Standing at the edge of the ימים נוראים season, we struggle trying to prepare oursevles for the upcoming יום הדין. All too often, while we know that we're supposed to do something, we don't really know what it is we're supposed to do. Perhaps we can find some direction both from the Rambam and the parshah.
At the outset of הלכות תפלה, the Rambam introduces the notion and source for the requirement to daven to God. He writes:
מצות עשה להתפלל בכל יום, שנאמר "ועבדתם, את ה' אלוהיכם" (שמות כג,כה): מפי השמועה למדו שעבודה זו--היא תפילה, ונאמר "ולעובדו, בכל לבבכם" (דברים יא,יג); אמרו חכמים, איזו היא עבודה שבלב, זו תפילה.
First and foremost, the word להתפלל itself requires explanation, as does the word תפלה itself. At face value, the word תפילה shares the root as the word להפליא -- as in judgment or separation. Yet, how does that word connote the notion of reaching out to God, speaking to Him, and opening our hearts to Him? Moreover, the word להתפלל uses the reflexive form of the word, implying that this separation or division is self-induced. How is one supposed to separate himself, and how does that imply worship and prayer?
We can find initial answers to these questions by examining the text of the first הלכה of the Rambam. In this section, Rambam notes that the Torah never uses the words תפילה or להתפלל. Rather, the Torah commands us לעבוד את ה -- to serve God. Yet, without the added instruction of the חכמים, we would never know what the Torah intended when using this cryptic phrase, עבודה שבלב. For this reason, the תורה שבעל פה teaches us that this work -- this service refers to תפילה.
But we're still left to wonder: what is this עבודה שבלב? Is it simply the act of opening one's heart when praying to God instead of simply reciting meaningless words? If so, wouldn't the Torah then use the term תפילה, and then have the תורה שבעל פה teach us the importance of כוונה? Is there a notion of עבודה שבלב independent of prayer that can also manifest itself in the act of prayer? What is עבודה שבלב?
חז"ל teach us that in creating man, God combined two totally incompatible elements, each which struggles to return to its natural and original state. God took our souls -- the צלם אלקים, literally a spark of the רבונו של עולם Himself and placed this totally spiritual existence in the midst of a physical body. The body, created from the earth, yearns to return to its roots, seeking to satisfy its primal, physical urges and desires. The soul, also wants to return to its original form -- only it struggles to return to the heavens and free iteself of the burden of a cumbersome and futile physical existence.
This, in a nutshell, is the struggle of humanity. We find ourselves stuck in the middle of the battle between the physical and the spiritual; the struggle between the יצור הטוב and יצר הרע; the impulse of a physical body against the soaring and lofty goals of the soul.
I think that this is what Rambam alludes to when he refers to תפלה as עבודה שבלב. The real work that we need to do on our hearts is the battle between the יצר הטוב and the יצר הרע -- the struggle between the desire to soar to the heavens and submit to the mundane and coarses aspects of human nature. That's why we refer to prayer in the reflexive form: להתפלל -- to separate ourselves, from ourselves.
I often tell my students (7th graders) that while we can force them to say the words of תפילה, no one can force them to daven. No one can force them to focus, concentrate, and reach out to the infinite. That inner work -- that עבודה שבלב -- the work both of the heart, and in the heart -- is something that must come from within, or not at all.
This is the greatest challenge of the ימים נוראים: to rise to the occasion to find meaning through the words, but not to seek refuge in the ritual and recitation itself. To transform תפילה from recital into reflection and division. When we truly reach out to God and find our true selves, we have begun the process that Rambam calls "worship of the heart."