Most people think of prayer as something very personal – it is, after all, a private conversation with G-d. And yet, prayer is conducted in a very public forum; we pray in a minyan, in shul. Even the phrasing of our prayers is in the plural; we are not just asking for ourselves, but for everyone.
How do we reconcile the strong theme of communal prayer with the fact that it is a private, personal interaction with Hashem?
The power of community
This question was posed by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, one of the great Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages, in his classic philosophical work, the Kuzari. The Kuzari is structured as a dialogue between the King of Kazar and a great Rabbinic sage. The king challenges the sage on the tenets of Judaism, and the sage answers his questions one by one. (The book has recently been translated anew by Feldheim, and I highly recommend it as it gives a comprehensive view of Jewish philosophy.)
The King of Kazar asks the sage, why do you pray as a community? Surely prayer is something very personal. The sage gives him a few answers. One answer is that if you are praying only for yourself, you might pray for things which harm other people because you have only your own interests in mind. When we pray as a community, however, we have everyone’s best interests in mind. Thus, communal prayer ensures that we do not become selfish and ask only for what we want, irrespective of how it affects others. This also explains why our prayers are phrased in the plural.
Another answer the sage gives is that our merit before Hashem is far greater when we pray as a community. When we come to ask G-d for our needs, we come with our personal failings and vulnerabilities. But as a community, we balance each other out. On a very practical level, he explains, there can be times during prayer when one’s concentration lapses. If you were to get distracted while talking to someone and did not pay attention to the conversation, that would be insulting to the person with whom you are talking. In the context of speaking to G-d, getting distracted is all the more inappropriate. This is why it is so important to concentrate when we pray. People sometimes battle to concentrate and at times we get distracted for a moment. The power of communal prayer is that even if one person is not concentrating at a given moment, someone else is. The community, as a whole, is focused and that communal merit stands us in good stead.
G-d relates to us as individuals and as a community
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi says that this principle applies not only in prayer, but also in terms of how Hashem interacts with the world. For example, there can be a decree for good things to happen to an entire region and there may be some people within that region who are undeserving, yet they will enjoy the blessings of that decree because they are part of the whole. Equally, there can be a catastrophic decree and even righteous people in that region will get caught in it. He does point out, however, that in the end justice is always served. If a person unfairly benefited from the blessing or suffered from hardship, Hashem will balance the account in the World to Come. So although ultimately there is justice, there is a concept of being affected by the society and the community in which we live. G-d interacts with us as individuals and as a group, and therefore our prayers have to reflect the fact that we stand before Him as individuals and as a community.
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi gives an analogy to explain this concept, one which I relate to because of my involvement with the CAP (Community Active Protection) project. He says that communal prayer is like security. To quote,
We can compare one who prays only for himself to someone who tries to fortify the security only around his own home instead of joining together with the other inhabitants of his city to fortify the city walls. Such a person will spend much but will remain in a precarious situation.
CAP operates based on this principle: if we want to protect ourselves, we cannot protect only our own homes but must protect the public domain as well. Even if a person is concerned only with his own selfish needs, he will still not be safe if he protects only his own home. In order to protect our own homes, we need to protect the whole neighbourhood. Similarly, when we pray, we are not concerned solely about ourselves; we come together with the needs – and the merit – of the community. We work together as a whole.
This is why, says Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, we have so many mitzvot which demonstrate concern for other people. We do not look out only for our own needs, but reach out to others with kindness and with charity to those in need. We operate as a community, and each of us carries that responsibility.
This concept is captured succinctly in the Yiddish phrase klal mentsch, to which I devoted an entire chapter in my new book, The Legacy. Klal mentsch means a person who belongs to the larger whole, a person who has a sense of communal responsibility, who understands that we are much stronger when we work together as a community. This is why our prayers are phrased in the plural and are conducted in a public forum.
Of course, the public dimension of prayer does not negate its private aspects. We do have the opportunity, within our prayers, to include personal requests and in fact we are encouraged to do so, in the shema koleinu blessing and again at the end of the Amidah (with the exception of Shabbat and Yom Tov, on which we do not make any personal requests). But the overarching format of prayer is communal. When we ask for health, we say refa’einu, “heal us”; when we ask for sustenance, we say barech aleinu, “bless us.” We do not say “heal me,” “bless me.” We always say it as a group, thus ensuring that our prayers do not become selfish. In this way, prayer becomes an uplifting and transforming experience, helping us transcend who we are. We free ourselves from being locked into our own selfish interests and perspective of the world, to include the broader community.
Holiness is the expansion of self
Rabbi Shimon Shkop, one of our great Talmudic geniuses of the previous century explains with the following dilemma: on the one hand, the Torah commands us to help others – to give charity, to love each other, to do good. On the other hand, G-d has placed within each of us a natural tendency to love ourselves. Is Hashem setting us up for failure? We are naturally selfish and yet we are called upon to give to others selflessly. How can we balance the two?
Rabbi Shkop says it all depends on our definition of the “I.” To a very narrow-minded person, “I” means only him– or herself, a single individual. To a greater person, “I” includes themselves and their spouse. To a slightly greater person, “I” includes them, their spouse, their children, and their parents. To a greater person, “I” is broad enough to include themselves, their immediate family, their broader family and their community. To an even greater person, “I” expands to include the entire Jewish people – klal Yisrael. And to a truly great person, the “I” expands to include the entire world.
Holiness, says Rabbi Shkop, means broadening who we are. Based on this, we can understand why our prayers are phrased in the plural, and this is why we pray with the community: prayer is about achieving the holiness of an expanded definition of self, thereby making us bigger and greater people.
These ideas of the power of community and of the importance of being a klal mensch are expressed through Sinai Indaba which, as you know, is coming up in just over a week – in Johannesburg, on Saturday night and Sunday, the 15th and 16th of June; in Cape Town, on Monday the 17th; in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday the 18th; and in Durban, on the 19th.
The theme of Sinai Indaba, as you know from the slogan, is “Unite. Inspire. Discover.” Unity comes first because it underpins everything. Sinai Indaba is an event which unifies our entire community, bringing the inspiration of the Torah to every single member of the South African Jewish community, irrespective of background or level of religious observance. Thousands of people from all walks of life will be gathering for the largest Jewish communal event of the year, demonstrating that what we have in common – our Torah and our Jewish values – is far more powerful than the differences that divide us.
Rashi comments that when the Jewish people arrived at Mount Sinai, they were k’ish echad b’lev echad, “like one person with one heart.” This is really what Sinai Indaba is about – the unity of the Jewish people. The beauty of this unity is that we each have our strengths and different perspectives to contribute. You will see this reflected in the diverse range of speakers we have selected for Sinai Indaba, who come from different backgrounds and different parts of the Jewish world, each with his or her unique strengths and particular field of expertise, from which we will all benefit as a community, in a spirit of unity.
If you haven’t yet booked, do take this opportunity as there isn’t much time left. Bookings can be made on the website, www.sinai-indaba.co.za, where you can see more details about the amazing speakers who are coming. You can also make your booking through the call centre, through the ticket offices and through the kiosks which have been set up around city. I encourage you to take this opportunity so that we can all come together in a spirit of unity, be inspired, and look toward the future with faith and confidence.