By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva
R. Shimon would say: Be careful regarding keriat shema and tefilla. When you pray, do not make your prayers rote but rather mercy and supplication before God as it says ‘for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and repents of evil’ (Yoel 2:13). And do not be wicked in your own eyes. (Avot 2:13)
Rabbenu Yona has a different version of the text in which the first statement calls for extra zeal only when saying shema. He explains that shema demands greater caution than tefilla (meaning the amida) since halacha allows expanded time for fulfilling the latter obligation. Most commentators assume that R. Shimon cautions us about both shema and the amida.
Tifferet Yisrael points out that R. Shimon did instruct his students to merely recite these prayers; after all, Avot addresses the quest for supperogatroy chassidut and not just basic obligations. Rather, R. Shimon teaches about the importance of praying specific texts with sincerity and devotion. Precisely because we recite both of these prayers multiple times a day, we frequently lose concentration lapsing into rote recitation. Moreover, these prayers reflect cornerstones of religious life. Shema affirms the basics of Jewish faith including monotheism, love of God, halachic obligations, and reward and punishment. Prayer is the most profound experience of a religious individual standing before God. Surely, these two texts deserve extra seriousness of purpose.
What was R. Shimon’s third message? Rashi explains that we should not do things that we will later look back upon with regret. Given certain pressures or temptations, it may seem reasonable now to lie or steal but we will eventually look back despairingly at our earlier wickedness. Do not make decision that will lead to a retrospective negative self – evaluation.
Rashi makes a reasonable point but his approach means that R. Shimon’s three statements do not cohere into unified theme. This does not disprove Rashi’s interpretation; Avot may incorporate the essential teachings of each sage even when those teachings remain disparate educational points. Yet Tifferet Yisrael’s methodology assumes that the varied teachings of each sage in Avot do relate to a singular theme.
R. Shimon’s first two points address the world of prayer so perhaps the third does as well. A person should not look upon himself as wicked since that evaluation often proves a self – fulfilling prophecy. Adopting the identity of a rasha means an assumed inability to study Torah, perform acts of kindness, or approach God in prayer. A person who decides he is wicked will also determine the pointless nature of their beseeching or praising God. Why would the Almighty listen to the words of a wicked person?
The quest for kavana remains an ongoing challenge, even as we affirm the need to devote special care to shema and the amida. Facing this battle demands a degree of self–worth. While the arrogant fellow also struggles to pray, someone declaring themselves wicked may render prayer even more difficult.