Parashat Ekev starts the long list of mitzvot that forms the bulk of Sefer Devarim. There are 6 positive commandments, and 2 negative ones. I want to focus on one of those commandments:
There is a commandment here of אתו תעבד, that חז״ל associate with עבדו בכל לבבכם:
Why do we need to emphasize that תפלה is a מצוה דאורייתא? Because that is not at all evident from the פשט; עבודה in the Torah always refers to the sacrifices. We generally assume that prayer is a weak substitute, something we do since we cannot offer sacrifices any more:
The only time we have an explicit reference to a ritual of prayer (as opposed to ad hoc prayer) is in Daniel, after the destruction of the בית המקדש:
And the implication from the halacha is that תפלה is מדרבנן; the gemara uses the language of תקנה:
And in cases of ספק, you do not repeat תפלה:
Now, the opinion that תפלות אבות תקנום certainly implies that it is an ancient rule, and that is hinted at in תהילים:
And that phrase, עֶרֶב וָבֹקֶר וְצָהֳרַיִם, is the source of the phrase in מודים:
As an aside, this means that the Artscroll translation (“evening, morning and noon” describes “we acknowlege you”) is right and the Koren translation ((“evening, morning and noon” describes “all your goodness at all times”) is wrong.
So we have reason to consider that the תפלה is a Rabbinic decree, not inherently a מצוה. In this way of thinking, the תפלה we see throughout תנ״ך is not in and of itself a positive thing, but a means to an end. A צדיק acknowleges that ה׳ is the All-Powerful, and thus is the appropriate One to whom to address their needs. It is more of a מכשיר מצוה than a מצוה itself, like building a sukkah is not a מצוה but a means to doing a מצוה.
We pray to G-d because we believe that G-d is the one to whom it is appropriate to pray.
The story is told of the famous bank robber Willie Sutton, that when he was finally arrested a reporter asked him, “Wille, why’d you rob all those banks?” He answered, “Because that’s where the money is.”
Since we just passed ט׳ באב, it’s worth mentioning that this distinction between a מצוה and a מכשיר מצוה is relevant to the destruction of the בית המקדש:
So the interpretation of איזו היא עבודה שהיא בלב comes to tell us that no, תפלה is a מצוה, that it has spiritual value outside of any practical benefit. We will have to see what that value is. But first, what exactly is the מצוה?
The Ramban has very different approach to this commandment:
So, for the Rambam there is a מצוה to pray every day. For the Ramban, the מצוה only applies in times of צרה, when we feel the need to ask. Otherwise, there is no reason to pray.
One of my father’s jokes (this is a version I found online):
Rav Soloveitchik’s philosophy of תפלה is described in the book Worship of the Heart, published after his death, and he claims that the Ramban and Rambam do not fundamentally disagree:
As Rav Soloveitchik says, even when we are living lives of comfort, with nothing to complain about, we are still faced with an existential crisis. Either we cannot feel the presence of G-d in our world, and we are utterly alone, or we do feel G-d’s presence, and we are overwhelmed by the experience of the infinite. In Rav Soloveitchik’s reading of Rambam, we are in tzarah every day, and therefore are obligated to pray.
But how does תפלה help with this crisis? Rav Soloveitchik points out that it establishes a dialog with ה׳. One can have such a dialog with ה׳ as the speaker and man as the listener, which is the essence of prophecy. But it still establishes a relationship to have man as the speaker and ה׳ as the listener. This is the essence of תפלה, and it solves the existential problem by making us aware of the Divine without overwhelming us.
So to fulfil the mitzvah of תפלה מדאורייתא, do we have to be professional philosophers? I don’t think I even really understand what an existential crisis is, let alone be thinking about it while I davenshemoneh esrei! Rav Soloveitchik says:
He doesn’t explicitly answer the problem, but it is implicit in his discussion, as noted by Joseph Amaru in an article from the Torah U’Madda Journal:
The kavvanah we need during the act of prayer is simply to be aware that we are asking for help. That immediately creates the crisis, the tzarah, that makes prayer meaningful.