This week we begin to read Sefer Vayikra, Leviticus. The major theme of the third book of the Chumash is the sacrificial service. The sacrificial service in the Beit Hamikdash is called “Avodah”. We use this same term “Avodah” to refer to our prayers, especially the Amidah/ Shemonah Esrei prayer. There are many similarities between the sacrificial service and tefilah, “the service of our heart”.
The Talmud (Berachot 26b) records a dispute as to the inspiration for prayer. One opinion is that the three daily prayer services correspond to the three patriarchs. Avraham woke up early and spoke to God. His prayer is the inspiration for Shacharit,. Yitzchak went out to the fields towards evening to meditate with God. This episode is the source for Mincha. Yaakov encountered God under the cover of darkness. His prayer is the origins of Maariv. Another opinion in the Talmud suggests that the daily prayer services correspond to the three sacrificial services performed daily in the Beit Hamikdash: Morning Tamid offering corresponds to Shacharit, the afternoon Tamid offering is represented by Mincha, while the late night burning of leftover fats and limbs is represented by Maariv.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggested that this Talmudic dispute refers to two aspects of prayer. The sacrificial service was overseen by the Kohanim. It was regimented and its performance needed to be precise. There was no room for personal expression during the sacrificial service, any deviation could lead to the sacrifice’s disqualification. On the other hand the Patriarchs were the first Jewish prophets. Every prophecy is unique, as it depends on the circumstances, the prophet and the message. Jewish prophets throughout history have been notable for their non-conformity and their expressive abilities.
The two sources for prayer are necessary to inform our tefilah experience. On the one hand we need structure and consistency. Just as the sacrificial service was the same every day, consistency must be the foundation of our tefilah experience. That is why the Rabbis instituted set times and a set text to our prayers. At the same time we need room for self-expression and the ability for the prayer experience to be different depending on our life circumstances. This is what the Patriarchs/Prophets origin of tefilah provides for us and encourages us to incorporate into our prayers.
What’s true about prayer is true about our lives more broadly. We need both structure and opportunities to express ourselves freely. We need both rules and creativity. We need boundaries and avenues to think outside of the box. It is only by emulating both prophets and priests that we are able to optimize the prayer experience and maximize our life experiences.