We are entering the month of Ellul when, in addition to blowing the Shofar in the morning service, we recite Psalm 27:
יְהוָה, אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי--מִמִּי אִירָא
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
This is said twice a day until Shemini Atzeret at the end of the High Holidays.
What is the purpose of prayer? Maimonides thought that fixed prayers were in themselves the essence of serving God. Nachmanides on the other hand saw prayer as God’s gift to us; relating to God through “avodah” and responding to God through mitzvot.
Sefer Hasidim, a medieval work, tells a story of a Jewish shepherd who, when he went out to the field each day, would offer up a heartfelt prayer:
Master of the Universe! It is revealed and known to You that if You had animals and gave them to me to protect, although I take wages from all others, from You I would take nothing because I love You.
A passing rabbinical student objected and taught him formal prayers including the Shema. God rebukes the student who returned to the shepherd and urged him to recite his heartfelt prayer of old. “For God desires the heart”.
The parasha begins with the words:
רְאֵ֗ה אָֽנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה
Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote:
I will not choose a life of mitzvah because I will be rewarded if I do and cursed if I do not. I choose a life of mitzvah because the performance of a mitzvah is its own reward.