As for me, may my prayer unto You, O G‑d, be in an acceptable time; O G‑d, in
the abundance of Your mercy, answer me in the truth of Your salvation.
The Hebrew word Tefilah (תפילה) is generally translated into English
as the word "prayer." But this is not an accurate translation, for to pray
means to beg, beseech, implore, and the like, for which we have a number of
Hebrew words which more accurately convey this meaning. Our daily prayers are
not simply requests addressed to G‑d to give us our daily needs and nothing
more. Of course, such requests are also included in our prayers, but by and
large our prayers are much more than that, as we shall see below.
Why Do We Pray?
Prayer is a commandment of G‑d; G‑d has commanded us to pray to Him, and to Him alone. In
times of distress, we must turn to G‑d for help; in times of comfort, we must
express our gratitude to G‑d; and when all goes well with us, we must still pray
to G‑d daily that He continue to show us His mercy and grant us our daily needs.
In our prayers to G‑d we often address Him as our Merciful Father, or as our
Father in Heaven, for G‑d regards us, and we regard ourselves, as His children.' The question may be asked, Why do we have to pray to our
Father in Heaven for our daily needs? Does G‑d not know our needs even better
than we our-selves? Is G‑d not by His very nature, good and kind, and always
willing to do us good? After all, children do not "pray" to their loving parents
to feed them, and clothe them, and protect them; why should we pray to our
Heavenly Father for these things?
The answer to these questions is not hard to find after a little reflection.
In fact it has been amply explained to us by our great Sages, including
Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon):
We are told to offer up prayers to G‑d, in order to establish firmly the true
principle that G‑d takes notice of our ways, that He can make them successful if
we serve Him, or disastrous if we disobey Him; that success and failure are not
the result of chance or accident.
Like all other commandments which G‑d has commanded us to do, not for His
sake but for ours, He has commanded us to pray to Him for our
sake. G‑d does not need our prayer; He can do without our prayers, but we
cannot do without our prayers. It is good for us to acknowledge our
dependence on G‑d for our very life, our health, our daily bread, and our
general welfare. And we should do so every day, and many times a day. We must
often remind ourselves that our life and happiness are a gift from our Merciful
Creator, for we should then try to be worthy of G‑d's kindnesses and favors to
us. G‑d does not owe us anything; yet He gives us everything. We should try to
be the same way towards our fellow-men and grant favors freely. We should
express our gratitude to G‑d not merely in words, but in deeds: by
obeying His commands and living our daily life the way G‑d wants us to do,
especially as it is all for our own good.
Knowing that G‑d is good and that nothing is impossible for Him to do, we can
go about our life with a deep sense of confidence and security. Even in times of
distress we will not despair, knowing that in some way (best known to G‑d)
whatever happens to us is for our good, a blessing in disguise. We do not like
to suffer, so we pray to G‑d to help us out of our distress, and grant us the
good that is not hidden or disguised, but the good that is obviously
good, obvious even to our fleshy eyes and limited understanding. We gain
strength, courage and hope in our trust in G‑d. Our daily prayers strengthen our
trust in G‑d. In G‑d We Trust has been our Jewish motto since we first
became a people. Its adoption by the
American people when it became a "nation under G‑d," commendable though it is,
is, of course, not original.
A Time Of Self-Judgment
Our Sages declare that the ladder which our father Jacob saw in his dream,
with angels of G‑d "going up and coming down on it," was also the symbol of
By showing the ladder to Jacob in his dream, a ladder which "stood on the earth
and reached into the heaven, our Sages explain, G‑d showed Jacob that prayer is
like a ladder which connects the earth with the heaven, man with G‑d. The
meaningful words of prayer, the good resolutions which prayer brings forth, are
transformed into angels which go up to G‑d, and G‑d sends down angels with
blessings in return. That is why Jacob saw in his dream that angels were "going
up and coming down," although one would
have expected angels to come down first and then go up again.
Thus, what we said about prayer in answer to the question: "Why do we pray?"
is but the first step on the "ladder" of prayer. On a higher level prayer has to
do with things that are higher than the daily material needs, namely spiritual
The Hebrew word tefilah (תפלה) comes from the verb pallel (פלל),
"to judge."' We use the reflexive
verb lehitpallel ("to pray"), which also means "to judge oneself." Thus,
the time of prayer is the time of self-judgment and self-evaluation. When a
person addresses himself to G‑d and prays for His blessings, he must inevitably
search his heart and examine himself whether he measures up to the standards of
daily conduct which G‑d had prescribed for man to follow. If he is not one who
fools himself, he will be filled with humility, realizing that he hardly merits
the blessings and favors for which he is asking. This is why we stress in our
prayers G‑d's infinite goodness and mercies, and pray to G‑d to grant us our
heart's desires not because we merit them, but even though we do not deserve
them. This is also why our prayers, on week-days, contain a confession of sins
which we may have committed knowingly or unknowingly. We pray for G‑d's
forgiveness, and resolve to better ourselves. Prayers help us to lead a better
life in every respect, by living more fully the way of the Torah and Mitzvoth
which G‑d commanded us.
Avodah — Service
On a still higher level, prayer becomes avodah, "service." The Torah
commands us "to serve G‑d with our hearts,"
and our Sages say: "What kind of service is 'service of the heart?'—it is
prayer."' In this sense, prayer is meant to
purify our hearts and our nature.
The plain meaning of avodah is "work." We work with a raw material and
convert it into a refined and finished product. In the process, we remove the
impurities, or roughness, of the raw material, whether it be a piece of wood or
a rough diamond, and make it into a thing of usefulness or beauty. The tanner,
for example, takes raw hide and by various processes converts it into a fine
leather. The parchment on which a Sefer-Torah is written, or a Mezuzah, or
Tefillin, is made of the hide of a kosher animal. So is raw wool full of grease
and other impurities, but through various stages of "work" it is made into a
fine wool, from which we can make not only fine woolens for our clothes, but
also a Tallith, or Tzitzith.
The Jewish people have been likened in the Torah to soil and earth, and have
been called G‑d's "land of desire." The
saintly Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasiduth, explained it this way: The
earth is full of treasures, but the treasures are often buried deep. It is
necessary to dig for them; and when you discover them, you still have to clear
away the impurities, refine them or polish them, as in the case of gold, or a
diamond, and the like. So is every Jew full of wonderful treasures of
character—modesty, kindness and other natural traits, but sometimes they are
buried deep and covered up by "soil" and "dust," which have to be cleared away.
We speak of a person of good character as a "refined" person, or a person of
"refined" character. It entails an effort, and very often a hard effort, to
overcome such things as pride, anger, jealousy and similar bad traits, which may
be quite "natural" but still unbecoming for a human being, least of all for a
Tefilah, in the sense of avodah, is the "refinery" where the
impurities of character are done away with. These bad character traits stem from
the "animal" soul in man, and are "natural" to it. But we are endowed with a
"Divine" soul, which is a spark of G‑dliness itself, and the treasury of all the wonderful qualities which make a
man superior to an animal. During prayer, our Divine soul speaks to G‑d, and
even the animal soul is filled with holiness. We realize that we stand before
the Holy One, blessed be He, and the whole material world with all its pains and
pleasures seems to melt away. We become aware of the real things that
really matter and are truly important, and even as we pray for life, health and
sustenance, we think of these things in their deeper sense: a life that is
worthy to be called "living"; health not only physical, but above all spiritual;
sustenance—the things that truly sustain us in this world and in the world to
come, namely the Torah and Mitzvoth.
We feel cleansed and purified by such "service," and when we return to our
daily routine, the feeling of purity and holiness lingers on and raises our
daily conduct to a level which is fitting for a member of the people called a
"kingdom of priests and a holy nation."
The highest level on the "ladder" of prayer is reached when we are so
inspired as to want nothing but the feeling of attachment with G‑d. On this
level Tefilah is related to the verb (used in Mishnaic Hebrew) tofel,
to "attach," or "join," or "bind together," as two pieces of a broken vessel are
pieced together to make it whole again.
Our soul is "truly a part of G‑dliness," and it therefore longs to be
reunited with, and reabsorbed in, G‑dliness; just as a small flame when it is
put close to a larger flame is absorbed into the larger flame. We may not be
aware of this longing, but it is there nevertheless. Our soul has, in fact, been
called the "candle of G‑d." The flame of
a candle is restless, striving upwards, to break away, as it were, from the wick
and body of the candle; for such is the nature of fire—to strive upwards. Our
soul, too, strives upwards, like the flame of the candle. Such is its nature,
whether we are conscious of it, or not. This is also one of the reasons why a
Jew naturally sways while praying. For prayer is the means whereby we attach
ourselves to G‑d, with a soulful attachment of "spirit to spirit," and in doing
so our soul, as it were, flutters and soars upward, to be united with G‑d.
Let us consider this idea a little closer.
Every Mitzvah which G‑d has commanded us to do, and which we perform as a
sacred commandment, attaches us to G‑d. The word Mitzvah is related to
the (Aramaic) word tzavta, "togetherness," or "company." In English, too,
we have the word to "enjoin," which means to "command," for the commandment is
the bond that joins together the person commanded with the person commanding, no
matter how far apart the commander and the commanded may be in distance, rank or
position. When a king commands a most humble servant to do something, this
immediately establishes a bond between the two. The humble servant feels greatly
honored that the king has taken notice of him and has given him something to do,
and that he, an insignificant person, can do something to please the great king.
It makes him eager to be worthy of the king's attention and favor.
If this is so in the case of every Mitzvah, it is even more so in the case of
prayer. For nothing brings man closer to G‑d than prayer, when prayer is truly
the outpouring of the soul and, therefore, makes for an "attachment of spirit to
spirit," as mentioned earlier. If any Mitzvah brings us closer to G‑d, prayer
(on the level of which we are speaking) is like being embraced by G‑d. It gives
us a wonderful spiritual uplift and blissfulness, than which there is no greater
pleasure and fulfillment.
Prayer, we said, is like a "ladder" of many rungs. To get to the top of it,
we must start at the bottom and steadily rise upwards. In order to be able to do
so, our prayers have been composed prophetically by our saintly prophets and
sages of old, and have been ordered also like a "ladder," steadily leading us to
greater and greater inspiration. We must, therefore, become familiar with our
prayers: first of all their plain meaning, then their deeper meaning, and
finally, with the whole "order" of our service.