Rabbi Yossi said: I was once travelling on the road and I entered one of the ruins of Jerusalem to pray1. Elijah the prophet, who is remembered for the good, came and waited for me at the entrance until I finished my prayer. After I finished my prayer he said to me: “Peace upon you, my teacher” and I replied: “Peace upon you, my teacher and master.” He said to me: “My son, for what reason did you enter this ruin2?” I replied: “To pray”. He said to me: You should have prayed on the road (instead)” and I responded: “I was afraid that passers-by might interrupt me”. He said to me: “Then you should have prayed an abridged prayer3.” At that time I learned from him 3 things: I learned that one should not enter a ruin; that one may pray on the road; and that when praying on the road one should pray an abridged prayer. (Gemara Berachot 3a) What is the deeper meaning of this Talmudic passage? Ein Yaakov suggests that Rabbi Yossi, who lived shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, was troubled that the Temple had not been rebuilt. Hence, “entered one of the ruins of Jerusalem to pray” means that he entered into the subject of the continued ruination of Jerusalem and prayed. As a result of the intensity of his devotion, Elijah the prophet appeared and asked him: “My son, for what reason did you enter this ruin?” i.e. are you challenging God’s reasons and questioning His justice? Rabbi Yossi replied that his only intention was “to pray” for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and Elijah answered him: “You should have prayed on the road”, i.e. in the meantime you should have devoted the main part of your prayer to the Jews’ safe passage along the bitter road of exile4. Rabbi Yossi responded: “I was afraid that passers-by might interrupt me”, meaning that the nations of the world, who constantly persecute the Jews, would make it impossible for Israel to complete its journey through the exile as faithful servants of God. Elijah replied: “then you should have prayed an abridged prayer”, hinting that the travails of the exile do not allow for lengthy prayers on this subject. Our prayers on the matter should therefore be short in length, but full of intensity. A similar explanation is offered by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin that Elijah was teaching Rabbi Yossi the true act of Jewish prayer: stay on the road of action towards redemption without getting side-tracked by wallowing in the ruins; pray while you are engaged in achieving your goal; and when you pray on the road make it a short prayer so that there is adequate time and energy for human initiative. Perhaps, suggests Rabbi Riskin, this fascinating Talmudic passage might be the source for Rashi’s condemnation of lengthy prayer devoid of action, in his commentary to Shemot 14:15. There the verse states: “God said to Moshe: Why do you cry out to me (now)? Speak to the Children of Israel, and they should go forward.” Life requires a combination of prayer and action, a realisation that history is the unfolding of a magnificent partnership between human action and Divine intervention.
1 When the Gemara speaks of prayer it usually means the Amidah.
2 He thereby placed himself in a state of danger.
3 Havineinu = Give us discernment. The middle 13 blessings of the Amidah are condensed into one blessing opening with the word Havineinu.
4 Hence the Men of the Great Assembly instituted the blessing in the Amidah “Re’eh Ve’Onyeinu” (Look at our affliction) and concluded with “Go’el Yisrael” (Redeemer of Israel).