"I am Prayer"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

1. THE MERIT OF PRAYER

            In Yishayahu's prophecy, God declares: "I shall make them rejoice in My house of prayer" (56:7).  Indeed, 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, seemingly petty, requests? At first glance, 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 Prophets and again in the Writings. 

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 the Prophets 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 the Writings it says (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 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 able existentially 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."

2. CONNECTION TO GOD

            Yet another dimension is included in prayer, and that is the constant contact with God.  The "Holy Jew" of Peshiskhe once questioned the severity of the snake's curse in the garden of Eden, "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, he explained, was that the snake now 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?  The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 66:3) explains: "[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 standing 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 "standing bank order."

            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 of blessings actually switches at midpoint from second to third person.  The Rashba explains (Responsa 5:52) that this is in order to teach us that, on the one hand, God is hidden and removed from us, while, on the other hand, He is near and addressable in the second person - "You."

3. THE POWER OF PRAYER

            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. Chama 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 which 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.  Recently, I met someone who told me something that moved me very deeply.  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 recently 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."

4. PRAYER AS AN EXPRESSION OF ONE'S PERSONALITY

            The Psalmist (109:4) says, "Ani tefilla," which can be translated, "I am prayer."  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 (Bereishit Rabba 60:15) 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 Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field"), she realized his greatness.

            The first thing that 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 or 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 heart.

            We start our recitation of the Amida with the words, "O God, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise" (Tehillim 51:17). According to many authorities (see Bi'ur Halakha, 111, s.v. Chozer ve-omer), 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 (pray) with my heart" (Tehillim 77:7).  A person's ability to "meditate" with his heart is an art which reveals much 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 described by the psalmist, "I pour out my complaint before Him; I lay my trouble before Him" (Tehillim 142:3).

            Man is separated from animal by his ability to pray.  "You separated man from the start, and allowed him to stand before You" (from the High Holiday prayers).  The Mishna (Bava Kama 1:1) teaches: "There are four primary types of damages: the ox and the pit, the 'mav'eh' and the fire."  According to one opinion, the "mav'eh" refers to man.  When compiling the Mishna, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was faced with a problem: it would not have been seemly for the Mishna to read, "There are four primary types of damages: the ox and the pit, the man and the fire."  Therefore man is not mentioned by name, but rather by means of one of his most accurate descriptions -  "mav'eh," from a root referring to prayer (as in the verse [Yishayahu 21:12], "Im tiv'ayun ba'ayu," "If you should pray, pray").  Only one creature amongst all of creation is able to pray - namely, man.  Indeed, could there be any more beautiful description of man, setting him aside from the beasts of the field?  He is not called, "the one who studies" or "the thinker," but rather "the one who prays."  This gives us some idea of the importance of the concept of prayer.

            Another foundation of prayer is the sense of deficiency.  The Gemara in Megilla (15b) asks, "What made Esther invite Haman [to the feast]?"  One of the answers given is a quotation from Sefer Mishlei (25:21): "If your enemy is hungry, feed him bread."  A person who is hungry is always alert, while someone who is satisfied after a meal tends to become drowsy.  Esther hoped to cause Haman to fall asleep, to blunt his alertness.  Therefore, she sought to satisfy him.

            Human nature is such that a person always feels that he is "lacking," that something is causing him pain, and therefore he is defined as a being who prays and supplicates.  He engages not only in prayer of praise and thanksgiving, but also in petition.

            Prayer can be an experience which nourishes a person for many subsequent years.  Rav Kook wrote the following in his commentary to the siddur, Olat Re'iyah (Inyanei Tefilla, 6):

Prayer - for us and for the entire world - is an absolute necessity.  It is also the most sublime of pleasures.

It is both a necessity and a pleasure.  The first contact that the great Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlap, of blessed memory, had with Rav Kook, his teacher whom he loved with all his soul, was after he had stayed once in Jaffa and had heard Rav Kook reciting Birkat Kohanim (the priestly blessing).  That was enough for him.  At that moment, he attached himself to Rav Kook forever.

            A similar event occurred to another one of Rav Kook's other prominent disciples, Rav David Hacohen, known later as "the Nazir."  In his introduction to Rav Kook's Orot Ha-kodesh, he describes his first meeting with Rav Kook in Switzerland:

I came to him, and found him immersed in [studying] Halakha with his son.  A conversation arose about Greek wisdom and its literature, which did not yet satisfy one who knew it from its primary sources.  I stayed and slept at their house.

I lay upon my bed, yet my heart was not still; the fate of my life hung in the balance.  Early in the morning, I heard the sound of pacing, and of the morning blessings and the prayer of the Akeida being recited in song and sublime melody, from the highest heavens, recalling the love of our forebears.  I listened, and I changed and became a different man.  After the prayer, I hastened to write a letter, informing my correspondent that I had found more than I had hoped for - I had found a master.

5. FOREIGN THOUGHTS

            However, there are many impediments to prayer.  One of the main problems is that of "foreign thoughts," of wandering attention during prayer.  We have already mentioned the saying of R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, a student of the Maggid of Mezritch, that when a person stands in prayer and wishes to climb to heights which are beyond his grasp, they throw him down by means of foreign thoughts, which become entangled with his prayers.[1] This means that when one's prayer is artificial, alien thoughts will enter his mind.  In a heart-to-heart conversation, in a genuine exchange, there are no foreign thoughts.  When one person talks directly to another, his mind does not wander.  When a person climbs to "heights which are beyond his grasp," when his prayer doesn't flow naturally from him, then he is attacked by foreign thoughts.

            There are those who invest an enormous amount of energy in bodily movements during prayer, convinced that they will thereby drive away foreign thoughts.  True, one is permitted to sway slightly during prayer (Mishna Berura 48:5), but some people think that in order to arouse profound kavanna (concentrated devotion), one has to sway mightily.  Yet, clearly, physical movement alone lacks the power to solve a spiritual problem.  When King David said, "I shall pour out my complaint before Him," he was not referring to jumping and moaning, but rather to flowing and natural prayer.

            The Gemara (Berakhot 28b) recounts the following story:

When Rabbi Eliezer fell ill, his students came to visit him.  They said, "Rabbi - teach us a way to conduct ourselves, that we may thereby merit eternal life." 

He answered, "Be careful with the honor of your friends ... and when you pray - know in front of Whom you are standing.  By means of this, you will merit eternal life."

            Is this supposed to be some kind of great revelation?  If a person didn't know in front of whom he was standing, surely he wouldn't pray at all! But Rabbi Eliezer emphasized, "Know..." - don't be satisfied simply with kavanna, for that can be artificial and external.  "Know in front of Whom you are standing" - then, out of that "knowledge," your prayer will be natural.

            "The early righteous ones used to tarry an hour before prayer in order to direct their hearts towards their Father in heaven" (Mishna Berakhot 5:1).  They tarried not because they needed to direct their hearts more, but to attain the knowledge of Whom they were standing in front of, so that their hearts would be directed automatically.  The Rambam likewise teaches in his Hilkhot Tefilla (4:16): "What is kavanna? A person must clear his heart of all thoughts and see himself as if he is standing before the Divine Presence."  One cannot rid oneself of foreign thoughts in an incidental manner, as if brushing them off.  There is only one solution: to stand (and see oneself as standing) before the Holy One, blessed be He. 

            We adopt the advice of the "early righteous ones" in our recitation of Pesukei De-zimra, the first section of the morning prayer service, consisting of psalms and praises.  Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 9:1) writes that communal prayer begins only with Kaddish and Barkhu.  He defines Pesukei De-zimra, from Barukh She-amar until Yishtabach, as a custom praised by the Sages (Hilkhot Tefilla 7:12).  Before commencing prayer, we sing God's praises, telling of His wonders, mercies, and greatness, so that we will sense before Whom we are coming to stand.  Generally, it is easier to speak of Torah, fear of Heaven, mitzva observance, etc., than it is to address oneself directly to God.  This is the root of our custom of opening prayer with the recitation of Pesukei De-zimra.

            It is a mistake to think that by physical means, using energetic body movements, one can free oneself of foreign thoughts and to keep them at bay.  This is merely a segula, a mystical remedy of the type described by the Ba'al Shem Tov.  Once his students came to him and asked whether it was permissible for them to approach a famous tzaddik, well-known for the segulot which he handed out to his followers.  The Ba'al Shem Tov replied, "If you want to go to him, then go."  They persisted and asked for a sign that would help them know whether he was a true tzaddik, and not a charlatan.  The Ba'al Shem Tov replied, "I will give you a sign.  This tzaddik gives segulot for every type of illness and trouble.  Ask him for a segula for foreign thoughts in prayer.  If he offers you one, then you can be sure he is a charlatan."

            Various prayer books contain biblical verses whose recital supposedly acts as a "segula against foreign thoughts."  Is it really segulot that we need?

            There is another method which appears far removed from us, but which is in fact "very close to us, in our mouths and in our hearts, to do it."  Chassidut teaches that when a particular issue is disturbing a person, he has to "elevate" those foreign thoughts.  These kabbalistic concepts mean the following, in practical terms: You must translate the problem which occupies your thoughts into the language of prayer.  Whether you are thinking about business or family or anything else, God is certainly able to help you in solving the problem.  Don't banish this "foreign thought" from your mind; on the contrary - keep it with you, and turn that very thought into a prayer.

6. THE VALUE OF ROTE PRAYER

            With all the importance of the experiential dimension of prayer, we certainly should not ignore or belittle the importance of "dry," uninspired prayer.  Sometimes a person is not on the level which allows him to sense the experiential dimension of prayer.  Yet there is value even to "dry" prayers devoid of the vitality of a lofty experience.

            A student once came to me with a complaint. Throughout the month of Elul, his prayer had been full of emotion, yet now, the day before Rosh Ha-shana, the "spring had dried up," everything was dry.  What was he to do? I told him, "Turn to God and say to Him, 'Master of the Universe, this is what there is.  I can't do any more than this.'"

            In the Temple, there were both "great" sacrifices - bulls, goats and sheep - as well as the humble mincha, the meal-offering of the poor: "whatever his hand can attain" (Vayikra 14:30).  Both are desirable to God.  "One with more and the other with less; so long as his heart is directed towards Heaven" (Berakhot 5b).

7. INDIVIDUAL AND COMMUNAL PRAYER

            At the beginning of Parashat Ki Tavo (Devarim 26:1-3), we are commanded as to the recitation over the bikkurim (first fruits):

And it shall come to pass, when you come to the land which the Lord your God has given you as an inheritance ... that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth which you shall gather from the land which the Lord your God has given you ... and you shall come to the Kohen who will be in those days, and you shall say to him: "I declare this day before the Lord your God that I have come to the land which God promised to our forefathers to give us."

The Midrash Tanchuma adds (beginning of Ki Tavo):

Moshe gazed with the holy spirit and saw that the Temple was destined to be destroyed, and that the bikkurim would cease.  He therefore instituted [a law] for Israel that they should pray three times each day, because prayer is more beloved to God than any good deeds and any sacrifices.

            What has bikkurim got to do with prayer? Rightfully, a person standing before God, with the first fruits of his land in his hands, should thank Him and say: "You have given me the strength to work the fields this year; please give me the strength to do the same during the coming year."  But this is not the prayer that the bearer of the first fruits is commanded to recite.  Instead, he says:

And you shall speak and declare before the Lord your God: "A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down to Egypt, and lived there with a few, and became a great nation there; great, mighty and numerous.  The Egyptians were evil towards us, and tortured us, and gave us hard labor.  We cried to the Lord God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our suffering, and our labor, and our oppression.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terror, and with signs, and with wonders.  He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land which you, O God, have given me." You shall set it before the Lord your God, and you shall prostrate yourself before the Lord your God.

            The Torah is concerned lest a person who is busy with his vineyard and his field, his vine and his fig tree, come to forget the Nation of Israel, God forbid.  All his desires will be subordinated to his own progress, to material acquisitions, directed towards the construction of his house and his estate.  "What car shall I buy?  What type of house shall I build?"  The Torah therefore commands us: Go up to Jerusalem.  Forget your private concerns for a while.  Concern yourself with the nation, with its history and its fate.  At the end, don't forget to thank, praise and glorify God for that "which You, O God, have given me."  All of these issues - the history of Am Yisrael, the exodus from Egypt - are also part of you: 'which You ... have given me.'"

            The same problem exists when the Jews are in exile.  A multitude of existential troubles and concerns occupy the individual in his effort towards his personal survival.  And what is to become of Am Yisrael?  Therefore, Moshe instituted that Jews should pray three times each day.  Tefilla is not limited to the individual's problems and troubles.  Tefilla directs itself towards the community, towards Am Yisrael as a whole.  "Cause the offspring of David, Your servant, to flourish;" "Restore our judges as of old, and our counselors as at first;" "Rebuild Jerusalem;" "May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in compassion."

           Moreover, tefilla expresses our complete dependence on God.  Were it not for Him, we wouldn't be holding these first fruits.  Without God, a person has neither knowledge nor repentance, neither redemption nor healing, neither "restoration of judges" nor "dew and rain for a blessing," neither the rebuilding of Jerusalem nor the blessing of peace.  Everything depends on God's will.

            Prayer is the source of faith, and its foundation.  Through prayer, man expresses his complete dependence on God.  Tefilla strengthens our faith.

ENDNOTE:

[1] Peri Ha-aretz (letter 22); see Lecture Seven.

Adapted by Aviad Hacohen; Translated by Kaeren Fish with Reuven Ziegler.