Quotable Heschel

Kavanah & Keva: Spontaneity and Duty in Prayer

In reality, however, the element of regularity has often gained the upper hand over the element of spontaneity. Prayer has become lip service, an obligation to be discharged, something to get over with. "This people draw near, with their mouth and with their lips do honor Me, but have removed their heart far for Me and their fear of Me is a commandment of Me learned by rote" (Isaiah 29:13).

The primacy of inwardness in prayer may be explained by a parable. There was once a king who commanded his servants to make him savory food such as he loved. So they brought him the dish and he ate. And even though the preparation of the dish required many different kinds of work such as cutting wood, drawing water, slaughtering animals, kindling fire, cleaning pots and pans, and cooking, nevertheless the king only commanded them concerning the savory food. And if it would have been possible to have produced the morsel without these steps, his commandment would still have been considered fulfilled. For the king was not interested in the wood or the water and he was not concerned with the way the food is made.

Now imagine what would happen if, when the time to eat arrived, the servants were to come in carrying pots and pans. And when the king asked, "What are these?" they were to say to him: "You have told us to make savory food for you. Here, sir, is the equipment with which they are made." Indeed would not the King burn with anger and would he not rightly say to them: "I commanded you only to bring the savory food. Did I ask you for pots and pans?”*

And so it is with words of prayer when the heart is absent.

Prayer becomes trivial when ceasing to be an act in the soul. The essence of prayer is agada, inwardness. Yet it would be a tragic failure not to appreciate what the spirit of halacha does for it, raising it from the level of an individual act to that of an eternal intercourse between the people Israel and God; from the level of an occasional experience to that of a permanent covenant. It is through halacha that we belong to God not occasionally, intermittently, but essentially, continually. Regularity of prayer is an expression of my belonging to an order, to the covenant between God and Israel, which remains valid regardless of whether I am conscious of it or not.

How grateful I am to God that there is a duty to worship, a law to remind my distraught mind that it is time to think of God, time to disregard my ego for at least a moment! It is such happiness to belong to an order of the divine will. I am not always in the mood to pray. I do not always have the vision and the strength to say a word in the presence of God. But when I am weak, it is the law that gives me strength; when my vision is dim, it is duty that gives me insight.

*Rabbi Menahem Lonzano, Derech Hayim, Lember, 1931, p. 84

Man's Quest for God by Abraham Joshua Heschel
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954 
pp. 67-8.

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