Seen on a sign: Prayer is not a “spare wheel” that you pull out when in trouble, but it is a “steering wheel” that directs the right path throughout.


Every week from Passover until Shavuot, as well as throughout the summer months, we learn a chapter from Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of Our Fathers”).

In one of the passages in this week’s chapter, Rabbi Shimon states: “When you pray, do not make your prayer a routine act, but an entreaty for mercy and supplication before the Omnipresent, as it says, ‘For He is gracious and compassionate … ’; and do not judge yourself to be a wicked person.” (Avot 2:13)

What does making our prayer a “routine act” mean when there are set times and words for our prayers? And what is the connection to viewing ourselves as wicked?

The word for “routine” in Hebrew is keva, which connotes something burdensome and obligatory that we wish to get rid of or be done with. It also means something established and routine. Prayer should not be about getting through a necessary recital of specific words. Prayer is a gift at any time of day or night. It is our opportunity to communicate personally, expressing our innermost feelings to G‑d. Prayer, “the service of the heart,” is communicating with G‑d, sharing our heartfelt thoughts, our problems, burdens, dreams and desires.

Moreover, we shouldn’t view our prayers as limited words that we recite to elicit a prescribed response from G‑d. To the contrary, this is our chance to forge an infinite connection with G‑d, irrespective of our merits or worthiness.

The Midrash explains that G‑d showed Moses many Divine storehouses of rewards; one for those who do good deeds, another for those who study Torah and so on for the rewards of various mitzvot. G‑d then showed him the largest storehouse.

Moses asked, “For whom is this storehouse?”

G‑d replied, “This storehouse is for those who lack merit; it is what is given for free.”

When we acknowledge that no matter how much good we can do in our lives, it is insignificant compared to all that G‑d gives us, that’s when we can receive from this storehouse. This is the largest storehouse—the one not limited by what we deserve, but is simply given to us out of G‑d’s absolute kindness and compassion (Avnei Nezer).

And yet, at the same time, even while we feel unworthy before all of G‑d’s goodness, and we ask G‑d simply to give us due to His benevolence, we are not meant to view ourselves as wicked.

Our behavior is influenced by our self-image. Think you can and you will; think you are unable or unworthy, and you will be hopelessly trapped. Consider yourself wicked, and you will never struggle to reach higher. But view yourself as a soul, an actual part of G‑d, and you will strive to realize your infinite potential.