You Can’t Have One Without The Other
The list of things that go together seamlessly is endless. The ones that immediately popped into my head? Peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, and Batman and Robin. There are certain pairings which are timeless. You hear one and you can’t not say the other.
In Judaism, a pairing that immediately comes to mind is Torah and Avodah, the latter being best understood as prayer while the former is focused on our deep love of learning. The thing about a pairing is you can’t fully enjoy the two unless they’re together. Sure, a peanut butter sandwich is kind of good but it’s just missing something. In the same way, Torah and Avodah need one another.
We get that reminder in an interesting way in our parshah Vayetze this week. After Jacob falls asleep, dreams of the angels on the ladder, and receives his divine promise of legacy and protection, we read the following:
וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely יהוה is present in this place, and I did not know it!”
After suddenly waking, as if from a start, Jacob has a revelation about his revelation. Namely, this nondescript place where he rested his head was filled with the divine presence. Two important things to know before we dive into our commentary: the rabbinic tradition associated each forefather with a particular prayer service that they created. Jacob is linked to maariv, the evening service from this moment in our portion. Additionally, that same tradition tells us that in the intervening years of Jacob’s life, he spent much of his time studying Torah. The anachronistic nature of that claim falls beyond this erev shabbat thought!
In any event, the Maor Va’Shemesh, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein, an 18th century Chasidic Rebbe from Poland said the following about this text.
“There is a midrash that Yaakov awoke from his mishnato(from his sleep) actually means mi-shnato(from his learning.) The essence of the service of a person, to come to the objective of completeness in their service to the Holy One of Blessing, to attain the Blessed One's Godliness, happens through Torah and Tefilah, and one cannot exist without the other…one cannot come to the essence of awe and love and longing in one's service to the Holy One of Blessing , and to grasp Godliness with Torah alone, rather, through Tefilah, with self-sacrifice and enthusiasm as it is know from the sacred books…Behold he didn't know until that moment the secret of tefillah, how great it is.”
According to the Maor Va’Shemesh, it wasn’t that Jacob awoke from sleep. He actually awakened himself to the idea that after years of study, he needed to pair that with the power of prayer to truly understand God’s goodness.
We are an intellectually rigorous people. We love to learn and pore over ancient texts, dissecting and analyzing with the best of them. But Torah and Avodah go together for a reason. In a study from 2002 in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, “high frequency of prayer was significantly related to higher scores in three health outcomes: vitality, general health, and mental health.”
Beyond being good for our health, prayer can awaken something within us. I don’t think this needs to be understood as the rigid, formulaic, and rote way you might be imaging tefillah. Prayer can come in many forms. It can come from a siddur in shul but it can also come in the form of meditation; it can come in the form of chanting, song circles, or other musical settings.
In the times we’re living in, where things seem more chaotic by the day, carving out time to pray, in whatever form, is vital to our well-being. As you try to buoy yourself, try it out. You never know, you might reawaken something within you, just like our forefather Jacob and find a new pairing to name in your own life.