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An Out Loud Prayer

Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week's parsha discusses the mitzvah of "first fruits." A Jew who owns land in Israel and grows produce on it - specifically, the seven species for which the Land of Israel is praised - must gather the first of his crop in a basket and take it to the Temple, where a special ceremony takes place (see Deut. 26:2). This parsha is always read prior to the beginning of Slichot prayers for forgiveness preceding Rosh Hashana. What is the message of this parsha, and how does it help us prepare for Slichot?

The Midrash (Tanchuma 1) states that Moses saw prophetically that the Temple would be destroyed in the future, and that the mitzvah of the first fruits would no longer be able to be fulfilled. In response, Moses instituted three daily prayers to replace this service. The Midrash's statement is striking, since the Talmud (Brachot 26b) teaches that our three daily prayers were instituted by the Patriarchs. How can we understand this contradiction? Was it Moses or the Patriarchs who established our current system of prayer?

Furthermore, the Torah teaches that a specific statement must be recited by the person bringing the first fruits: "Then you shall answer and say...'An Aramean destroyed my forefather..." (Deut. 26:5). Rashi (citing Sotah 32b) explains that the word "you shall answer" refers to calling out in a loud voice. How is this interpretation derived? According to the Siftei Chachamim (9), the literal meaning of "you shall answer" is logical only if another person has previously spoken, necessitating a response. In this instance, however, no one has spoken at all. Therefore, our Sages explained the phrase "you shall answer" to mean that we must say the prescribed statement in a loud voice.

This interpretation raises a difficulty. The Talmud (Brachot 24b) teaches that a person who raises his voice in prayer is considered to have little faith in God! Rashi explains that loud prayers imply a lack of belief that God can hear a whisper just as clearly. In practice, Jewish law follows this opinion (Orach Chaim 101:2, Mishna Brura 7). If we are not permitted to raise our voice in prayer, how can our Sages specifically require it at the time we bring the first fruits?

The commentator Chanukat HaTorah addresses this issue by stating that there are two categories of prayer. The first category is regular prayer, containing the three standard elements of praise, request and thanks. The second category is prayer that testifies explicitly that God hears our thoughts. There is an obvious difference between these two categories. It is forbidden to raise our voices if we are praying according to the first category, because the volume might be misconstrued as a lack of belief. However, if we pray according to the second category, and explicitly state that God hears our thoughts, then surely He can also hear our whispers! Thus, it is permitted to raise our voices, because doing so will not lead to any improper assumptions.

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This helps us understand a seeming misstatement in the ceremony of the first fruits. The person bringing his produce is required to say, "An Aramean [Lavan] destroyed my forefather [Yaakov]." But historically, this is not true! If Lavan didn't kill Yaakov, why would the Torah command us to say that he did? Rashi explains (Deut. 26:5, based on Sifri and JT Peah 1:1) that Lavan wanted to destroy Yaakov and his entire family. Since, among the non-Jewish nations, evil thoughts have the same status as evil acts, Lavan's desire to kill Yaakov was considered an actual murder. Therefore, a Jew who explicitly states, "An Aramean destroyed my forefather" is effectively stating that God hears a person's thoughts! Therefore, the person falls under the second category of prayer, and is allowed to raise his voice.

Once we are permitted to raise our voice in prayer, it is actually preferable to do so. The Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim 101:8) states that raising our voices in prayer awakens our hearts. Additionally, we can suggest that loud prayer helps free us of our inhibitions, which elevates the words we say.

The concept of two categories of prayer will resolve the problem of who instituted daily prayers as a replacement for the service of first fruits. Based on the Talmud (Eruvin 16b), which teaches "These and those are the words of the living God," we can suggest that both Moses AND the Patriarchs established our daily prayer service. The Patriarchs instituted prayer according to the first category, in which it is forbidden to call out loudly. Moses instituted prayer according to the second category, in which we explicitly state God's omniscience.

We see that the Amidah, corresponding to the Patriarchs, is said silently. But when do we experience Moses's type of prayer? One example is the Slichot service, in which we ask God's forgiveness for not only our improper actions and speech, but even for inappropriate thoughts. Asking forgiveness for improper thoughts is tantamount to acknowledging that God is aware of them. Thus, it is permissible to raise our voices. Furthermore, according to some customs, Slichot are said immediately after the Amidah, thereby juxtaposing the Patriarchs (silent prayer) with Moses (heartfelt cries for forgiveness).

At last we see how this week's parsha relates to Slichot. When we read about the prayer spoken over the first fruits, we prepare ourselves to call out to God. Slichot, too, are spoken out loud, in order to awaken our emotions. They belong to the second category of prayer - Moses's category - in which we are encouraged to raise our voices to God and arouse our hearts to higher levels of connection.

May we all raise our voices in prayer so that, through truly meaning and feeling what we say, we arouse ourselves to become closer to God. In this merit may we be completely forgiven, and deserve to hear the loud shofar blast symbolizing the building of the Third Temple, where we'll once again bring the first fruits.

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