To Pray or Not to Pray

June 24, 2009

7 min read


Tzav (Leviticus 6-8 )

Harold is walking down a darkened alley, when he's suddenly confronted by two masked men carrying guns. Fearing for his life, Harold throws his hands heavenward and begins to pray, "God, save me, please save me! I'll do anything, God – I'll go to synagogue every day, I'll take that long-overdue trip to Israel, and I'll even give half my income to charity!"

At that moment, a police car pulls into the alley, and the thugs flee. Harold looks heavenward and says, "Never mind, God, I took care of it myself!"

Essence of Prayer

This week's parsha describes how offerings brought to the Temple in Jerusalem were a primary means of connecting with God. Today however, our primary connection is through the medium of prayer. (For example, the Shacharit and Mincha services correspond to the morning and afternoon "Tamid" offerings.) Every Jew is his own miniature "Temple." No intermediary necessary.

And while God answers all prayers, sometimes the answer is "No." We may be asking for the wrong thing without realizing it. A good parent will not lend the car keys to a teenager who is not yet responsible enough to handle it. All the begging in the world will not get a good parent to change his mind.

But prayer is our opportunity to move beyond these limitations. The Hebrew word for prayer, "li-heet-pallel," comes from the root "pallel," which means to inspect. The prefix "li-heet" is the reflexive form – denoting an action that one does to oneself. Li-heet-pallel, therefore, is an act of personal introspection. When we pray, we look inside and ask, "What do I need to change about myself in order to get what I really want out of life?"

This process of self-transformation means that today I may no longer be the same person who God said "no" to yesterday.

Sometimes we only appreciate something when it's taken away. When we've had the flu and then recover, we appreciate what it means to be healthy. But we shouldn't have to get sick in order to appreciate our health!

Blessings are the Jewish version of "Stop and smell the roses." The Sages say that one way to guarantee good health is to say "Asher Yatzar" with sincerity. "Asher Yatzar" is the blessing that Jews says, believe it or not, after using the bathroom. We thank God for creating our bodies with a wondrously complex system of ducts and tubes. And we acknowledge that if any one of them were improperly ruptured or blocked, we could no longer stay alive. Saying this blessing with sincerity affirms our gratitude for good health.

We can learn our lesson without the experience of having it taken away.

Appreciate the Gifts

If prayer is solely for our benefit, then why does Jewish prayer always begin with praise of God?

One purpose of this praise is to sensitize us to God's awesome capacity to help. We take the time to recognize and appreciate all that He does for us.

And He does so much! We know that our parents love us because of all they've given us, yet God has given us gifts that are infinitely more valuable. If a human being would restore your eyesight, imagine the gratitude you'd feel? Yet God has given us eyes, ears, intelligence – life itself. This knowledge that the Almighty can do anything is what ultimately gives us the strength and resolve to push beyond our limits.

That's why when a Jew prays in the morning, he begins with blessings that acknowledge our eyesight, mobility, consciousness and freedom. These awaken our appreciation for all the gifts God has bestowed upon us and remind us of how much God loves us. When we appreciate what we have, God will want to give us more.

It's the same with a parent and child. If I give my daughter a new toy, and she grabs it without any appreciation, then I as a good parent should not give her any more toys until she appreciates what she already has! We can understand that the son of a billionaire would be spoiled if his parents gave him everything he needed without having to work for it.

The same is true of our relationship with God. Certainly He can give us whatever we need; God is infinitely richer and more powerful than the biggest billionaire. But since God has our best interests at heart, He wants us to grow, to earn it – and to become great.

So Much Food, So Little Time

This week's parsha (Vayikra 7:11-15) discusses the Korbon Todah, the thanksgiving offering brought to Jerusalem by anyone who survives a dangerous situation – e.g. recovering from a bad illness, or arriving safely from an overseas journey. This thanksgiving offering consists of 40 loaves of bread, which the person then eats as a festive meal in commemoration of having been saved.

The Talmud notes two unusual characteristics of the thanksgiving offering that distinguishes it from other, similar offerings: (1) It involves an enormous quantity of food – 40 loaves, and (2) All the loaves must be consumed within an exceptionally short amount of time – less than 24 hours. Obviously, the person who brings this thanksgiving offering could never eat that much food in such a short time! So why would the Torah prescribe such parameters?

The answer is that the Torah wants to create a situation whereby someone will not only appreciate his good fortune, but will share that appreciation with others. With all this food to eat, he will be compelled to invite family and friends to share the story of how he was saved from danger.

Today, without our Holy Temple, we recite the thanksgiving blessing (Birkat HaGomel) in the synagogue during the Torah reading service.

Publicizing God's protection is us how we strengthen our connection and belief. This is the essence of Kiddush Hashem, the public sanctification of God's Name. After the coming of the Messiah and the perfection of the world, there will be no further need for offerings of atonement, because people will no longer sin. But there will always be thanksgiving offerings, because the human need to express gratitude is eternal.

Tune Out the Static

If you want to build a relationship with God, you'll need a framework for the relationship. Friday evening is a good time to reduce the outside static and get in touch with your inner self. Don't watch any TV or listen to the radio. (And if you're really bold, unplug the phone.) You could invite some friends over, prepare a nice meal, light the Shabbat candles, and enjoy the solitude.

As for the prayer aspect: Any relationship is built on communication, and communication has to come from the heart. God yearns to give us the pleasure of connection. The Talmud says that God made Sarah, Rivka and Rachel barren, so that they would turn to Him in prayer. You can pray in any language. Aloud.

To help you start, here's an opening line, written by my cousin, Leibel Rudolph o.b.m.:

Dear God
Give me the courage to let go,
And let you in.
I know you love me.
And with your help,
I will find all the purpose, joy, and happiness
You want me to have.

If anything starts happening, or if you want to talk more about prayer, feel free to contact me.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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