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In Love with G-d

In Love with G-d

On the Essence of Prayer

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Then there was the time when a headache turned into an epiphany.

It was just after my daughter's first birthday. As a reward to her father for a year of hard work, she presented me with a gift that I carry with me wherever I go.

As she cuddled beside me, she looked at me sweetly and, in an adorable way that cannot be communicated in writing, uttered one word that touched me to my core.

"Daddy."

The "Daddys" kept coming fast and hardFatherhood was suddenly worth it.

"Yes," I replied as a feeling of love and delight overcame me.

"Daddy," she tweeted again.

I sighed with relief, realizing that my hearing was indeed fine; I hadn't dreamt this moment.

"Yes," I said, still on a high.

"Daddy," she chirped for the third time.

"Yes," I responded, albeit with less enthusiasm.

It only got worse from there.

The "Daddys" kept coming fast and hard. Which is about when my headache started to form. I was quickly getting frustrated since I didn't know what she wanted.

My wife suddenly walked into room. Amidst the continued barrage of squeaky Daddys, I blurted out, "What is it that she wants?!"

"Nothing."

"Nothing? Just listen to her; she's off the hook!"

"I mean that she doesn't want anything from you. She just wants to tell you something. She's trying to tell you that she loves you."

The Daddy attack suddenly sounded like music to my ears.

It dawned on me that what children really want is to simply connect with their parents. Their "needs," "questions," and even "complaints" – often trumped up – are just a means to facilitate that moment of connection.

I'll take an epiphany over a headache any day.


The Children of Israel were trapped. In front of them was the Red Sea; behind them the Egyptian army, eager to battle them and compel them to return to Egypt.

"And the Israelites cried out to G‑d."1

On this Rashi comments:

"They engaged in [prayer,] the occupation of their forefathers. Regarding Abraham the verse says,2 '...to the place where he had stood before G‑d.' Regarding Isaac it says,3 'Isaac went out to converse in the field.' Regarding Jacob it says,4 'He encountered the place.'"

What immediately stands out is the term it uses to describe prayer—"occupation." After asking around, I can confirm that "occupation" is not a word that comes to mind when thinking of prayer.

"Occupation" is not a word that comes to mind when thinking of prayerThe key to understanding this unusual choice of words lies in first comprehending the puzzling choice of proofs to demonstrate that prayer wasn't foreign to our ancestors. For in all three of the proofs, prayer is merely alluded to—when plenty of other examples exist where the Torah refers more directly to their prayers.

For example: "…and Abraham built there an altar and called out to G‑d."5 This sounds more like prayer than "standing before Him." (Furthermore Rashi chooses to skip over Abraham's most famous prayer session—when he interceded on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah6—and his prayer on behalf of Abimelech, which is the first use of the term "prayer" (tefillah) in the Torah.7)

Regarding Isaac, as well, the choice seems odd. For, undoubtedly, Isaac's most heartfelt prayer was the one in which he prayed for his barren wife to conceive.8 This is highlighted by the unique word the Torah uses to describe that particular prayer. "Isaac entreated G‑d."9

Additionally, the term "converse" – used to describe Isaac's prayer in the verse that Rashi uses as proof – seems to better portray what goes on between congregants (during the Kiddush) than what goes on between creature and Creator (during prayer)...

Moving on to Jacob: If there was a time when he "prayed like never before," it was when his life and the lives of his family depended on it, when he implored of G‑d: "Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother Esau, lest he come and strike me, mother and child."10

Besides, how does the word "encounter" – used by Rashi to depict Jacob's prayer – describe communion with G‑d?11

Prayer Redefined

How would you define prayer?

Here's how my generally trusty Merriam Webster's Dictionary defines it:

1. To make a request (to someone) in an earnest manner.
2. To ask earnestly for something.
3. To address G‑d with supplication.

Appeal, beg, beseech, entreat, implore, importune, petition, plead, solicit, supplicate—more at Beg.

There you have the secular definition of prayer: "G‑d, I need something from You."

Conversely, the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, suggests an entirely different meaning.

It is our way of tenderly telling G‑d: "It's not about me, or even about You; it's about us."Insight into the meaning of this term can be gleaned from the verse in which Rachel gives the name Naphtali to the second son of her maidservant Bilhah.12 The name shares the same root as tefillah.13 Rashi14 quotes a different dictionary, one written by Menachem Saruk, which identifies the root of the word and translates it as "fastens" or "attaches."

Thus, tefillah means to connect, and prayer is that time of connection.

It's that sacred moment when we focus on and reconnect with G‑d. When we leave all of life's distractions behind, reject the voices willing us to forget our beloved Father on high, and call out in song and dance, with body, soul, mind and heart: "Father in heaven, we love You to eternity!"

It is our way of tenderly telling G‑d: "It's not about me, or even about You; it's about us."15

Reexamining the Proofs

It is in order to help us accurately define prayer that Rashi passes over the obvious proofs. It's because they speak of needs; one for the salvation of a city, another for the salvation of a family, and yet another for the salvation of childless parents.

For supplication is not the essence of prayer, it's a byproduct. Thus, words like "entreating," "calling out," and the chilling cries of "rescue me!" tend to obscure the full meaning of prayer.

The quintessence of prayer is an expression of love; it's the brief phone call from husband to wife, parent to child, in the middle of a busy workday, saying, "No matter what's happening in my life today, you're foremost on my mind and most important in my world."

Like divers who plunge to the depths of the sea in search of lost treasures, we too submerge in the murky waters of a material world in an attempt to uncover the divinity buried within creation. And like deep-sea divers, we too must come up for oxygen.

Prayer is that breath of fresh air.

It's like catching up with a friend, a conversation; not a business meeting. It's less about giving or taking from G‑d than it is about being with Him.

Sounds a lot like a occupation, doesn't it?

("An activity in which one engages"—Webster's definition for occupation.)

What's in It for Me?

So don't wait until you're hurtingLike a parent who never tires of receiving his child's affection, G‑d never tires of receiving ours.

Not so much because He needs to know that we love Him (for that He knows without our saying it), but because He wants us to express and experience that love.

So don't wait until you're hurting. Don't wait until you're in need next to send that loving text.

This is what my text would say:

"Dear G‑d, there's nothing in the world I'd like more than to grow old with You!"16

Footnotes
3.

Ibid., 24:63.

4.

Ibid., 28:11.

5.

Genesis 19:27. Another benefit of this verse is the fact that it is earlier in the Torah than the one quoted by Rashi. A fundamental principle in bible commentary is to always bring a proof from the earliest verse that can prove the point.

6.

Genesis ch. 18.

7.

Ibid., 20:17.

8.

Ibid., 25:21.

9.

See Rashi ad loc.

11.

To the contrary, "encounter" seemingly describes an unexpected meeting, as opposed to prayer, which is meant to be a meeting one prepares for.

13.

In Mishnaic language it means much the same. See Keilim 3:5.

14.

Ad loc.

15.

Of course there is a time and place for supplication, as well as for praise of G‑d, but that does not capture the essence of prayer, which, as its name suggests, is a time of connection.

16.

Based on a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichot vol. 11 pg. 52ff.

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children.
Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—Chabad.org, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Gary Shatz Clarksboro January 6, 2014

thank you This morning I was delaying davening. I don't know why, I just didn't feel like it. Your article inspired me. Thanks Reply

Julia Atlanta, GA January 21, 2013

Beautiful article! This article is beautiful! The time you put aside in your day to pray and connect with G-d is such a sacred and precious moment. It is a time when you can say anything and ask for anything without feeling any pressure or judgement. I wish that I would have prayed more after the loss of my mother and asked for guidance, but two years later, I have returned to praying and the feeling is amazing. This article does a wonderful job of explaining the beauty of opening up to G-d. He wants to fill our lives with blessing and we need to show him that we are worthy of those blessings. Reply

Bob Pembroke Pines, FL / USA January 31, 2012

Prayer Thank you for this awesome article on prayer! Your so right, as a dad I long to hear from my grown up child just to know that she still thinks of me in the midst of her busy schedule! This article reminds us that prayer isn't just about petitioning G-d for something but for cherishing our relationship! G-d Bless! Reply

nissen wilkes barrre, pa January 29, 2010

amazing! :-) Reply

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