Prayer Essentials

For the week ending 10 February 2018 / 25 Shevat 5778

A Story Bears Fruit

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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Oh, the complexities of Jewish prayer! Praying in Hebrew, saying words chosen for us, searching for a minyan, lengthy prayers, complex laws of prayer — and more. These things make it easy to lose sight of what prayer is all about. In three simple words — Rachmana liba ba’ei, the Merciful One desires the heart — our Sages remind us what, above all, G-d truly desires. Prayer is a bond of love between G-d and us with a magical ingredient that is one that only G-d can measure.

A Story: Around five hundred years ago, a young man, a child of anusim, fled Spain. In his desire to return to his Jewish roots he found his way to the Land of Israel, to the city of Safed, and to the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi, known as the holy “Arizal,” where he found the congregation praying. He too began to pray.

“Dear G-d!” he cried, “I do not know the prayers! I do not know Hebrew! I only know the letters of the alef-beit. Please, take these letters and make them into the most beautiful prayers for You!” And he began reciting, over and over again, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

That night, the Arizal had a revelation that the Jewish People were saved from a harsh decree in the merit of the prayer of one of his congregants. Upon investigation the Arizal discovered that it was not the prayer of one of his holy, scholarly disciples, but rather the simple prayer of that humble, brokenhearted young man.

One Rosh Hashana eve, Rabbi Eli Mintz of Monsey found himself leading the prayers in the Ukrainian city of Lvov (Lemberg). It was just after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the first time in close to a century that the town’s people were able to pray in the local synagogue. Hoping to touch hearts deprived for so long of what it felt like to be a Jew, Rabbi Mintz chose to tell a version of the above alef-beit story attributed to the early Chassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. When he concluded, an old man cried out, “I want to say the alef-beit!” Another person shouted, “I want to say it, too, but I don’t know how!”

Instead of opening the services with the traditional prayers, Rabbi Mintz began teaching everyone the alef-beit, letter by letter. The congregation repeated after him, calling out each letter with all their heart. This is how they prayed that Rosh Hashana eve.

  • Source: “The Power of a Whisper”

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