Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXII, pgs. 115-117;
Vol. XXIV, p. 28ff

What is Prayer?

The Rambam describes prayer as follows:1

The obligation [this] commandment entails is to offer supplication and prayer every day; to praise the Holy One, blessed be He, and afterwards to petition for all one’s needs with requests and supplications, and then to give praise and thanks to G‑d for the goodness that He has bestowed.

The fundamental dimension of prayer is to ask G‑d for our needs. The praise and thanksgiving which precede and follow these requests is merely a supplementary element of the mitzvah.2 A person must realize that G‑d is the true source for all sustenance and blessing, and approach Him with heartfelt requests.3

Often, however, we do not content ourselves with asking for our needs. We desire bounty far beyond both our needs and our deserts. We request a boon that reflects G‑d’s boundless generosity. For every Jew is as dear to G‑d as is an only child born to parents in their old age.4 And because of that inner closeness, He grants us favors that surpass our needs and our worth.

Two Interpretations of Moshe’s Plea

These concepts are reflected in the name of this week’s Torah reading, Vaes’chanan. Vaes’chanan means “and he pleaded,” referring to Moshe’s petition to enter Eretz Yisrael.5 Our Sages’ interpretation of this term provides us with guidance with regard to the way we should approach G‑d in prayer. The Sifri states:6

[Moshe] could have depended… on his good deeds. Instead, [he] asked G‑d for a gift…. How much more so, [lesser men] should make requests [of G‑d in this manner]. Alternatively, [vaes’chanan] is one of the ten terms used for prayer.

The Midrash communicates similar concepts, stating:7

[This] is one of the ten terms used for prayer. Of them all, Moshe adopted [this approach], one of supplication. From this, we can learn that no created being can make demands from its Creator, for even Moshe [approached G‑d] in a tone of supplication, [asking] for a free gift.

Everything is Kindness

Although there is a similarity between the statements of the Sifri and the Midrash, the commentaries8 note a distinction between them. For the Sifri sees the concept of prayer and that of requesting a free gift as two different interpretations, while the Midrash fuses the two concepts into a single understanding.

To focus on this distinction more closely: G‑d is “merciful to all His works,”9 giving each its sustenance as required. Moreover, when a person’s deeds are worthy, he is assured:10 “If you follow My laws… I will provide you with rain at the appropriate time….”11 Therefore, a person might have grounds to believe that he deserves G‑d’s assistance.

But even in such a situation, prayer is necessary, as reflected by the verse:12 “Kindness is Yours, for You render to every man according to his deeds.” Although a person’s conduct may be worthy of Divine blessing, since G‑d transcends the material realm, for His beneficence to be enclothed in material form requires a unique measure of kindness. And this kindness is evoked by prayer.

Therefore, there is no way a person can demand favor from G‑d. At all times, he must make requests of Him, as one might ask for a present.

This allows us to understand the interpretation of the Midrash mentioned previously. Vaes’chanan teaches us the manner in which we should make petitions of G‑d. When asking for His goodness, one should plead with humility; even when deserving, a person should not rely on his merits, but should ask G‑d for His generosity and kindness.

Not Only a Humble Tone, a Humble Heart

The first interpretation cited in the Sifri asks for a deeper commitment. Not only should humility characterize the manner in which one approaches G‑d, it should permeate one’s being. A person should genuinely feel that he is asking for a favor which he does not deserve. For regardless of the virtue of his deeds, there is always a higher standard which could be demanded of him. Therefore his request is for “a free gift,” unearned kindness.13

This approach was personified by Moshe, whom the Torah describes14 as “more humble than any man on the face of the earth.” Moshe realized his own positive virtues, but also understood that these virtues were granted to him by G‑d, and felt that had they been granted to another individual, that person might have accomplished even more than he.15

When Can a Heavenly Decree be Changed?

There is more to the difference in interpretation between the Midrash and the Sifri. Moshe was praying to enter Eretz Yisrael. Although G‑d had previously decreed that he would not enter the Holy Land, after the conquests of the land of Sichon and Og, Moshe thought that perhaps G‑d would relent.16

There is a difference of opinion among our Sages17 as to whether prayer can have an effect after a negative decree has been issued from Above, or only beforehand. The Midrash follows the view that prayer can avert a harsh decree even after it has been issued. Therefore Moshe was able to approach G‑d through one of the accepted forms of prayer.

The first opinion in the Sifri, by contrast, follows the view that prayer can usually help only before a decree has been issued, but not afterwards. Therefore Moshe had to go beyond the normal approach to prayer and ask for a free gift.18

Reaching Above Our Grasp

Chassidic thought explains Moshe’s request for “a free gift” as follows: Had Moshe been permitted to lead the Jewish people into Eretz Yisrael, he would have been able to draw forth a level of G‑dly revelation which our ordinary Divine service cannot reach. For there are limits to the spiritual peaks man can reach through his own efforts; attainment of the highest levels depends solely on G‑d’s initiative.

These levels cannot be reached by the standard approach to prayer, for normal prayer centers on man’s efforts to refine himself and his environment. Therefore Moshe asked for “a free gift.”

Doing More Than We Can

G‑d did not grant Moshe’s request because even the highest levels of revelation are not simply given as “free gifts,” but must be “earned” by man through his Divine service. The service required to draw down such levels, however, is not one that man can conceive or plot out on his own. It was beyond even Moshe’s conception. Instead, it is G‑d who charts this pattern of service, and with this intent He has led the Jewish people on our odyssey through history.

For this reason, Moshe’s prayer was not accepted, and it was Yehoshua who led the Jews into Eretz Yisrael. Although this “lesser” leadership brought with it the possibility of another exile, this was part of the Divine plan to enable mankind to carry out the service necessary to bring about the Redemption. For it is the Divine service of ordinary men confronting everyday life which will make Redemption a reality.

Parshas Vaes’chanan is always read on Shabbos Nachamu, “the Shabbos of comfort.” The true comfort for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and the exile is the realization that these are milestones on the road to ultimate Redemption. Leading us on a course that defies mortal understanding, G‑d enables man to become His partner in creation,19 and make the world a dwelling which they will share.