11:26 - 16:17
August 26, 2000 – 25 Av 5760
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz
Jewish Theological Seminary
uncompromising devotion to God is the theme of this week’s
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.
Deuteronomy, avodah referred specifically to offering
sacrifices to God at a central place of worship: “look only
to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your
tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There
you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings
and other sacrifices…” (Deuteronomy 12:5-6).
theme of avodah, sacred service or worship, infuses the
following chapter, where we are repeatedly told not to serve
other gods but rather 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; the stage was set for the evolution of other forms
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
Re’eh, prove instructive.
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.”
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” (Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot,
8). For Maimonides, fixed prayer is the essence of one’s
service to God. Moreover, it is through participating in a minyan
and davening (praying) the three daily services—shaharit,
minha and ma’ariv, that one demonstrates one’s
uncompromising devotion to God.
the other hand, Nahmanides, famed Talmudist and mystic of the
thirteenth 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).”
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. We serve God not
only through the rabbinically ordained prayer services;
Nahmanides emphasizes that we serve God in numerous ways.
we call out to God in a time of suffering, according to
Nahmanides, we serve God. When we sanctify time through
devoted study of Torah, we serve God. And when, through prayer
and study combined, we turn our hearts and souls to God—that
is avodah, the sacred service of God. I am struck by
Nahmanides’ flight from the language of obligation to that
of sincerity and lovingkindness.
Hasidim, a medieval pietistic work, tells a story of a Jewish
shepherd who, when he went out to the field each day would
offer up a heartfelt prayer: “Master of the Universe! It is
revealed and known to You that if You had animals and gave
them to me to protect, although I take wages from all others,
from You I would take nothing because I love You.”
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. After the student left, the shepherd
forgot all that had been taught and so was even afraid to say
his prayer of the heart.
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” (Sefer Hasidim, 5-6).
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.
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
Matthew Berkowitz is a rabbinic fellow at JTS, 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 US and around the world. Study more
with JTS at http://www.learn.jtsa.edu.
© 2000 Jewish Theological Seminary. May not be reproduced
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