On days which have a musaf prayer, that is, Yom Tov, High Holidays and Rosh Chodesh, we say the prayer yaaleh veyavo in the blessing on the restoration of the Temple service.
The essence of this prayer is that our prayers should ascend on high and be heard and responded to by G-d. The stages that our remembrance is supposed to go through – ascend, and come, and arrive, and be seen, and find favor, and be heard, and be acted upon and remembered – remind us of someone who writes a letter of request. In order for his request to be answered, the letter must be posted and collected, sorted, delivered, noticed, be accepted, opened and read, and finally be responded to.
The metaphor of prayer as a message which needs to be delivered, and which can get mislaid along the way, is an ancient one in Jewish literature. For instance, one common motif is the idea of the “gates of prayer” through which our requests have to pass (Berakhot 32b).
To explain this idea in more detail, we have to ask ourselves why it is that HaShem answers our prayers. One way of understanding this is that the challenge of our Divine image is to realize this little of bit Godliness within ourselves by aligning our own will with the Divine will. The Mishna states: “Make His will into your will, so that He will perform your will like His will” (Avot 2:4). To the extent we are successful in this challenge it is appropriate for HaShem to fulfill our desires. In effect, He is delegating the fulfillment of His plan to His servants, and He will then give us the means to each of us to fulfill our own little role in His grand plan.
However, our prayers may fail to express such an alignment of wills for a variety of reasons. Perhaps our prayers lack intention in the first place – they don’t really express true inner desires. Such a perfunctory prayer does not ascend – it lacks the “wings” of desire, and no driving force works to unite the words of our prayer with the Divine will, since they are not united even with our own will. This could happen because a prayer is insincere, or because a person naturally has weak desires.
Perhaps the prayer expresses a heart- felt wish, but this wish has nothing to do with G-d’s will. Such a prayer doesn’t create any proximity to HaShem – it doesn’t come; or even if it has some slight alignment, it doesn’t have enough to truly cleave to His will – it fails to arrive.
Sometimes a person has good intentions, but he completely misjudges the practical route to carry out G-d’s will. The person’s heartfelt wish is aligned with G-d’s will, but the particular request is completely inappropriate. Then the prayer is unseemly – it fails to be seen. (In Hebrew unseemly and unseen are the same.) In virtually every war there are devout soldiers on both sides who fervently pray for victory in the belief that their nation exemplifies Godly values, but it is fair to assume that not all of these prayers are seemly before HaShem.
Other requests may seem reasonable, but ultimately are counterproductive – these requests don’t find favor on high.
Even if this particular prayer is for something truly worthwhile, the individual may not be personally worthy of being the vehicle for advancing G-d’s will. The prophet Yishayahu taught us that if a person is wicked, HaShem may not hear his prayers (Yishayahu 1:15).
Finally, there may be profound and hidden reasons before HaShem why the prayer of a sincere and righteous person may not be acted upon and remembered.
In the yaaleh veyavo prayer, we pray that the remembrance and fulfillment of the main elements of our redemption – the Jewish people throughout the generations, the remembrance of the Davidic messiah, of the holy city of Jerusalem – should be found in complete alignment with G-d’s will, and that we should be worthy of embodying these elements.
The word tefilla can be defined as a kind of self-definition. The national self-definition of this prayer constitutes in itself a critical element in creating the identification with G-d’s plan for human redemption which in turn makes this alignment a reality.