Twice this week, as I was teaching people interested in conversion, I mentioned that Judaism, is really a religion of the home and not of the synagogue. The mezuzah at the entrance to our house, the kosher kitchen, the Shabbat candles at our table, the dedication to learning and the ethos of our Jewish values make our homes the mainstay of our Jewish lives. The synagogue, a place for dedicated prayer and learning is only a component of the whole picture.
The rabbis understood that prayer should be a communal event and should take place in a building dedicated for prayer. We’ll thrive off the sanctity of the building, and the energy and inspiration of one another. We’ll grow together as a unit seeing each other nearly every day in prayer.
Why then, in our parsha, does inspiration only come to Balaam when he’s alone?
ספר במדבר פרק כג :ג וַיֹּאמֶר בִּלְעָם לְבָלָק הִתְיַצֵּב עַל עֹלָתֶךָ וְאֵלְכָה אוּלַי יִקָּרֶה יְדֹוָד לִקְרָאתִי וּדְבַר מַה יַּרְאֵנִי וְהִגַּדְתִּי לָךְ וַיֵּלֶךְ שֶׁפִי
“Then Balaam said to Balak: ‘Stay here beside your offerings while I am gone. Perhaps the Lord will grant me a manifestation, and whatever He reveals to me I will tell you.’ And he went off alone .” (Numbers 23:3)
Solitary pursuit of spiritual truth is well attested in Jewish tradition. Many of the great mystics— from the author of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, to the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, gained spiritual enlightenment during periods of solitary reflection. In the Hasidic literature this practice gained the name: hitbodedut or “self-seclusion”, and is a great means of gaining spiritual awareness.
In fact, many of our prominent Biblical personalities are recorded to have had their most profound revelations in moments of solitude. Jacob dreamed of a ladder ascending to heaven while sleeping in a barren, rocky field. Moses encountered a burning bush alone herding sheep in Midian. Elijah heard the Divine Voice while hunkered down in a desert cave.
Nonetheless, there is a strong prejudice in the Jewish tradition against isolating oneself from others. Many prayers can only be said as part of a minyan— a gathering of ten adult Jews. Torah cannot be publicly read except in a communal format. Even study is not a solitary pursuit in traditional Jewish communities—rather, study almost always takes place in chevruta, a pair of learners who seek to unlock the essence of a text through vigorous debate and exchange.
I believe this need for hitbodedut, private talk, is why we have the silent Amidah in all our prayers. We finish the communal prayers with “Tzur Yisrael” or “Kadish” and then take three steps forward to commune with G-d. Within the context of community, the Amidah, gives us this private time with our Creator..
There’s no question that singing and chanting together is more inspiring and uplifting than singing alone. It’s also nice to know that the community needs you. But there’s always the necessity for our personal time with G-d. Balaam’s isolation gave him the opportunity to perceive G-d and hear his true message. The Amidah is our isolation time. It’s the time we withdraw from our social connections and create that personal relationship with our Higher Power.
Spiritual growth requires both properties: communal singing and connection, as well as peaceful, solitary reflection. The rabbis in their wisdom figured out how to obtain both. Let’s view the Amidah as our personal time with G-d, within the social structure of prayer, and do our utmost to appreciate and take advantage of what has been so smartly bequeathed to us.