Sometimes, our rabbis derived worlds of meaning from simple phrases. Such is the case with the third verse of this week's portion. After God instructs Moses to tell Aaron how to light the menorah in the sanctuary, the Torah notes, "Aaron did so. He mounted the lamps at the front of the menorah as God had commanded Moses." Rashi, quoting a Midrash, says the verse praises Aaron for not acting differently than God commanded.
Would Aaron really have deviated from God's instructions? Does Aaron need a pat on the back for following a straightforward command?
One commentator offers the following explanation of Rashi: It's human nature to begin an assignment with enthusiasm. However, initial ardor often cools. In time, tasks are done more out of habit than devotion.
But not in the case of Aaron. He began his duties with great devotion and maintained it during all his years of service. His enthusiasm for serving God never wavered. This is what Rashi found worthy of commendation.
Another commentator goes a step further. He suggests that Aaron is singled out for praise because he did not change as his stature rose. Even as the light of the lamp remains the same whether raised or lowered, Aaron did not change after honors were bestowed upon him as High Priest.
The qualities Aaron had — zeal and consistency — are difficult to achieve in tandem when performing mitzvot. Many religious obligations are often done mechanically, without feeling.
Prayer, in particular, often becomes a mere reading exercise rather than an emotional act. Prayer, without devotion, is like a body without a soul. It lacks the one ingredient that distinguishes it from other forms of communication.
Why is meaningful prayer so difficult? Let's get to the heart of the matter. As Rabbi A.J. Heschel said: "The issue of prayer is not prayer, the issue of prayer is God." Many people have difficulty with the notion of a personal God. But this is the biblical and rabbinic concept that's embedded in our liturgy — a God who intervenes in and shapes the destinies of nations and individuals.
Perhaps this kind of God is no longer fashionable among sophisticated Jews. Prayer, after all, is an invitation to God to enter our lives. The inability to conceive of a personal God stems from our perceived lack of contact with God as an active agent in our lives.
Even when we want to believe in a personal God, we find ourselves feeling distant. And so it's hardly surprising in a time when people have difficulty communicating that the idea of connecting to a supreme being throws many individuals off.
There is another serious reason why many people feel distant from God. We live after the ravages of Auschwitz, and the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur. So how can we pray to a compassionate God?
When I was a hospice chaplain, I was counseling a non-Jewish patient. He was poor and uneducated, alone and scared, dying of AIDS. But he was a deeply spiritual man with a rich, expressive religious vocabulary.
He once told me that when he prayed, he felt he was rising higher and higher, closer and closer to God. When he felt this way, he lost his fear and escaped the prison his body had become. I learned more from him than I had in all my years in rabbinical school.
Before Aaron lit the menorah, according to a Midrash, he had to ascend three steps to trim the wicks. I view this ascent as symbolic preparation for service to God.
Spiritual elevation can only be achieved by taking small steps. The obstacles to prayer cannot be easily removed. The steadfastness and enthusiasm that the rabbis attribute to Aaron may be beyond our grasp. But with a little humility and open-mindedness, we might begin to learn how to pray.
Rabbi Alan Iser is the religious leader of Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn.