The midrash on our parshat states: “God said to Aharon the High Priest ‘by your word will I rest my divine presence on the Ark of the covenant, and by your word shall I remove it.’”
This teaching relates the power of our prayers and the affect our words have on God Himself. Yet the prayer of the High Priest was expressly short, so as not to worry the assembled congregation.
The prayer went as follows: “May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, that this coming year shall be for us and for all your people, the House of Israel, wherever they are, rich in rain if it is hot. And when the world is in need of rain, do not permit the prayers of travelers with regard to rain to gain entrance before you. May Your people, the House of Israel, not be dependent for their livelihood upon one another nor upon any other people. May it be a year that no woman suffer miscarriage; and that the trees of the field yield their produce; and may there not depart a ruler from the House of Judah.”
The extremes are notable: Prayer affects the very divine presence, and yet the prayer of Aharon speaks of nothing spiritual, but rather the very basic needs for survival in our physical world.
Yet this is the very essence of prayer, as expressed in the dream of Jacob: “And behold there was a ladder set on the earth and its head was in the heavens.” The ladder of Jacob represents prayer. Similar to the High Priest on Yom Kippur, the ladder of prayer is a bridge between the highest of spirituality — a means of direct communication where we affect God, namely heaven — and our physical and material needs on earth.
This is also the name of our parsha, Achrei Mot-Kedoshim. “Achrei Mot” means after death and “Kedoshim” means holy. In other words, holiness is to be brought even into things associated with death — namely things that decompose and are temporal.
Often we think the spiritual and mundane are disconnected, yet this assumption is completely wrong. The most spiritual day, Yom Kippur, when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies, and all Jewish people gather in shuls, we read this week’s parsha, Achrei Mot. We read of the prohibition of incest and other sexual sins, for our most spiritual moments are meant to infuse our very family life and values. For the same reason, the High Priest prayed for children and rain, for holiness must be bridged and connected specifically to the mundane and basic functions of life.
It is like two sides of a bridge in our personal spaces — where kosher, family purity, tefillin and Shabbat are meant to be performed in the home, and living as a Jew continues after our bar and bat mitzvah in the synagogue. Our business and worldly endeavors must be a vehicle to God, where through tzedaka and ethical business behaviors we draw Godly light into this dark world.
Yet on the other side of this bridge, we must educate our children to come to shul and care for one another. We must act as a holy nation with divine interests and beliefs, and strive for an intimate relationship with God. We must find Godly meaning and eternal value in one another and in the here and now.
One side is personal and mundane, the other spiritual and transcendent, but we must connect the two. Prayer is the power that connects us between these two facets of life. Prayer reminds us of who we are and our mission in life. Prayer lets us realize that all we have is from God and that all that is here on earth is to serve a higher purpose. Prayer allows us to remember that our riches are a blessing from God and we are but His emissaries to help the poor and needy.
Prayer can happen at home or in the synagogue, but prayer is vital every single day. Putting on tefillin, and saying the Shema and other prayers each day, connects us with our past and uplifts our day and brightens our future. We declare how God is one and how all creations in this world are part of His eternity. We ask for rain and children and remember how God cares and provides for all our needs.
God says, “Through the words of your prayers I will dwell within you.” Pray each day, and God will become more present within your life and the life of your family. It will lift you and the entire world around you. You will become the bridge to a better world and a more meaningful future. PJC
Rabbi Elchonon Friedman is the spiritual leader of Bnai Emunoh Chabad. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.