By Ch, Capt Mordechai Hecht, USAFR
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that “real war” is in our minds and hearts, and the battlefields of the world are only the virtual screen that displays our hearts and minds. In Jewish tradition, this is reflected in— surprisingly enough—prayer.
Why pray? I mean, why pray when we train, practice, prepare and work to master our skills and techniques in whatever it is that we do in the military? What does prayer actually do for me?
If you’re a religious person who prays regularly, you’re probably laughing at the question. But what I’m about to propose may be something a little different. There is a statement from the Zohar, an ancient Jewish text compiled some 1800 years ago by the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai: “Shas Tzlosa Shas Krava,” meaning “The time of prayer is a time of war.”
At first when you look at this statement you wonder, how can that be? Prayer is meant to be a calm, collected, peaceful and meditative experience, and yet the sages are saying that prayer is a “time of war”?
If you would ask anyone “Why do we pray,” they would likely answer something to the effect of: “To bring out your inner humility,” or “to invoke G-d’s mercy”; to ask G-d for the things we want and need. But prayer = war would seem to be the antithesis of what prayer means to most of us. So what does the Zohar mean when it compares prayer to war?
Chassidic philosophy discusses this conundrum at great length, and I’ve broken the ideas I’ve come across down to three general concepts:
Number One: Life is a War
We have two opposing forces within each of us, commonly known as a yetzer harah—a soul of evil desires, and a yetzer tov—a soul of G-dly desires. These two wage a constant battle within ourselves.
There’s the responsible, selfless, visionary part of the psyche—the “G-dly soul” in Chassidic lingo, and then there’s the shallower, self-centered, creature-comfort-seeking dimension. the “animal soul.” These two internal forces are always pulling our attention in opposite directions.
It’s an internal war of our minds and hearts, and we need to be on constant alert. Every day is a new battle. Even when we win, it’s never really over.
It’s not even about grappling with major moral enticements; it’s more insidious than that. It’s about the struggle to pay proper attention to relationships, to be fully engaged in my life and my skills sets, to be fully present in my actions. It’s about struggling with my weaker self.
Let’s not understate the reality: It’s a real war. And it never stops.
And here’s where prayer comes into the conversation. Prayer is about getting a firmer grip on ourselves. It’s about cutting through layers of self-image and defense mechanisms; it’s about recognizing counterproductive patterns so that we can break their paralyzing hold on our lives and develop into the best human we are capable of being.
When we pray, we need to seriously focus on who “I” need to be, as compared to who I am. I need to overcome my instinct to look the other way, and embrace the unpleasantness that comes with facing my weaker self and getting stronger.
As the fifth Rebbe of Chabad said, “Prayerful meditation is about three things: 1. What you should be; 2. What you could be; 3. What you are.” If that’s not internal combat, I don’t know what is.
Number Two: Power in Numbers
Framing prayer as a battle helps me appreciate the value of communal prayer. I don’t want to stand alone in battle. There’s strength in numbers.
When I pray, I’m supported by my colleagues and afforded an effort to overcome the impediments that stand between us and our potential—together. It’s a team effort; each of us strengthening the other by our very presence and commitment to self-actualization. Prayer unifies us. That’s why, in optimal circumstances, we pray with a minyan—a quorum of 10 Jews. And while it is true that the highest form of communal prayer in Judaism is with a full ten, a group of two or more is also greater than simply praying alone (see Ethics 3:2). But still, no matter the numbers, our goal is still the same: personal advancement and growth. A single battle buddy can energize you to do so.
As Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch said, “When two people are involved together in Divine service or study, there are two G-dly souls pitted against one animal soul.”
Number Three: Honesty & Integrity
When we pray, be it an invocation or a full-on lengthy liturgical prayer from the prayer book, we make a statement that we want to change; we want to get better. We are making a statement that we are looking deeper and taking the time to recognize our inner personal struggle and seeking mindfulness and mental stamina to succeed both as individuals and as team players. Often in life, we get carried away by the rote of rules, regulations, and protocols. We fall back on our training, almost mindlessly. But what about our internal systems, our hearts and minds?
Prayer is precisely this: sharpen your greatest weapons, your mind and heart. Be enlightened and inspired by your connection with G-d and your understanding of His practical, moral and ethical expectations. This will influence and intensify your skill set as well. As my commander at Langley, Lt Col Christopher Decker, said to me on my first day in uniform: “After all is said and done, remember humanity. Remember we are all human; human beings have minds and hearts.”
So I hope you’ll agree that no, prayer is not a simple, calm experience. Prayer is war.
Originally published in the Tishrei 5783 Jewish-American Warrior