Thursday, January 23, 2020

Take God to Work

Brachos 21

King David wasn’t always a mighty Goliath-slaying warrior.  He started out as a simple shepherd.  When the Prophet Shmuel came to house of Yishai to anoint one of his sons as the future king, he showed him each of his children.  One by one they passed before the prophet, but with each appearance, he shook his head, knowing that he had not yet met the one.  ‘Have you no other sons?’ he inquired.  ‘My son David is out tending to the sheep,’ Yishai responded.  As soon as Shmuel laid eyes on the youngster, he knew that Hashem had revealed to him the King of Israel.  

Two aspects of David’s shepherding vocation made him uniquely fit to be the leader of our people.  First, he cared deeply for each individual sheep, and was willing to risk his life to chase away lions and bears to save even the smallest lamb.  But even more distinctive was how David spent his time.  The life of a shepherd can be quite lonely.  In the absence of human interaction, how do you keep yourself from going mad?  

During those early years David composed the Tehillim (Psalms).  He knew that his success tending to the sheep and protecting them was not his own.  He owed it all to Heaven’s hand.  He spent his days out in the field talking to Hashem and developing a deep spiritual bond with our Father in Heaven.  For David, pastoring his flock was a religious experience.

Rabbi Elazar taught: If one is unsure whether or not he had recited the Shema, he must repeat the recitation of the Shema.  If one is unsure whether or not he had prayed (Shemoneh Esreh), he should not repeat the prayers.  Rabbi Yochanan says: Hallevai (if only) a person would pray all day long!

Every individual, regardless of their position and status, has various obligations to see to each day.  Most of us have to work.  Others are blessed with a life dedicated to learning and scholarship.  But nobody has the luxury of remaining at the synagogue and davening for hours on end.  How is it even possible to pray all day long? 

Rabbi Yochanan knows that everybody needs to get to work.  But his message is that we should be in conversation with our Father in Heaven throughout our day.  What distinguished King David from all other shepherd boys?  To the naked eye, he would have seemed to be wandering through lush pastures, with little intellectual or emotional engagement.  Shepherding is, to all appearances, a menial vocation.

But that wasn’t what was really going on in David’s daily life.  While he looked like a simple shepherd, he was actually engaged in continuous conversation with G-d.  ‘Hashem, please guide me as I guide these sheep.  Hashem, please protect my sheep from any mishap, from taking ill, to falling, to becoming prey to wild animals.  Hashem, what is the meaning of the circle of life?  Hashem, please save me from sinful behaviour – may my sheep not graze in private pastures and may I not fall prey to the temptations of the field.  Hashem, why have you placed me in the here and now?  What is my mission on Earth?’  David was praying all day long.

Throughout the day, every one of us engages in various tasks.  Some require intense focus and concentration, others are more mundane and menial.  Those latter periods are the points of the day when we should be shifting our focus to spiritual pursuits.  Those times should be utilized to communicate with Hashem and contemplate our Divine purpose and mission. 

Even during those moments when we are focused completely on work-related matters, G-d shouldn’t disappear from the conversation.  We should be turning our eyes heavenward and beseeching our Father in Heaven for guidance on our decision-making process.  We should be thanking Him when things go well and confirming our faith in Him when things appear to go a different way than we anticipated or desired. 

While these communications might not seem to fit our preconceived notions of prayer – we think of the standard Siddur formula as the prayer service – they are absolutely bona fide prayer experiences.  Originally, we didn’t even have a fixed prayer service – everyone would talk to G-d as they saw fit.  The problem with the fixed formula is that many of us assume that we need not engage in any further conversations with the Almighty.  To that misconception, Rabbi Yochanan responds, “If only a person would pray all day long!”

Talk to your Father in Heaven.  Engage with Him throughout your day.  He wants to be part of your life, not just a morning ritual you check off as part of your daily routine.  May you learn to pray all day long!

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