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Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Savo: From first fruits to daily prayers

Summary

When Moses saw that the first fruit offering would be lost he instituted that the Jewish people should pray three times daily. The Talmud teaches that our three daily prayers were instituted by our Patriarchs. A person should always first express praise to G'd and then say his prayer. One should express thanks and appreciation at the end of one's prayer. Prostration is the highest form of expressing gratitude to G'd. When a person prays and asks for his personal needs he expresses how he is dependent on G'd and His blessings. Our Patriarchs instituted the daily prayers teaching us that whatever we lack we have one source where to request and ask for our daily needs, whether personal or communal. "Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his lot." We should always remember, appreciate and be thankful for all the good that G'd does for us.

First fruit offering lost

At the beginning of this week's Torah portion, we are commanded to bring of the first fruit up to the Temple as an offering. The Midrash Tanchuma (ibid) says that Moses had a prophetic vision and saw that the Temple was eventually going to be destroyed and the opportunity to bring the first fruit as an offering would be lost. He therefore instituted that in place of the offering the Jewish people should pray three times daily. Concludes the Midrash, "Because prayer is more dear to G'd than any good deed or offering." Despite all his good deeds, when it was decreed that Moses could not enter the land of Israel, the only thing he felt he could do to change the decree was to pray to G'd.

Patriarchs' prayers

It seems strange that the Midrash tells us that Moses was the one who instituted the daily three prayers. The Talmud (Berachot 26b) teaches that our three daily prayers were instituted by our Patriarchs. Abraham was the first to pray the Morning Prayer; Isaac was the first to pray the afternoon prayer; and Jacob was the first to pray the evening prayer. It further needs clarification what is the connection between the offering of the first fruit and the three daily prayers.

First express praise

The Talmud (ibid 32a) says: "A person should always first express praise to G'd and then say his prayer." The Talmud continues to explain that we learn this from Moses. Before he prayed for the revocation of the decree prohibiting him from going into the land of Israel, he praised G'd and said: (Devarim 3:24) "For what power is there in the Heaven and on Earth that can do like Your deeds and mightiness?"

Express thanks at end

Based on this the Rambam (Laws of Prayer 1:2), rules that a person should first praise G'd and only then ask for his needs in requests and supplications, and finally he should thank G'd for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him. We may ask, the Talmud only mentioned two parts to prayer, praise and requests for personal needs; where is the source of the Rambam's ruling that one should also express thanks and appreciation at the end of one's prayer?

Prostration

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, the late Rosh Hayeshiva of the famous Mir Yeshiva, notes that the only commandment where we find that the Torah obligates a person to prostrate himself is by the bringing of the first fruit. As it says, (Devarim 26:2-10): "And you shall take of the first fruit of the earth that you shall bring from your land and you shall place it in a basket and you shall go to the place that HASHEM your G'd will choose and you shall place it in front of HASHEM your G'd and you shall prostrate yourself before HASHEM your G'd." Rabbi Shmulevitz explains that prostrating oneself expresses the ultimate acknowledgment that the person, who has diligently worked his fields from planting the first seeds through harvesting, realizes that he himself has no ability to do anything and that everything is G'd-given. However hard a person works in his field, nothing would grow without the rain falling, the sun shining, and the earth providing all the necessary nutrients to allow the produce to grow and develop. Therefore, prostrating oneself at the time when one brings the first fruit of one's labour is the highest form of expressing gratitude to G'd. It shows that whatever a person has, and however much effort a person has exerted, nothing would have been produced if not for G'd's blessings.

Dependent on G'd

Moses saw that there would be a day when the Jews would not be able to express their gratitude by bringing the first fruit of their labour, acknowledging that everything comes from G'd. He understood that this powerful message would need to be replaced some way. He decided the appropriate time would be when a person prays and asks for his personal needs. At the time when one expresses how dependent one is on G'd and His blessings and nothing can be achieved without that, at that same time one must show one's gratitude for all G'd's blessings.

Mercy for our daily needs

Our Patriarchs instituted the daily prayers teaching us that whatever we need we have one source where to request and to ask for it, whether personal or communal. Abraham was praying for the inhabitants of Sodom that they should be saved. In his great compassion for any human being, he extended himself for these wicked people (see Sforno Bereishis 19:27). Isaac prayed as Rebecca was being brought to him by his father's servant. As a bachelor at that time, having lost his mother, it is not difficult to imagine what type of prayer was on Isaac's lips (see Rashi and Sforno ibid 24:62-63). Similarly, Jacob prayed as he was fleeing his brother Eisav on route to his uncle Laban, with danger lurking on all sides (see Rashi ibid 28:11). From our Patriarchs we learn that for any need we have we pray to G'd. Moses, on the other hand, instituted a different aspect of prayer. With every prayer, when we ask for our needs, we must remember to express gratitude for all the blessings that have been bestowed upon us.

Appreciate what we have

My late father used to tell us that we always have more to thank for than what we are lacking. If we could get accustomed to count our blessings and appreciate what we have, how much more happy and satisfying would our lives be. As the Mishnah says (Pirkei Avos 4:1), "Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his lot." In general, we take our blessings for granted and expect things to go well. When we wake up in the morning and are able to open our eyes, put our feet on the ground, and attend to our personal routines, we do not give it too much thought. We go to our job and business and we are able to look after and sustain our family and we feel that this is natural. The moment something does not function as expected, we have questions: Why did this happen and why to me?

Nothing too big or small

When we open our Siddur and take a closer look at the daily prayers, we find that we actually start off the day praising G'd and thanking Him that we are able to open our eyes, take our steps and do all our daily chores. The structure of the main prayer, the Shemona Esrei said three times a day, is exactly as described by the Rambam. In the first three blessings we praise G'd. This is followed by thirteen blessings of personal and communal requests. These thirteen blessings are the kind of prayers taught to us by our Patriarchs. Nothing is too big or too small for us to turn to our Father in Heaven to beg of Him to provide us with our needs. Finally, after we have presented our requests, we express our gratitude and thank G'd for all that He does for us, the daily wonders and blessings, and all the good He bestows upon us constantly. This is what Moses taught us should be part of our daily routine during our exile as we have no Temple where to remember, appreciate and be thankful for the all the good that G'd does for us. This blessing of gratitude is enveloped between two final requests, one for the restoration of the service in the Temple and one for peace for the Jewish nation. This symbolizes our longing to again express our gratitude by bringing the first fruit up to the Temple in Jerusalem in peace.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.


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