We sit around the table as family and friends. Some who have come from near, some from far. The man at the head of the table says the traditional Jewish blessing over bread and by extension the whole meal, “…hamotzi lehem min ha’aretz”. He lifts a morsel of bread to his mouth but then notices one particularly hungry looking guest and hands it to them instead, saying “please, take some and eat”. As he does so, another guest says “shhhhh!” signaling that the man who said the blessing should not interrupt his prayer with speaking until he has eaten the food he blessed. The man smiles and says to the hungry guest again, “really, take some”. The hungry guest smiles also and eats. Only then does the man at the head of the table take some of the bread for himself and the rest of the guests as well.
What this scene highlights is a disagreement about the nature of prayer. One perspective says it is a ritual act between a person and God, not to be interrupted by mundane acts. The other says that prayer occurs on two axes. While we reach up towards God, we simultaneously reach out towards others (see Rabbi Avraham Weiss’ Holistic Prayer for more on this idea).
A simpler version of the opening story is found in the Talmud (Berakhot 40a) that makes clear which approach stands at the heart of Jewish prayer. There we read “Rav stated: One who recited the blessing over the bread, and before eating it, offered a piece to another, and said: Take it and eat, take it and eat, need not recite the blessing a second time (i.e. his prayer is not considered interrupted).” In his analysis of this passage, the great medieval rabbi of Spain, Rabbeinu Yonah commented “since what he is doing is of the same nature as the commandment he just performed…”. In other words, the act of blessing the bread and the act offering it to another share the same nature.
This becomes a paradigm we can take as inspiration for our spiritual lives. Each time we engage in a religious act of reaching up, we must ask what the correlating action is in which we are reaching out. Only when we are operating on both axes of spiritual practice can we say we are striving for the fullness of those acts.