The Gates of Prayer
And God called to Moses…(Vayikra 1:1)
Rosh in his commentary to the Torah explains that the aleph in the word vayikra, with which the third book of Torah begins, is reduced in size to reflect the humility of Moshe Rabbeinu. Remaining to be understood is why this hint to Moshe’s humility is placed specifically at the beginning of Sefer Vayikra.
Vayikra opens with the numerous and complex laws concerning the Temple sacrifices. With the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, prayer – avodah (service) of the heart – replaced the avodah of the sacrifices. Yet in the Gemara (Berachos 32b) we are informed that from the time the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed, the gates of prayer were also locked. But the gates of tears were not locked. Rashi explains that the gates of tears refers to another type of prayer – prayer with tears.
Thus we learn that there are two distinct types of prayer – prayer with tears and prayer without tears. Let us examine these two types of tefillah.
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim, describes how Hashem created the world with an intricate system of spiritual powers, through which God’s bounty and influence is brought into the physical world. This system is activated by Torah learning, mitzvos and tefillah. God put us into this physical world so that we could earn the ultimate spiritual reward which He desires to bestow upon us – an intimate relationship with him. We do not simply earn this reward. Rather we create that relationship through our actions in this world. By learning Torah, doing mitzvos and davening, we furnish the energy to activate the framework through which God relates to this world.
It is in this context that the Gemera says in Berachos (7a) that Hashem prays. Rashbah explains that Hashem’s desire is to bestow His Divine benevolence upon us. But He has decreed that we must initiate this relationship. It is as if He prays for us to do our part so that He can fulfill His true desires. When we daven to ‘..Give power to Hashem ‘, it is this to which we refer. By fulilling the conditions He has set, we give, as it were, the power to Hashem to shower His bounty upon us.
Berachah, the Rashbah continues, refers to something which increases, enhances and intensifies. (A breichah, for instance, is a stream in which the flow of water is constantly increasing and intensifying). Our berachah is a means to open up the conduits of Hashem’s good to the world by entering into a relationship with Him. When one makes a berachah before he eats, he activates those spiritual realms through which God provides food and opens wider the conduits of God’s bounty. He thereby replenishes that which he is eating. On the other hand, one who does not make a berachah is like a thief, for he does not compensate for what he removes from the world (Berachos 35a).
Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch in Shiurei Da’as on the korbanos (sacrifices) shows how the sacrifices served to unite and elevate all mundane powers towards the service of Hashem and thereby activated the system God created to bring the world to fulfillment of His purpose. Maharal adds that the greatest power to activate the spiritual realms emanated from the Beis Hamikdash and with its destruction those specific gates were locked. (One can still penetrate even locked gates but only with great effort and difficulty.)
There is, however, another type of tefillah that was not affected by the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, the passive tefillah of tears and submission. In this context, berachah has a totally different connotation. The Jew stands before God and bends his knee and says: “Baruch – You, God, are the source of all blessing and without You I don’t even have a leg to stand on. I bend my knees in recognition of this, Atah – It is you, God, and not I, who can provide for my very existence and for my most basic needs.” At the beginning of Shemoneh Esrei, which replaced the temple sacrifices, the Jew bows his body in total subjugation and submission as he proclaims these words. But once he recognizes this fact and submits himself into God’s hands and calls upon His name – Hashem – then he can stand erect knowing that Hashem is his support. This is the tefillah of tears, a passive, yet very potent power.
All of tefillah expresses this idea: “Heal us God and we will be healed.” is not only an entreaty but also a statement of dependence and submission. Even when the sacrifices were still brought and were offered with the intention of affecting the celestial realms and opening the conduits of Hashem’s blessing, this attitude of complete submission was still part of the offering. Both Ramban and Sefer Hahinuch explain that one must identify with the animal being slaughtered as an act of self-negation and submission to God.
R’ Simchah Bunim of Pshischa, said that even though the gates of tears remain open, nevertheless gates are necessary to prevent improper tears from entering. The tefillah of tears must be composed of tears of hope, trust and faith that God will help, not tears of depression, dejection or despair.
Sefer Vayikra, which details the sacrifices of the Bais Hamikdash, begins with a hint to Moshe’s humility because all avodah – whether avodah of the heart or that of the sacrifices – requires self-negation and submission. It requires, even in its active form, a realization that ultimately all emanates from God and all that we do is, in the final analysis, only an expression of submission to God’s will. For this one needs humility. Hence, the small aleph – both a sign of humility and the letter which represents God’s oneness and unity. It is with this word: Vayikra, with its small aleph, that God calls to man to serve Him both actively and passively, to bring the world to its completion.