Prayer Part VII : Getting To Know Hashem (Edited Transcript)
This is part seven in a series of discussions on prayer.
Last week we discussed how prayer is really about bitachon – having a relationship of trust with Hashem such that we feel completely looked after, and how prayer helps us integrate that trust into our lives. Let us explore this concept a little bit further.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe, one of our great philosophers of the twentieth century, summed up all of Judaism in two words: Olam Hayedidut, “The World of Loving Friendship.” Judaism is about forming a loving relationship with Hashem. Unfortunately, people sometimes think of Judaism simply as a set of rules and regulations by which we live; it seems we don’t often talk about love and trust in the context of Hashem and His mitzvot. But in truth, Judaism is far deeper and more profound. It is about our bond and connection to G-d, based on trust and love – the two of which are interconnected. It is the same in human relationships: we cannot trust someone we do not love and we cannot love someone we do not trust.
Trusting and loving G-d
The mitzvah of prayer brings together trust and love in our interaction with G-d. Trust in G-d is a foundation in Judaism. In fact, when the Jewish people accepted the Torah, they said na’aseh venishma, “we will do and [then] we will listen.” At first glance, it may seem like it was reckless of our ancestors to accept the Torah without even knowing what was written in it. One would think that before they committed to accepting the Torah upon themselves, their children, their children’s children and all future generations, they would at least ask what it entails. The normal, rational reaction would have been to ask what exactly they are committing to, before committing to it. How did they accept the Torah so unequivocally?
It was their trust in Hashem which enabled them to accept the Torah unconditionally. But how did they develop such trust in Hashem?
This sense of trust was acquired before they got to Mount Sinai, through the manna that fell from heaven; as the Midrash says, “the Torah was given to those who ate the manna.” The manna fell every day. Each day the people collected only enough food for that day. They did not keep the manna from one day to the next, for they had complete faith and trust in Hashem that the manna would fall again the next day; and those few who were of little faith, who tried to save the manna for the following day, saw it rot overnight.
The manna represents our faith in Hashem that He is looking after us every single day. While they were in the desert, G-d instructed Moses to take a jar and put some manna inside, and put it in the Holy Ark as a keepsake for future generations. And in fact the Midrash relates how, later on in history, when the prophet Jeremiah rebuked the people for not upholding the study of Torah – to which they said, “How can we take off time from our work in order to study Torah? What will be with our livelihood?” – he took out the jar of manna, which had been preserved miraculously for many generations, and said, “Just as G-d provided the manna daily for your ancestors who accepted the Torah, so too will G-d provide for you. This is part of trusting Hashem: you must uphold His Torah, and He will look after you.”
The manna inculcated trust within us, and thus at Mount Sinai we were able to commit to the Torah without knowing what was involved. Trust is the basis of every relationship. When we really trust another person, we are inclined to listen to them. Likewise in our relationship with G-d, when He tells us to do something, we do it. We live in accordance with halacha because we trust Hashem and know that if this is what He says we must do, then it is ultimately for our good.
Practically, though, how do we make trust and love of Hashem part of our lives?
No doubt, prayer is a key component of that; when we pray, we are integrating trust and love of G-d into our lives. But there is another way to develop trust and love of G-d, and that is through the study of Torah.
Knowing G-d through His Torah
In the first paragraph of the Shema, it says Ve’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha, “You shall love Hashem your G-d.” In the third mitzvah of his Sefer Hamitzvot, the Book of Commandments, the Rambam explains how we come to love G-d. He writes that we must contemplate Hashem’s mitzvot, His statements and His deeds, until we understand Him and take great pleasure in this understanding. This is a very important concept, not only in our relationship with Hashem but in our relationship with people as well.
In other words, the Rambam is saying that the key to love is knowing the other person. We cannot love someone we do not know. The idea of “falling in love” is false; we cannot really love someone until we get to know them well. So, too, with Hashem; the more we know about Him, the more we can come to love Him.
But how can we know G-d? He is fundamentally unknowable. If Hashem is unknowable, how can we be commanded to love Him?
The Rambam quotes the Talmud which says we can get to know Hashem – through studying His Torah. Hashem revealed His Torah to us and in so doing He actually revealed Himself. This is why, in the first paragraph of the Shema, after it says Ve’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha – “You shall love Hashem your G-d” – it says Vehayu hadevarim ha’eileh asher Anochi metzevecha hayom al levavecha, veshinantam levanecha – “Let these matters that I command you today be upon your heart. Teach them thoroughly to your children….” Through learning Torah, we come to understand G-d’s mitzvot, how He thinks and what He wants from us.
The key to loving Hashem is knowing Him, and that is also the key to trust. As the Rambam says, Mitoch kach ata makir et mi she’amar vehaya ha’olam, “Through Torah study, you will come to know and recognise the One Who spoke and brought the world into being.” That is the key to developing our love and trust of Hashem. When we learn Torah, whether it is Chumash, Mishnah, Gemara, or whatever aspect of Torah learning we personally find enjoyable, we get to know Hashem and understand what He wants from us in this world. And the more we learn, understand and know about Him, the more we can come to love Him.
Elsewhere, in Yad Hachazaka – the Rambam’s great work in which he codified all of Jewish law – the Rambam says there is another way we can get to know Hashem, and that is by looking at the world He created. We get to know Hashem through looking at His magnificent world and through learning His Torah; the two go hand in hand. We see Hashem’s brilliance in nature and the magnificence of His world, and through the study of Torah we come to know Him personally, not just as the Creator of this huge universe which is masterfully put together, but as the Author of the Torah. He reveals Himself and through that we come to trust and love Him.
The importance of learning Torah
Now we can understand why learning Torah is one of the most important mitzvot. It is not just an intellectual exercise, but an integral part of our relationship with Hashem as it helps us understand Him and His worldview.
This also relates to the mitzvah of prayer. When we daven to Hashem, we reinforce how much Hashem loves us and is looking after us. The mitzvah of prayer goes hand in hand with the mitzvah of learning Torah, because when we learn we discover more about Hashem and when we pray, we are able to connect with Him.
Interestingly, we see this most potently in our services on Shabbat morning, where we have a combination of Torah learning and prayer. In the middle of the service, we read the parsha. The message in this is that when we pray, we are talking to Hashem, and when we learn He is talking to us and we have the opportunity to learn more about Him. We enter into a dialogue. Only when we combine the study of Torah with the mitzvah of prayer can we actually have a balanced interaction with Hashem. We get to know Him better and to connect with Him in a meaningful way.
This is really what Sinai Indaba is about. As you know, our third Sinai Indaba event is coming up. We have a completely new line-up of the most inspiring Torah speakers from different backgrounds and from all over the world. Their common denominator is that they will all help us connect with the all-encompassing wisdom of the Torah regarding different aspects of what it means to be a human being and a Jew, including dynamics in relationships, community life, finding happiness, business ethics and the State of Israel.
Sinai Indaba is a big highlight for our community. I personally am looking forward to it and I know many other people are looking forward to it as well. It is an opportunity to learn in an exciting, eye-opening way, to really see things from Hashem’s perspective. We have outstanding speakers coming in. You can have a look at the website, www.sinai-indaba.co.za, to learn more about them as well as to make your booking, but just to give you some examples, we have the honour of hearing from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. We have Rabbi Ozer Glickman from Yeshiva University, an outstanding Torah scholar who has an MBA and is an investment banker. He will be giving us some Torah insights into business ethics, economics and how society functions. We have Ambassador Yehuda Avner, author of The Prime Ministers, who served as an advisor to five Israeli prime ministers. He will be talking about Israel from an historical perspective, as well as his personal experience as someone who brought his Torah way of life into the heart of Israeli politics and international relations, and how he kept kosher and Shabbat throughout his political career. We also have Gary Neuman, world-renowned expert on marriage and relationships, who has appeared many times on the Oprah Winfrey show and other well-known media platforms to speak about the Torah’s perspective on relationships, what it takes to make a marriage work, and effective parenting.
Sinai Indaba promises to be an exciting and stimulating conference, where we will all come together in the spirit of unity, in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban, to benefit from the Torah’s timeless wisdom. I encourage you to take this opportunity. Bookings are coming in fast so make sure you are not disappointed. Go onto the website, www.sinai-indaba.co.za, and book your spot. I look forward to seeing you there.