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Torah Attitude: Parashas Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Prayer and its cosmic effect
We are totally dependent upon Divine assistance. Everyone depends on whomever he trusts. Prayer is an opportunity given to us by G'd's mercy and grace. It is so easy to switch our prayers to "automatic pilot". Many people have the custom to read every day a portion of Orchos Chaim. This is especially popular from Rosh Chodesh Elul till Yom Kippur. Prayer is of the highest priority in the world. The cosmic effect of our prayers changes from one prayer to the next. Let us at least make as much effort in our spiritual preparations as we do to prepare our meals, so that we can stand in front of our Creator and pray with sincerity.
In last week's Torah Attitude we discussed how to strengthen our belief in G'd and get close to Him through prayer. We explained that the purpose of prayer is to remind us of our dependency upon G'd rather than to inform G'd of our needs. The Torah warns us not to forget that we are totally dependent upon Divine assistance. As it says (Devarim 8:11-18): "Watch yourself … Lest you eat and be satisfied, and you build good houses … And you will amass a lot of silver and gold … And your heart will become haughty, and you will forget HASHEM your G'd … And you will say in your heart, 'My ability and the power of my hand made me all this wealth.' And you shall remember HASHEM your G'd, that it is He that gives you ability to make wealth." By asking G'd three times daily for our sustenance and other needs, we remember that G'd is the One Who provides for us, and all we can do is make an effort to utilize G'd's blessings.
Trust in G'd
Rabbeinu Bachayei (Duties of the Heart, introduction to the Gate of Trust) writes that everyone depends on whomever he trusts. He explains that if a person puts his trust in his own abilities rather than relying on G'd, G'd will remove His assistance to this person and make him dependent on his own abilities. We actually find this concept mentioned in next week's Parasha (Haazinu). It says (Devarim 42:18-20): "You forgot the Rock Who gave birth to you … and G'd saw … and He said, 'I shall hide My face from them and I will see what will be their end.'" It is up to us to make an effort to take care of what we need, but we must always keep in mind that we depend upon whomever we put our trust in. The more we put our trust in G'd, the more G'd will be there for us. But if we choose to rely on our own prowess, we must realize that we are treading on very thin ice. For however smart we are, most things in life are beyond our control. And at the end of the day, we cannot even take one breath on our own. From time to time we see affluent people who suddenly lose their wealth. Who knows if this did not happen because they relied on their wealth and own abilities and forgot that they are still totally dependent on G'd's mercy. That is why we pray three times daily and ask for all our needs. For this serves as a constant reminder to put our trust in G'd and His Divine assistance.
Pray for mercy and grace
The prophet Hosea (14:10) says, "For the ways of G'd are straight, and the righteous will walk on them, and the evildoers will stumble on them." The righteous person, who chooses to do right, will utilize the opportunity to pray to strengthen his belief and trust in G'd and he will actually get closer to G'd every time he prays. But the evildoer, who chooses to do wrong, will not utilize this opportunity and decides not to pray. Many people, who do pray, do it so fast that they have no chance to put much thought into what they say. In Pirkei Avos (2:18) Rabbi Shimon warns us against this and says, "Do not make your prayer a fixed obligation but mercy and grace." This means that we must always keep in mind that prayer is an opportunity that G'd gave us by His mercy and grace. It is therefore important that we concentrate on what we say and do not just "pay lip service".
This can be challenging, especially in Shemoneh Esrei where we say, more or less, the same words three times a day. It is so easy to switch to "automatic pilot", and it takes a real effort to concentrate on what we are saying. But if we stop for a moment before we begin Shemoneh Esrei and think that we are about to speak directly to G'd, and we have an opportunity to ask Him for every one of our needs, this will help us to concentrate. Obviously, we should make sure to understand what we pray and ask for, as it is impossible to concentrate otherwise.
Many people have the custom to read every day a portion of Orchos Chaim written by the great Halachic authority, Rabbeinu Osher, better known as the Rosh. This is especially popular from Rosh Chodesh Elul till Yom Kippur. The Rosh (2:36) writes, "Concentrate when you pray, for prayer is a service of the heart. If your son would speak to you and not mean what he says, would it not make you angry? … Do not be like a servant that was given a great project for his own benefit, and he went and spoiled it. How will he ever be able to stand in front of his master again?" The Rosh continues to discuss how absurd it is when we ask G'd forgiveness in Shemoneh Esrei and we do not even concentrate on what we are saying. He says that we really ought to say a special prayer asking G'd for forgiveness for not concentrating when we ask forgiveness in Shemoneh Esrei.
Prayer is of the highest priority
The Talmud (Berachos 6b) laments that prayer is of the highest priority in the world and people take it lightly. Rabbi Chaim Valozhiner, (Nefesh HaChaim Part 2, Chapter 10 and 13) says that the literal meaning of this Talmudic statement is that prayer is at the height of the world. He explains that this refers to what it says in the Zohar that every word of our prayers and blessings that we utter, (provided that it is said in the original Hebrew, although one may pray in any language) ascends to its root in the highest world and has a tremendous impact on all the worlds.
Cosmic effect of prayer
Rabbi Chaim continues to explain that the 120 members of the Great Assembly, who authored these prayers and blessings, all had a high level of Divine inspiration, some even to the level of prophecy. The power of the words that they instituted is so great that although we say the same words three times daily, the cosmic effect of our prayers changes from one prayer to the next. No two prayers are the same. All the deep Kabbalistic explanations of each word of the prayers, says Rabbi Chaim, is only like a drop in the ocean of the real power of these words. The better we prepare ourselves before praying, and the more we concentrate, the stronger the effect of our prayers.
All this applies throughout the year, but is especially important during the High Holidays that we are approaching. We put so much effort into preparing beautiful meals for the holidays. Let us at least make the same effort in our spiritual preparations so that we can stand in front of our Creator and pray with sincerity. In this merit, may we, together with the whole Jewish nation, be inscribed for a year full of blessings with everything we need. Many people are enduring hardships of various kinds. Let us keep them in mind and pray that they shall be able to provide for their families in good health with peace and prosperity. And let us utilize this special time to ask that we finally see the redemption and the building of the Temple. Amen.
Ketiva VaChatima Tova!
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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