Orion and Pleiades, seen in the south..." Those are a few highlights. You get the idea.  

That's all pretty awesome, but there's only one guy who gets to do it, while all others witness. OK, it even sounds awesome to witness, I'll give you that! But how do I get to experience a relationship with G8d of my very own? Here is the first meaning in my string of relationships.  Prayer gives us a new opportunity to really engage in a personal relationship with G8d, with our Divine Source. We can ask, we can tell, we can express, we can listen, we can ask for help, we can give service. These sound like all the important ingredients in any working relationship. Furthermore, we can do it wherever we are, and at any time! We can each enter the deepest parts of our hearts - our own Holy of Holies - and engage. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, in his exposition of P'sukei d'Zimrah (My People's Prayerbook, vol. 3), writes of the daily sacrifices as being almost more of a show/spectacle than of a spiritual experience for many who attended - large volumes of alcohol, and all. An engaging experience, perhaps, but not so much a spiritual one. Certainly not the basis for a relationship with G8d.

Now, for relationship #2, I make another little plug for keva - for fixed practice. Engaging in a communal prayer practice, in which we are all saying a set liturgy together, gives us a chance to build relationships with other people.  We are praying near each other, with each other, for each other. Clearly, today, hardly any of us is likely to be attending a synagogue three times a day. However, even once a week, or on occasion, some level of relationship will develop through even not-totally-regular attendance. The Torah acknowledges that not everyone will be able to come to the Temple for the sacrifices, even three times in a year. The appearance of synagogues and a way to pray together makes the communal experience much more possible to engage in, and much more likely that people will do so. When I am involved in a prayer community, I start to get out of myself and think of my fellow congregants and their needs, joys, hard times. I notice when someone is absent. Others ask about my welfare when I haven't been around for a while. I can ask for prayers and reveal parts of myself to others, who also feel free to reveal themselves to me. Building personal relationships.  

Finally, we build a relationship to the much wider global community. Abraham Joshua Heschel referred to spontaneous prayers as prayers of expression, and to the the fixed prayers of the liturgy as prayers of empathy. I was a little surprised to hear that at first.  I thought, "Surely, spontaneous prayers have to do with others' pain and need!" Then it was pointed out to me that, most frequently, spontaneous prayers have to do with our own need. "Oh, G8d, if you help me through this one, I'll promise I'll never do it again!" There are no atheists in a foxhole. I could go on and on... However, upon examining our liturgy, it doesn't take very long to see that most of our prayers are concerned with helping not only ourselves, but reaching out through concentric circles of community to humanity as a whole. Even the Psalms, so many of which are written in the first person, and express definite personal need, cause us to ask, "What happened to this author that she had to be pulled out of a well? (Ps. 30)" or "What dark time fell upon him that he is plagued with doubt night after night? (Ps. 77)" In the Amidah, we pray for communal needs. Our High Holy Days liturgy is riddled with messages of universal hope.

As the Hebrew School year begins for my daughter, I have found myself pondering the question, once again, of why it is important for her to do this. She asks every so often, and I still feel I haven't found an answer that is satisfying to either of us. I know why it's important to me, but why does it matter for her, or for anyone? Why seek a spiritual life at all? Why Jewish life? I feel that, through this writing, I am maybe a step or two closer to finding an answer for her. 

What Would Mr. Rogers Do?

Sacrifice as a Teddy Bear?