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"I am Prayer" (1)

Harav Yehuda Amital

(Part 1 of 2)


Summarized by Aviad Hacohen


            In Berakhot (32b) we learn: "Four things require reinforcement, and these are they: Torah, good deeds, PRAYER, and derekh eretz (courtesy)."

            Rashi explains, "'Require reinforcement' - i.e., a person should continually try to strengthen himself in these areas, with all his might."

            Tefilla (prayer) hence requires effort the whole year round, and all the more so prior to and during the High Holidays, when prayer becomes the focal point of our Divine service.

            Man, who was created in the image of God, enjoys an enormous privilege in that God has made it possible for him to pray.  Humanity would look different - more sad, more dejected - were it not for this privilege which has been bestowed upon us.

            But can a person come before the Creator of the Universe, the "God who is great, mighty and awesome" with his personal, "petty" requests? It would seem that this type of petition is out of place


            The Gemara (Megilla 31a) teaches:


"In every place that you find God's greatness, you also find His humility.  This idea is found in the Torah and reiterated in the Nevi'im and again in the Ketuvim.  It is written in the Torah (Devarim 10:17), 'For the Lord your God is the God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great and mighty and awesome God Who shows no favor and takes no bribe.'  The next verse continues, 'He does justice to the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing him food and clothing.'  (What an enormous gap separates the concept of the 'great and mighty and awesome God' from He who 'loves the stranger, providing him food and clothing!').  In Nevi'im it says (Yishayahu 57:15), 'For so says the high and lofty One, who inhabits eternity and whose name is holy: I dwell in a high and holy place, yet also with he who is of low and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the lowly.'  And in Ketuvim it is written (Tehillim 68:5-6), 'Praise He who rides upon the clouds ... and rejoice before Him.  Father of orphans and champion of widows, God is in His holy dwelling place.'"


            God's greatness is of a scale where the difference between the sun and moon and food and clothing is obliterated.  This is a philosophical response, perhaps one which satisfies our theological hesitations, but it falls short of providing an existential answer.  From an existential point of view the problem remains: Can I turn to God with my small, personal problems?

            In truth, God has inculcated in man the feeling that not only is he able to pray, but that God "hears the prayer of every mouth," that He listens to every prayer and every type of request, in whatever form it comes.


            King David declared (Tehillim 142:3), "I pour out my complaint before Him, I lay my trouble before Him."  How comforting it is for a person to be able to pour out his troubles before God.  A world which has lost its faith in God seeks alternatives: psychologists, doctors, social workers.  Anyone who will listen.  A person should be eternally grateful for the possibility of pouring out his heart to God: "I cry aloud to the Lord, I appeal to the Lord loudly for mercy" (Tehillim 142:2).


            There is a level still higher than this: "My words will be sweet to Him, I shall rejoice in the Lord" (Tehillim 104:34).  In the midst of man's deliberations as to whether he is existentially able to turn to God, he receives the good tidings: "My words will be sweet to Him."  My prayer finds favor in His eyes.  Were it not for the existence of this verse, we wouldn't dream of suggesting such an idea.  Like a mother who enjoys listening to the babbling of her infant, so - as it were - God enjoys listening to our prayers.

            Can there be any greater joy than this?  Someone is hearing us; someone is ready to listen.  Sometimes we pass a beggar in the street and give him a few coins, and he thanks us over and over again.  We do not stop to listen to him, but he continues nevertheless, feeling a need to thank us.  Sometimes a person confides in a close friend and pours out all his sorrows, while thinking to himself, "Why am I muddling his thoughts with my problems; why am I wasting his time?"

            But in the case of our prayers to God, "My words will be sweet to Him, I shall rejoice in the Lord."  God turns to man, as it were, and says, "I am waiting and eager to hear you."

            Yet another dimension in included in prayer, and that is the constant contact with God.  The "holy Jew" of Peshiskhe once asked, "The snake in the garden of Eden was cursed with the words 'You shall eat dust all the days of your life' (Bereishit 3:14).  What is so bad about that?  He is assured of food every day, at every hour, continually!  The curse was that he had no need of contact with God."

            The Gemara (Yevamot 64a) says, "The Matriarchs were barren only because God desired their prayers."  Sometimes God may send us troubles because He desires to hear our voice.  "For your voice is sweet, and your appearance lovely" (Shir Ha-Shirim 2:14).

            The Torah recounts the story of Yitzchak blessing his sons (Bereishit 27).  Yaakov is blessed with the words, "May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine," while Esav is blessed as follows: "Behold, your dwelling shall enjoy the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven above."  What is the difference between them?  Yaakov's blessing starts, "May God give you..." - i.e., may He give, and give again.  Esav, on the other hand, need have no worries.  He has an "insurance policy."  Yaakov has to turn to God for the fulfillment of every wish, great or small.  That which is taken for granted by Esav is something for which Yaakov will have to ask.


            Let me share with you a conversation I had with the director of a large retirement home in Miami.  The residents' children all lived far away - New York, Washington, Chicago.  There were three categories of children.  Some sent a check every month to their parents.  Sometimes the son or daughter would include a short note, sometimes not even that.  In any event, the parent knew that the child remembered him every month.  Others sent the monthly check straight to the retirement home office.  It didn't go to the parent, but at least they remembered their parents every month.  The third type, explained the director, comprised those who made use of a monthly bank order, such that the money was sent each month by a teller at the bank without the child having any idea as to whether his parent was even still alive.  Everything was conducted automatically.

            This was the difference between Yaakov and Esav.  God told Yaakov, "You have to ask every time.  You'll receive nothing without asking."  Esav, on the other hand, enjoyed the benefits of a "monthly bank order," an insurance policy.

            We are not speaking here of a trivial connection, but rather of a close relationship.  We address God in the second person: "Blessed are YOU, O Lord...." The wording actually combines the second and third person.  And as the Rashba explains, we have to know that on one hand God is hidden and removed from us, while on the other hand we address Him in the second person - "You."


            The possibility of change always exists; we are able to build a new world.  Nothing is ever "sealed."  Trouble, distress, illness - everything can be changed.  God hears every prayer.  The Gemara (Berakhot 32b) teaches, "R. Hama bar Chanina said: If a person sees that he prayed and was not answered, let him pray again, as it is written (Tehillim 27:14): 'Look to God; be strong and of good courage, and look to God.'"


            It is specifically prayer that shows us the way towards this strength.  As the Gemara (ibid.) teaches, further on: "R. Elazar said, Prayer is greater than good deeds.  For no one was greater in his performance of good deeds than Moshe Rabbeinu, and even so he was only answered because of his prayer, as it is written (Devarim 3:26): 'Do not say anything else to Me,' and immediately thereafter he is told, 'Ascend to the top of the mountain.'"

            Man has to know that everything is possible, that he is capable of achieving something with his prayer, that his words are reaching ears, as it were, that are waiting to hear his prayer.  Only yesterday I met someone who told me something that made me weep.  Many years ago, at a time when he had no children, he had come to me for help.  I brought his case to one of the most famous doctors in New York, but the answer I received was, "There's nothing that can be done.  He can't have children."  But the same person who gave me this answer added, "Let him plead for God's mercy."  Ten years - maybe more - have passed since then, and yesterday he told me that his wife is pregnant.  Indeed, nothing is "sealed" before the gates of prayer.  "Let him pray - and let him pray again."

            The Psalmist says, "Ani tefilla," which can be translated "I am prayer" (109:4).  Tefilla is expressed in the personality of the individual.  If you wish to know something of a person's character - watch him at prayer.


            The Midrash comments on the verse, "And Rivka lifted her eyes and she saw Yitzchak, and she fell from the camel" (Bereishit 24:64), as follows: she saw that his arm was outstretched in prayer, and she said, "This must be a great man."  Having observed him at prayer ("And Yitzhak went out to meditate in the field"), she realized that he was a great man.


            The first thing which prayer requires is openness - openness towards oneself.  Sometimes people think, "So-and-so isn't open towards others."  But no small number of people are closed even towards themselves.  Everyone - parents, teachers, rabbis - asks his children or students, "How are you doing?" and the standard response is, "Fine."  You can't talk to them, engage them.  They are closed not only towards others, but also to themselves.  They cannot look inwards.  In order to "open up" in front of God a person first has to "open up" to himself.  He should not be satisfied with merely reciting the prayers that appear in the siddur; he should add petitions of his own - even if only in his thoughts.

            We start our recitation of the Amida with the words, "O God, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise." According to many authorities, this is an integral part of tefilla itself.  "Open my lips" - in other words, open my heart.  I feel "closed," my heart refuses to disclose itself.

            King David said, "I meditate with MY HEART" (Tehillim 77:7).  A person's character finds expression in his prayer.  His ability to "meditate" with his heart is an art which teaches us about him.  A person has to be capable of holding an honest dialogue with himself, in complete privacy.  Only thereafter can he attain the level of "I pour out my complaint before Him, I lay my trouble before Him" (Tehillim 142:3).

(Originally delivered in Elul 5755.

Translated by Kaeren Fish.)


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