Obligation and Opportunity – in Elul and Beyond

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Yellow opportunity ahead road sign against a beautiful blue sky
07 Aug 2018

One of my very favorite passages in Ramban’s writings (not that I’ve read them all) is one that everyone seems to misquote.

It was explained to me when I first learned the laws of prayer, and many times since, that Rambam believes there is a biblical commandment to pray daily, although the specific text and other details are of Rabbinic origin, while Ramban argues that daily prayer is an entirely Rabbinic obligation and that the Torah mandates prayer only in times of particular distress or danger.

However, as  I got older and learned more and read the texts myself, I discovered that’s not exactly what Ramban says, or at least not the full picture. What he actually says offers an important reminder for those who, like myself, might sometimes get overly caught up in the obligatory aspect of prayer and forget the real significance of what we’re doing when we pray.

After quoting and arguing with Rambam, Ramban goes on to say:

Certainly, the entire matter of prayer is not an obligation [in the Torah] at all. Rather, it is of the kindness of the blessed Creator upon us that He listens and answers whenever we call out to Him. The essence of the verse “and serve Him with all your heart” [which Rambam takes as a biblical source for the obligation to pray] is a positive commandment that all of our service to the exalted G-d should be wholehearted; meaning, with complete, appropriate intent for His sake…. (Comments on Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Commandment #5)

Ramban reminds us that before we ever start talking about prayer as an obligation, we need to remember that the very concept of prayer is a gift. We may take it for granted that we can talk to G-d, but why assume we should be allowed that chutzpah? In His great kindness, G-d grants us the opportunity to speak to Him and – though as we all know, He doesn’t always say “yes” – He agrees to listen. To the extent that the texts and rituals of prayer do indeed constitute a (Rabbinic) requirement, they are part of a larger picture of “service of the heart”: all obligations, including but not limited to prayer, carry with them a mandate of focus, of intent, of connection with the One in Whose Name we go through these motions.

How often do we think about our obligations as opportunities? As gifts?

I found myself thinking about this dispute about prayer, and specifically the Ramban’s view, this past Shabbos after inviting my 12-year-old to join me in davening mincha and then in some seudah shlishit. I commented (as I frequently have to remind myself) that her obligations are the same as mine now…and then I wondered (as I frequently do) whether there might have been a more inspiring way to encourage her to daven. The “obligation” aspect does it for me – I’m a rules kind of girl and have missed very few shacharis or mincha prayers since learning the halachos when I was about her age – but it doesn’t work for everyone.

Few people – even those of us who respond obediently – really like to be told what to do.

That same evening, I read one of my daughter’s numerous PJ Our Way books about angsty 12-year-olds finding their Jewish identities. (Note that I have no objection to angst at any age; I myself am proudly angsty at 38, and hope I always will be. It’s a description, not a criticism.) Like many stories involving angsty adolescents and their sometimes fractured relationships, the book included a significant lack of communication as a plot point. As I pointed out to my daughter halfway through the book, one can’t really blame one’s parents for not understanding if one hasn’t even tried to communicate. Of course nobody understood the protagonist’s feelings, when she hadn’t made an effort to share them! Only when circumstances compelled her to open up did she discover that she had been welcome to do so all along, and that it was a necessary ingredient for growth both personally and in her relationships.

Thinking about the above passage in Ramban on the heels of having read that book and having that conversation with my daughter, I was struck by the necessity for the overlap of obligation and opportunity in our mitzvah observance. We need the obligation because, too often, we don’t take advantage of the opportunity, or even recognize it as such. We need to be told.

The Gemara in Shabbos (88a) famously states that when the Jewish people stood at Har Sinai, Hashem held the mountain over their heads as He presented an ultimatum: “If you accept the Torah, good; if not, there will be your burial!” I won’t say this Gemara indicates we were forced to accept the Torah; as a teacher of mine said long ago, one always has a choice, even if one doesn’t like the consequences. But they were coerced, perhaps. Compelled. Given to understand that they must; that it was an obligation of sorts.

The Gemara goes on to explain, however, that the Jewish people did eventually accept the Torah willingly – in the days of Achashverosh. There is plenty of analysis that could be, and has been, done about this Gemara and what it was about the Purim story that would have brought the Jews to finally accept the Torah willingly, and in what sense that second acceptance was truly “willing.” For now, I will just highlight one point: it seems we needed to be compelled to experience a relationship with G-d before we could come to appreciate what that relationship had to offer.

Maybe that’s why Chazal came along and instituted all those specific texts and rules about prayer, instead of leaving it alone as a gift and a precious opportunity: because so many of us might have trouble recognizing and appreciating, and taking advantage of, the opportunity. We’re like angsty adolescents: we don’t feel like it, we don’t know how, we can’t imagine being understood. We might be afraid to dig into ourselves and connect with another… or Another… at the deepest levels. We have to be told to do it. And hopefully, once we’ve had a chance to experience prayer as an obligation, we can come to appreciate it as an opportunity.

As Elul approaches, we’re told to daven more, do more, turn to G-d more. We’re instructed to take the opportunities with which we’re blessed, to engage in teshuva, tefilah, and tzedaka. And maybe even Ramban would see an element of obligation in these efforts; coming up on Judgment Day sounds like an עת צרה, a time of trouble, to me! This month offers a particular opportunity to reach out to G-d and strengthen our relationship with him; אני לדודי ודודי לי – I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine. (Shir Hashirim 6:3; see Mishna Berurah 581:1.)

And the very fact that we interpret that pasuk from Shir Hashirim in terms of our relationship with G-d indicates that this relationship in many ways mirrors our relationships with other people.

The Mishna at the end of Mesechet Yoma states that our observance of Yom Kippur can atone for sins between a person and G-d, but atonement for sins in our relationships with people can only be atoned if we make amends. The Mishna’s statement is descriptive; it gives information for those who would like to know how to atone for sins, but doesn’t tell anyone what to do. Later sources, however, cite this statement and expand on it with words like “צריך” – one must. They assume one would want to take such an opportunity for atonement, and offer guidance in how to do so, subtly wording that guidance as something we “must” do – maybe because framing an opportunity as an obligation helps motivate us to take it.

This time of year is a lot of things to a lot of people. It can be stressful for those navigating meal or travel plans; it can be scary when we contemplate the ramifications of standing before G-d’s judgment; and it can offer opportunities to focus on reaching inward and outward, improving ourselves and all our relationships.

But of course, as Ramban reminds us, those opportunities are present to some degree all the time, as G-d’s gift to us. It is our responsibility to take advantage.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.