Demonstrating uncompromising devotion to God is the theme of this week's parashah [Torah portion], Re'eh. Such devotion is expressed through belief, but more importantly, through avodah, meaningful service to God. For the biblical Israelite, service to God meant loyalty to God's commandments and participation in the sacrificial cult.
The theme of avodah, sacred service or worship, infuses the following chapter, where we are repeatedly told not to serve other gods but rather to remain steadfast in our service to God.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., however, the meaning of avodah was transformed. No longer could the Israelites serve God through sacrificial practice, and so the stage was set for the evolution of other forms of service. And so the word, avodah, became bogged down in ambiguity. What does it mean for a Jew to serve God? How are we to understand the depth of this infinitely rich endeavor of avodah? Two commentaries sparked by one verse in our parashah prove instructive.
Deuteronomy 13:5 instructs us: "Follow none but the Lord your God, and revere none but Him; observe His commandments alone and heed only His orders; serve none but Him and hold fast to Him." How is a Jew to serve God?
Maimonides provides us with one clear answer: This commandment to serve God "imposes a specific duty, namely that of prayer" (Sefer HaMitzvot, 8). For Maimonides, fixed prayer is the essence of one's service to God. Moreover, it is through participating in a minyan--organized prayer group--and praying the three daily services that one demonstrates one's uncompromising devotion to God.
On the other hand, Nahmanides, famed Talmudist and mystic of the 13th century, argues that prayer is not mandated at all by the Torah. Prayer is nothing less than God's gift to us. "For prayer is an expression of God's lovingkindness to us when God hears and responds whenever we pray . . . as part of our service to God we are obligated to study God's Torah, pray to God in times of distress, and turn our eyes and our hearts toward God 'as the eyes of servants toward the hands of their masters' (Psalm 123:2)."
Nahmanides' definition is far more expansive than Maimonides'. While the latter labels avodah to be obligatory prayer, the former argues against Maimonides' claim of 'obligation' and his limited definition of avodah.