Once the Baal Shem Tov spent the night at an inn in a forest. When he arose the next morning, he noticed that his host had gotten up before him and was already immersed in prayer. After he had finished his own prayers, the Baal Shem Tov noticed that his host was still praying.

This surprised him. His host had appeared to be a simple man. Why would he take such a long time to pray? The Baal Shem Tov decided to wait and speak to his host after he had finished.

When approached by the Baal Shem Tov, the host explained why it took him so long to pray. He was unlearned and did not know the order of the daily prayer service. So each day, he would recite the entire siddur.

Hearing this and seeing the man’s sincerity, the Baal Shem Tov volunteered to teach the man how to pray. Painstakingly, the man took notes as the Baal Shem Tov told him which prayers to recite in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening, what to say on Shabbos, and what to say on the festivals. The man put the notes in his siddur, each note on the appropriate page, happy that he would now be able to pray in the proper manner. He put the siddur on the window shelf and wished the Baal Shem Tov goodbye.

Some time after the Baal Shem Tov left, a strong wind blew the window open and knocked the siddur to the floor. All the carefully placed notes fell out and scattered everywhere. The innkeeper tried to put them back in place, but was at a loss. He did not know what to do; he was back where he had started.

Unwilling to accept the situation, he ran down the road on which the Baal Shem Tov had set out, hoping to catch up with him. Within a short while, he caught sight of him standing at the shore of a river. Although there was no bridge, the Baal Shem Tov did not pause. He took out his handkerchief, spread it on the waters, uttered a mystic incantation, and rode to the other side.

When the innkeeper reached the river, he did the same thing. He took out his handkerchief, placed it on the river, and rode it across. Soon he reached the Baal Shem Tov.

Puzzled to see his host, the Baal Shem Tov asked why he had followed him.

“My siddur,” the inn-keeper explained, telling him how the notes had gotten jumbled.

“I’ll be glad to help you,” said the Baal Shem. “But wait, how did you get here? How did you cross the river?”

“I did what you did. I put down my handkerchief and rode it across.”

“If so, you don’t need my help. It appears that G‑d likes your prayers just the way you’ve been saying them.”

Parshas Vayeitzei

Our Torah reading relates that as Jacob our Patriarch left Eretz Yisrael to journey to Lavan’s home where he would marry and establish his own household, he “encountered the place.” Our Rabbis interpret this as referring to Mount Moriah, the site of the Temple in Jerusalem. There Jacob prayed.

Jacob had lived in his father’s home and afterwards had studied under Shem and Ever, the spiritual luminaries of the age. Now he was going to Charan, an idolatrous environment, where he would labor, not study. Faced with such an awesome transition, Jacob turned to G‑d, asking for success in the new phase of activity he was undertaking.

There is no way a person can insure success on the basis of his own efforts alone. Material reality reflects only one dimension of our existence. Prosperity is a multi-faceted Divine blessing and cannot be guaranteed through mortal efforts alone. Even when all the fundamentals add up, there are times when a business deal doesn’t work out and other situations, where for no apparent reason, one’s efforts bring him success.

This is not mere chance. The Baal Shem Tov taught us that even a leaf turning in the wind is directed by G‑d’s will. Certainly it is true when speaking of what happens to man. In every phase of our lives, there is an Eye watching over us and a Hand directing our future. Therefore, particularly when we set out on a new road, we ask G‑d’s assistance through prayer.

On the surface, however, such prayers are self-serving. Man is asking G‑d for something for his own self. He is not praying for G‑d’s sake; he is praying because of his own needs or wants.

Is that spiritual? And is this what G‑d desires?

Yes. G‑d’s intent in creating our world was to have a dwelling place in the lower worlds; that His presence be revealed within the realm of material things. He didn’t create angels to inhabit this physical world. He wants a world where man interacts with the physical and in so doing, understands that it is controlled by G‑d.

That is precisely the awareness generated when a person prays for his material well-being. He is concerned with everyday things, and He is asking G‑d to grant Him success in this realm. Instead of relying on his own resources, he is looking to Him.

These prayers are extremely sincere. When a person asks for spiritual things, his requests may not come from his inner core. But when he prays for his material well-being, he puts his whole heart into his prayer. He is turning to G‑d with all of his attention and asking for His help. In doing so, he consummates the purpose of creation, connecting G‑dliness with the most mundane dimensions of worldly existence.

Looking to the Horizon

One of the primary focuses of our daily prayers is the Redemption. More than 100 times each day, we turn to G‑d with requests like: “Sound the great shofar for our freedom,” “Return in mercy to Jerusalem Your city,” and “Speedily cause the scion of David Your servant to flourish.”

These requests should be made with the same sincerity as “Grant complete cure and healing,” and “Satiate us from Your bounty.” Simply put, Redemption is just as real a need for us as physical health or material well-being, and it should be felt as strongly.

We should not ask for the Redemption only because of hardship, or because we have problems and difficulties that we don’t have solutions for. We should ask for the Redemption because this is our purpose and our raison d’etre. Without it, our lives are simply not complete; we are not living to our fullest. Even when a person prospers and enjoys good health, he is lacking. He is missing the fullness of life that the Redemption will grant him. He should pray — for himself and on behalf of all those around him — that G‑d grants us this fullness with the coming of Mashiach.