Tradition teaches that the Afternoon prayer known as Mincha was initiated by Abraham's son, Isaac, the second of our Patriarchs.
The entire text of the Mincha prayer is excerpted from the morning Shacharit prayer word for word. The only difference between them is that the Mincha prayer is shorter. Yet the approaches taken by our sages towards these two prayers are so markedly different that you may as well be talking about night versus day.
Our Sages describe the Morning Prayer, which was initiated by Abraham, as one who stands tall before God. This is how they describe Isaac's prayer:
Isaac established the Afternoon Prayer, as it is written: Isaac went out to the field, to speak, -- "losuach," which means in Hebrew to converse -- towards evening [Genesis 24, 63]. "To speak" means to pray, as it is written, A prayer of the impoverished person who is on the verge of fainting and pours forth his conversation [sicha, sharing the same Hebrew root as to converse] before God. [Psalms 102:1]
With the Morning Prayer, Abraham stands proudly before God, a living portrait of man the majestic. He prays in the morning and couches his prayer in terms of semi-demands. The image of Isaac's prayer stance is that of a person on the edge of collapse; he prays towards the evening, at the end of the day; his prayer has the flavor of the abject failure begging for assistance. He cannot even summon the energy to beg in an organized fashion; he merely pours out his heart in the form of a disorganized conversation.
Such a marked contrast between a father and his son in the way they approach the Almighty demands some explanation!
THE FINAL CONNECTION
Jewish prayer is focused on fixing the 'broken world' and re-attaching it to God. [see: Fixing the World through Prayer] It should be self evident that if the world requires re-attachment, it must be re-attached to God not just at the beginning, but also at the end.
To understand what we mean by the "end of the world," we need to go over some of the fundamental axioms of Judaism that are no doubt familiar to most readers. Judaism teaches that the world as we know it will culminate with Techiyat Hametim, or the Resurrection of the Dead which will be immediately followed by the Day of Final Judgment. Those who pass Judgment will enter the next world, whereas those who will fail to pass muster will be refused entry and consigned to oblivion; if you are unable to enter the World to Come, you no longer have an alternative world in which to be.
Abraham is symbolic of the first man whose task it was to re-attach the world to God at the point of its creation; Isaac is symbolic of the last man, entrusted with the mission of re-attaching the world at the point where the world as we know it ends and human history enters the era of Judgment and reward. The fact that Isaac authors the Afternoon prayer which is recited as the light fades into dusk reflects the approach to each individual day as a mini creation. The mini creation of each day comes to its end at dusk and the world returns to God, its maker. Dusk is the portion of each individual day that corresponds with the ultimate Day of Judgment.
The Sages assign Isaac a very unique status; he is the single human being in human history that died, entered the world of the Resurrection, and then returned. Isaac is the personification of Resurrected man. As the Sages explain:
Rabbi Yehuda said: when the knife touched Isaac's neck [during the Binding of Isaac], his soul flew out of his body. When the Voice emerged from between the cherubim and commanded, "Do not send your hand to hurt the youth..." his soul returned to his body, and Isaac stood up on his feet, and realized that so too would the dead be eventually resurrected. He declared, "Blessed are you O God, who resurrects the dead". [Pirkei D' R'Eliezer, 30]
His resurrected status provides the key that unlocks the secret of Mincha, Isaac's prayer. Isaac prays as person who died on the altar and was reinserted into life; he has personally experienced the resurrection of the dead and the judgment that follows. His reinsertion into our world attests to the existence of the Resurrection and the inevitability of having to face the final judgment and to teach us how to pass it.
If Abraham is the Patriarch of purpose, Isaac is the Patriarch of destiny.
If Abraham is the Patriarch of purpose, Isaac is the Patriarch of destiny. His prayer comes at the end of the day because it deals with the issues that crop up when life ends. The route to Judgment Day passes through the Mincha prayer that Isaac instituted.
No wonder Isaac's prayer is portrayed as "the gushing heart of the poor man." Isaac is talking about 'pay day'. He reminds us that the universe we inhabit is a workplace. We must use the time we are allotted here to establish a space within which to "stand" through eternity. Our accomplishments will necessarily come up for evaluation at some point. In due time, when every human soul has been provided with the opportunity to "do his or her thing", God will shut down this workplace we inhabit for good, and every human being will line up to face judgment and receive his or her reward.
The Day of Judgment is a difficult day. We all know our shortcomings, and few of us feel even at the end of a single day, much less at the end of our lives, that we have taken the utmost advantage of our opportunities. Few of us are ready to join Frank Sinatra and smugly declare that "my regrets are too few to mention" because "I did it my way." When it comes to facing judgment, the 'poor man' image fits us all. No one in his or her right mind has the confidence to face the intense scrutiny of Divine justice complacently; we are all in desperate need of reassurance.
THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER
But this is all very lofty; let's put a human face on it.
A Jew is an existential composite of spiritual opposites. On the one hand, he is a continuation of Abraham; a being of immense stature, the repository of great spiritual power. The universe was created for him, and he determines its shape through the strength of his deeds. He was given free will by God, and his potential for greatness is limitless. All Jews are the children of Abraham and we have all inherited his capacity to be heroes. We all have the ability to negotiate with God during the Morning prayer.
On the other hand, there is a psychological flip side to this feeling of greatness. At times we feel that we have inherited the heavy burden of having to live up to a spiritual heritage designed for heroes. We are the living repositories of an overwhelming volume of traditions and obligations passed down to us by previous generations, whether we want to be or not. In the course of our long history many Jews have attempted to escape the burden of this inheritance; their efforts have generally not met with a great deal of success.
Indeed, if our blood-soaked history has taught us anything, it has driven home the point that, as a people, we can never stop shouldering the burden of being Jewish. Whenever we have attempted to shake free of it in large numbers tragedies have been the inevitable result. We are ordained by our fate to be heroes.
In modern times a steadily increasing number of the Jewish people seem to have internalized this lesson and are shouldering the responsibilities of our traditions willingly. For the first time in recorded Jewish history there is a great flow of Jews coming back to their traditions. But even as we accept the challenges of re-assuming the responsibility for carrying on our traditions, we are aware that it is difficult to match the spiritual accomplishments of the great Jews of previous generations. "If we regard the earlier generations as angels, than we can consider ourselves people, but we regard them as mere people, we are considered only donkeys....." [Talmud, Shabbat, 112b]
The Afternoon prayer allows us to connect with God when we feel inadequate to the task that we have shouldered.
Prayer from the heart is a vehicle for connecting every state of consciousness back to God. Just as we have a prayer that expresses our state of inspiration when we fell like heroes ready to meet any spiritual challenge with creative enthusiasm, we must also have a prayer that allows us to connect with God when we feel inadequate to the task that we have shouldered. We need Mincha as much as we need Shacharit.
Abraham and Isaac operate at the opposite ends of this divide in our states of consciousness.
Abraham is the personification of our heroic yearnings. He arrived at the recognition of the truth unaided, guided only by his powerful intellect. He initiated the relationship with God and founded the Jewish people. He set our national agenda. His mighty voice reverberates down the corridor of the generations, and its echo still rings loudly in our ears. He never experienced the feeling of being burdened by an inherited set of traditions. He created our traditions.
Isaac was the first Jewish child. He was the first one to inherit Judaism as a responsibility that he must carry. He was challenged with the test of summoning the inner resources needed to actualize Abraham's mighty vision and bring it down to earth. Abraham's heroic way of life had to be made a part of the everyday world. Isaac dedicated his life to working his father's grand vision into everyday reality that could be assumed by ordinary people. He didn't start life as a hero. He worked at his traditions until he became one.
As every Jew knows, the implementation of an inherited set of values and practices is an enormous responsibility; a much higher standard of conduct is expected of Jews precisely because they are the possessors of a magnificent spiritual heritage than of other people. For example, the Jewish soldier, who is unquestionably the most humane soldier on earth, is constantly being criticized for cruelty. He is expected to endanger his life to avoid causing injury to 'innocent bystanders' even when he is under attack. No one had such expectations of the American soldier in Afghanistan, Iraq or for that matter Yugoslavia.
While such unreasonable standards are no doubt unfair, the fact that they are invariably applied to Jews underlines the point: the possessors of a great spiritual heritage are automatically exposed to criticism and judgment. Why don't you measure up to your heritage? Shouldn't your moral standards reflect the vision of your founder? You are not like the rest of us! We expect more of you!
It is small wonder that Jewish tradition regards Isaac as the human link to God's Attribute of Justice. As the first Jew who carried the responsibility of living up to a heroic parent, he must have lived with the anxiety of facing judgment as his constant companion.
Paradoxically, it turns out that it is the burdensome aspect of Jewish life that provides us with the weapon we need to face the Day of Judgment successfully. Isaac, the first Jew forced to bear the spiritual burden of being born Jewish, is also the Jew who handed us our most potent spiritual weapon. We unsheathe this weapon at every circumcision ceremony, the occasion that marks the beginning of our lives as Jews and joins us to the Covenant of Abraham.
The Talmud tells us to include the following prayer as part of every circumcision ceremony:
…who sanctified this beloved child from the womb, and put his edict into his flesh, and stamped his descendants with the sign of His holy covenant. Therefore, in reward for this, You, the living God Who is our portion and our rock, command that this beloved portion of ourselves (i.e. this child) be redeemed from having to suffer Purgatory (hell), for the sake of the covenant you have placed in our flesh. [Talmud, Shabbat 137b]
Rashi explains [ibid]: Isaac is the [first] beloved child the blessing refers to; it was he who was sanctified for this commandment before his birth.
Abraham is the mighty hero, but Isaac is the beloved child. As he was designated to enter the covenant of Abraham from before his birth, without the benefit of having been given a choice, he deserves all the assistance God can possibly provide. We remind God at his circumcision ceremony that no matter what degree of merit Isaac manages to attain, He is duty bound to rescue him on the Day of Judgment from having to enter Hell. As he was forced to enter the covenant without choice, he must be rescued from the consequences of spiritual failure even if he lacks merit as long as he has made a fair effort.
It is the part of us that reflects Isaac's willingness to toil at his inherited task that makes us beloved in the eyes of God.
We all have portions of the heroism of Abraham implanted into us. But it is the part of us that reflects Isaac's willingness to toil at his inherited task that makes us beloved in the eyes of God. It is through our toiling at Judaism that we merit the assistance we require to successfully pass judgment. 'Measure for measure' is the operating principle God adopts as His guide in the determination of reward and punishment. As Jews, we are born into the covenant of Abraham without prior consultation. In return God commits Himself to offer us the assistance we require in the execution of the responsibilities assigned to us under its terms.
Isaac's prayer is symbolic of the transcendental spiritual beauty of Judaism. Diametric opposites are harmoniously combined and difficult burdens turn out to be sources of strength. Isaac stands as tall before God as Abraham. He attains his spiritual height by his willingness to endure feeling like a spiritual pauper on the point of fainting under his heavy burdens and still soldiering on.
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