Prayer is a central aspect of Judaism, if not all religious beliefs. It is an invocation or act that deliberately seeks out and interfaces with the divine.
Although prayer does appear obliquely or sporadically in the Torah, it is not the predominant mode of worship in the Torah or the ancient world the Torah appeared in, an era where animal sacrifice was a near cultural universal. Our sages went out of their way to teach that prayer doesn’t just appear in the Torah; prayer stands in as a direct replacement or substitute for the lapsed sacrifices of long ago.
Our prayers are replete with requests to restore Jerusalem and rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. However, authorities are divided on whether the future we yearn for heralds a restoration or replacement of animal sacrifice. While that remains speculative until we find out, it is probably fair to say that it is hard for people in the modern world to wrap their heads around animal sacrifice.
Today’s near cultural universal is that animal sacrifice is alien and weird, perhaps even disgusting and nasty. Most people don’t want to watch an animal get slaughtered; any arcane mysticism is hard to imagine over the blood and gore.
That leaves prayer in a bit of a void; prayer is a stand-in or substitute for animal sacrifice, and yet an animal sacrifice is hard to relate to in almost every conceivable way, so far removed as it is from our primary experience. Moreover, the Torah has long sections devoted to the different categories and kinds of sacrifice and their details and nuances; sacrifice is clearly the primary mode of worship in the Torah’s conception, so prayer seems second-rate.
Either way, prayer is hard to understand. If prayer and sacrifice aren’t connected, why bother with something the Torah doesn’t validate as having much significance? And if prayer is connected to sacrifice, what element of sacrifice do we even relate to?
The Torah opens the section on sacrifices by outlining a scenario where someone wants to bring an offering:
‘אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קרְבָּן לַהֹ – When one of you presents an offering for God… (1:2)
Although not readily obvious in translation, the Torah utilizes highly unusual language here. Rather than present the sensible scenario where one of you wants to bring an offering, it literally translates to when someone offers an offering of you, which is to say, literally of yourselves – אָדָם מִכֶּם כִּי־יַקְרִיב / אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם.
The Baal HaTanya notes that this reading suggests that at the earliest juncture, the Torah already indicates that as much it’s going to talk about animal offerings, it’s not about the animal at all; it’s about the part of yourself you’re willing to offer, and prayer would operate in much the same way – יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם.
R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that the conventional notion of sacrifice isn’t really reflected in the Hebrew term – קרְבָּן. We think of sacrifice as giving something up when the Hebrew word actually means something more like drawing closer – קרב. You interact with the divine not with what you give up but by drawing close with what you have; in offering the material to God, you transform the material into the sacred.
God doesn’t need our stuff and can’t receive it in any tangible way; the Malbim teaches that all a person can ever offer is themselves, which mirrors precisely what the Torah calls for here – יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם. The Sfas Emes explains that the notion articulated here is that sacrifice and prayer are about aligning ourselves and resources to God’s broader plan; prayer isn’t secondary to sacrifice; it is the same.
While the form of seeking out the divine may have changed over time depending on the zeitgeist, the substance has remained constant. At the root of all mysticism is a desire to connect with the divine transcendence, and our sages have long identified the inner world of the heart as the battlefield of spirituality – עבודה שבלב. So we can read the Yom Kippur atonement ritual that seems odd to modern sensibilities, yet it maintains relevance to our prayers because the substance transcends the form of the performative aspect; that God forgives humans who want to make amends, goats and string or not.
It’s not the form of how it appears so much as it’s about the substance of how it is – אחד המרבה ואחד ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים.
As Moshe said to his audience, our Creator is always close, quite different from other gods they might have heard of who can only be invoked with specific rituals – כִּי מִי־גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ אֱלֹקים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּה’ אֱלֹקינוּ בְּכל־קרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו.
The Izhbitzer suggests that our subconscious hearts and minds hope and pray all the time. When you whisper “Please, God,” hope for the best, or wish that things turn out okay, those unspoken but very real thoughts are prayers that bring tangible wisps of warmth into the world that affirm and sustain, from which things can and will eventually grow – קָרוֹב ה’ לְכָל קֹרְאָיו לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת.
As the Kotzker said, where can we find God? Wherever we let Him in.
Sacrifice, like prayer, was always about the inner world of the spirit, about opening your heart and yourself to the universe.
And prayer, like sacrifice, can’t change God; but it can change you.