An Arrow from the Heart

August 8, 2012 - 5:00 am

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” — Hosea 6:6

In a small town in Poland, there was an orphaned boy who spent most of his childhood working as a shepherd. One day, he met a group of people who were traveling to spend the Yom Kippur holiday with a holy rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov.

The boy decided to join them and soon, he was standing in a crowded synagogue. But the boy did not know how to pray. He couldn’t even read! He saw everyone around him praying fervently, and he wanted to say something to his Creator too. So he drew in a deep breath and let out the shrill whistle that he would sound every evening when he gathered his sheep from the fields.

The people in the synagogue were shocked. They were angry at the boy’s disrespect for the prayer service. But the Baal Shem Tov calmed them and said, “A terrible decree was hanging over us. The shepherd boy’s whistle pierced the heavens and erased the decree. His whistle saved us, because it was sincere and came from the very bottom of his heart.”

It’s so easy to go to a prayer service and yet not pray a single word to God. Sure, we can say all the words we want, but how many of them are sincere? On the other hand, the shepherd boy could not pronounce a single word in the prayer book, and yet his prayers went straight to heaven!

Tradition teaches that prayer is like a bow and arrow. The further back the bow is drawn, the further the arrow travels. Similarly, the deeper into our hearts we go, the further our words of prayer will reach.

Thousands of years ago, when the Temple stood, services centered around offerings. The sacrifices were intended to bring the people closer to God, like our prayers do today. Yet, in the times of Hosea, the offerings had become empty rituals. Instead of inspiring the people to become kinder and more connected to God, the sacrifices were used as permission to continue in their crooked ways.

You missed the whole point, Hosea told the people. God doesn’t want burnt offerings. God wants your heart!  If your service is meaningless to you, it is not all that meaningful to God.

Hosea’s words are relevant now, just as much as when he first said them. If our prayers have little effect on us, chances are they will have little effect on God. But if we pray from the deepest part of our hearts, our prayers will reach the loftiest heights of heaven.


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