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.
One day, a knowledgeable student of Torah walked passed the shepherd and saw the shepherd engaged in his spontaneous prayer. The student rebuked the shepherd, "Fool, do not pray like that!" The shepherd queried, "How then should I pray?" The student taught the shepherd the words of the Amidah and the Shema [traditional Jewish prayers].
After the student left, the shepherd forgot all that had been taught and so was even afraid to say his prayer of the heart. One evening, a messenger of God appeared before the student and rebuked him for quelling the passionate, spontaneous prayer of one of God's devoted servants: "If you do not tell him to say what he was accustomed to before you arrived, know that sorrow will overtake you. For you have robbed me of one who belongs to the world to come." The student returned to the shepherd and urged him to recite his heartfelt prayer of old. The author of "Sefer Hasidim" concludes, "for God desires the heart."
While fixed prayer is important and central to who we are as Jews, it is only meaningful when it is ignited by the passionate prayer of the heart and soul which serves as the unique signature to each of our prayers. Each of us serves God in our own special way. While Judaism provides a framework for serving God, it is up to each of us to provide the soul. Maimonides challenges us to serve God through obligatory prayer; Nahmanides encourages us to give heed to the heart and soul in that same avodah. The challenge is to combine both of these approaches as we serve God in a heartfelt and genuine way.
Matthew Berkowitz is rabbinic fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Jewish university committed to promoting Jewish learning for all, and the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism. The Jewish Theological Seminary grants undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees and offers enriching programs for the Jewish community in the U.S. and abroad.