Friday, January 16, 2009

Communal Prayer In Times of Hardship.

In the previous post, I showed that Rambam lists two separate Mitzvot for prayer where one is a component of general worship, Avodah, and the other part of a process we go through at times of trouble. I would like to look first at the second kind, the prayer for troubled times.

Rambam in the first chapter of Hilchot Ta’aniyot presents this Mitzvah as follows:

א מצות עשה מן התורה, לזעוק ולהריע בחצוצרות על כל צרה שתבוא על הציבור, שנאמר "על הצר הצורר אתכם--והרעותם, בחצוצרות" (במדבר י,ט)—
כלומר כל דבר שיצר לכם כגון בצורת ודבר וארבה וכיוצא בהן, זעקו עליהן והריעו.

There is a positive biblical (De’oraita) commandment to cry out and blow trumpets on any hardship that affects the community, as it says [And when you go to war in your land] against the adversary that oppresses you, you should let out a long blast with the trumpets. Namely, any hardship that befalls you, for example droughts, plagues or locust or any other such [calamity], cry out and blow [trumpets] on them.”

ב ודבר זה, דרך מדרכי התשובה הוא: שבזמן שתבוא צרה ויזעקו לה
ויריעו, יידעו הכול שבגלל מעשיהם הרעים הרע להן--ככתוב "עוונותיכם, הטו
לכם, וזה הוא שיגרום להם להסיר הצרה מעליהם.

This [commandment] is one of the many paths towards repentance. For, when a time of hardship arrives and the people cry out and blow trumpets because of it, they will come to the realization that the mishap is a result of their own misdeeds. As it says, “your sins have brought this upon you” and that will bring about for the hardship to be removed.”

ג אבל אם לא יזעקו, ולא יריעו, אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם
אירע לנו, וצרה זו נקרוא נקרית--הרי זו דרך אכזרייות, וגורמת להם להידבק
במעשיהם הרעים, ותוסיף הצרה וצרות אחרות: הוא שכתוב בתורה, "והלכתם עימי,
בקרי. והלכתי עימכם, בחמת קרי" (ויקרא כו,כז-כח),
כלומר כשאביא עליכם צרה, כדי שתשובו—
אם תאמרו שהוא קרי, אוסיף עליכם חמת אותו קרי

But if they [the people] will not cry out and blow trumpets, thus intimating that this as a natural occurrence, that this hardship occurred by chance [it is our luck], that [thinking] is cruel for it binds them to their erroneous actions and perpetuate their situation bringing about more hardships. That is what the Torah tells us, “[And if you will not for all this heed Me], and come in encounter against Me then I will come against you in wrathful encounter”. Namely, when I bring upon you a hardship, so that you should repent, if you will blame it on chance [encounter] I will bring down upon you more of that wrath of chance.”

Rambam is telling us that prayer and blowing trumpets has no effect on God. It is a human process that addresses our human nature. We have a tendency to place the blame for any hardship on everything but ourselves. We blame it on chance, coincidence, and natural phenomenon and so on. The truth is that HKBH created the world and set it up in a system of cause and effect, actions and consequences and gave man the freedom to choose how to act. Prayer, blowing trumpets and the additional rabbinic laws of fasting are meant to bring this message home. It forces us to stop, think and take stock followed by a change in our actions and thinking. It is only by changing our ways that we can prevent a recurrence or a worsening of our situation. The prescribed drama is a tool and concession to our human nature to bring this message home.

Rambam in the Moreh divides all the Mitzvot into fourteen classifications. The first classification contains Mitzvot that deal with opinions – Hashkafah.

“Likewise the commandment to cry to God in time of trouble, "to blow an alarm with the trumpets" (Num. x. 9), belongs to this class. We are told to offer up prayers to God, in order to establish firmly the true principle that God apprehends our situation, and that it depends upon Him to improve them, if we obey, and to make them ruinous if we disobey. We should not believe that such things are fortuitous and happen by chance.” (MN3:36)

To better understand the meaning of this statement we have to turn to MN2:47-

“It is clear that everything produced must have an immediate cause which produced it; that cause has a cause, and so on, till the First Cause, the will and decree of God is reached. The prophets therefore omit sometimes the intermediate causes, and ascribe the production of an individual thing directly to God, saying that God has made it.”

In other words if we follow the sequence of cause and effect all the way back to its source, everything that we experience is traceable back to HKBH and His will.

As regards the immediate causes of things produced, it makes no difference whether these causes consist in substances, physical properties, freewill, or chance--by freewill I mean that of man--or even in the will of another living being. The prophets [omit them and] ascribe the production directly to God and use such phrases as, God has done it, commanded it, or said it: in all such cases the verbs "to say," "to speak," "to command," "to call" and "to send" is employed. What I desired to state in this chapter is this: According to the hypothesis and theory accepted, it is God that gave will to dumb animals, freewill to the human being, and natural properties to everything. As accidents originate in the redundancy of some natural force… and are mostly the result of the combined action of nature, free choice, and volition, it can consequently be said of everything which is produced by any of these causes, that God commanded that it should be made, or said that it should be so.”

We have to take this into consideration, when we read Rambam saying, “God apprehends our situation, and it depends upon Him to improve them, if we obey and to make them ruinous if we disobey”. The hardship we are facing and the removal thereof is ultimately the result of “the combined action of nature, free choice, and volition” which “God commanded that it should be made”. There is a therefore direct correlation between the act of repentance and the hardship we are facing. When we say that God “apprehends our situation” we are saying that it is a result of the system of cause and effect that He put into the universe He willed which, when applied to human beings who have free will, it becomes action and consequence. When we say that “it depends upon Him to improve them, if we obey, and to make them ruinous if we disobey”, we are saying that when we understand how our actions affected the outcome, we can improve our situation. This type of prayer is meant to make us realize all this and make us change the behavior that resulted in the disastrous consequence we are now facing.

Of note is that this Halacha talks about communal problems as opposed to individual hardships. How and in what form it was extended into personal prayer will be discussed in the next post.

Shabbat Shalom.

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