November 20, 2011
Rachel Teaches Us How to Pray
By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
A beautiful young maiden shows a stranger an act of kindness. The stranger falls in love with the maiden and asks her father, his relation, for her hand. The maiden’s father agrees – on the condition that he serve him for seven years. The stranger does so gladly, only to be tricked at the end of the seven years. Seven additional years later, he finally marries the beautiful maiden.
But the maiden has trouble conceiving. She prays to God. God rewards her prayer and she becomes pregnant. She names her child, Joseph.
Rachel, our young maiden, gave two explanations for the child’s name. The first, “God has taken away (from the root, asaf, to take away) my disgrace. The second, when she prayed that Jacob’s twelfth and last son be born (from the root, yasaf, to add) to her.
Why the two explanations?
To teach us what it means to pray.
Masechet B'rachot teaches that if one enters a large walled city where danger is imminent, one should utter two tefilot: the first upon entering, and the second when leaving. Ben-Azai, however, requires four tefilot: two when entering, one asking God for safe entry and the other thanking Him for making one's safe entry possible; two more when exiting: one beseeching God for a safe exit and the other thanking Him for the safe exit, in addition to asking God for His continued protection and safekeeping. “I thank you, God, that you brought me forth from this city in peace, and just as you have brought me forth in peace, so shall You lead me in peace, protect me, and save me from all enemies and obstacles in the way.”
The last two tefilot, according to Ben-Azai, include a request (bakasha) for a safe exit plus an expression of gratitude for the safety already provided by God. But there is more. The gratitude (hodah) incorporates yet a further request (bakasha). It calls to mind a thank you note that includes a postscript, More! As the Mishnah concludes, “and give thanks for what is past and make supplication for the future.”
Ben-Azai does more than simply add another two tefilot. He teaches a core principle of tefilah. According to the Tana Kamah, when entering a place of danger (krach) a prayer is recited for future safety and security. Ben-Azai adds to this a tefilah of gratitude for the past. Likewise upon leaving the krach, the Tana Kamah requires a tefilah to be said expressing thanks to God for His past help, while Ben-Azai adds a requirement asking for God's continued protection, acknowledging His present assistance while, at the same time, beseeching Him for His continued kindness.
Just as the reasons for prayer never end, tefilah never ends. Perhaps this is what Chazal meant when they taught, “…were it that man would pray all day long.” And even if we did pray all day long, the task would never be complete, because the very instant we “finished,” the need begins anew.
When we recite the powerful Birkat Hashir of Nishmat on Shabbat and Yom Tov, we express praise and gratitude to God for all that He has done, while simultaneously affirming our continued dependence upon His mercy. “Even if our mouths were full of song as the sea, our tongues full of joyous song as its multitude of waves ... we still could never thank God for even one of the thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad, myriads of favors that He performed for us . . .”
Again, the lesson is clear – tefilah is never-ending. We can only pause long enough to realize how much more gratitude, praise, and requests are still due.
If prayer never ends, neither can it ever begin. Rambam's view is that tefilah is Biblically ordained and therefore has no set time. Biblically defined, prayer is “service of the heart”, and this avodah sh'balev can never cease, nor can it be limited by a preordained temporal framework. Ideally, avodah sh'balev should be spontaneous, continually inspired by our awareness of our blessings. To try to contain such spirit by time would cause it to burst.
Consider the Shmoneh Esrei. We first ask, Who is this God whose door we knock at three times a day? He is kadosh. Once we recognize who He is, we may then ask Him for all that we need – personally, communally, and nationally; bakasha.
Now what? Thank you – modim anachnu lach.
But then why Sim Shalom at the end of Hodah? Again, we thank God, express gratitude and then simultaneously repeat our needs and requests! “Grant peace, goodness, blessing…and compassion upon us and upon all Israel . . . and may it be good in your sight to bless your people Israel.”
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Are we not rude to be so demanding? Yes! But that is pre¬cisely the point. How could we ever take leave of God without realizing how much more we need. The very act of expressing gratitude to God (hodah) must include ever more supplication (bakasha). In short, hodah leads to bakasha, and bakasha leads to more hodah. It is a never-ending process. Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that “genuine prayer is an event in which man surpasses himself. . . . Its beginning lies on this side of the word, but the end lies beyond all words.” This side of the word is the request, the need, the bakasha. Beyond all words is the never-ceasing praise.
Ben-Azai teaches that prayer is not simply an appreciation of the past, nor merely a hope for the future, nor even a programmed mastery of Divine kindness and protection. Prayer is, ultimately, the inspired recognition of God's mercy and simultaneous outpouring of song, praise, joy.
Prayer is our never-ending dance of hodah and bakasha. One leads to the other which leads to the other which leads to the other. And in dancing, we become more than dancers. We become as God would have us.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.
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