Can you imagine a synagogue, church, or mosque without prayer services? Prayer is a central function of communal religious life. Jewish prayer is complex, highly scripted, and requires study and practice to truly master: when to stand or sit, what order to say the prayers, which are said communally and which are said privately, not to mention extensive choreography that accompanies many prayers. While Christian prayer may not be as complex, one Baptist minister put it this way: “Prayer is a lot more than reciting words. It requires mastering both theory and technique.”
For all this, traditional and spontaneous prayers boil down to four types: Thanks, Oops, Gimme, and Wow. However we conceive God—a power outside us, the divine spark within us, the totality of the universe—and wherever and however we offer these prayers—in synagogue wrapped in a tallit, on the beach listening to the waves lap up against the shore, or nestled among the trees in a pine forest—prayers of gratitude, prayers for forgiveness, and expressions of awe come naturally, straight from the heart. Appreciation, remorse and awe are part of our make-up. And while seeking what we want is also a natural part of our human make-up, the Gimme prayers are different. Who are we petitioning? What is it appropriate to ask for? Is there a God who can or will deliver on our requests? Given our personal beliefs concerning God, does petitionary prayer even make sense for each of us? Where is the line drawn between self-serving requests and petitions that are not fundamentally selfish?
As this week’s parashah, Vayigash, opens, Joseph has successfully entrapped his brothers. Judah approaches Joseph to plead on behalf of Benjamin, in whose saddle pack a silver goblet was planted and subsequently discovered by Joseph’s men.
Then Judah approached [Joseph] and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh. (Genesis 44:18)
Midrash Tanhuma (Parshat Vayera 8) tells us that the term vayigash (“he approached”) always connotes prayer. This would suggest that Judah’s petition is expressed before Joseph, but directed to God, as well. Rabbi Dov Baer Friedman of Miedzyrzec (1704-1772) in his commentary Or Torah tells us that Tanhuma’s observation applies here to Judah. Friedman writes:
When you arise to pray before the blessed One, this is how you should behave: the entire intention of your prayer should be to bring strength to the Shekhinah [God’s divine presence]. This is the meaning of what the Sages say [in BT Berakhot 30b]: Pray only with a serious demeanor; be mindful of the beginning of all beginnings. Even though you are asking for something that you need, your intention should be that whatever it is not be lacking above. Your soul is a part of God, one of the limbs of the Shekhinah. The goal of your prayer is that the lack be fulfilled on high. This will certainly make your prayer acceptable, and the adversary will be unable to find blame in you… (Or Torah)
Or Torah sets the bar for petitionary prayer high: I should align myself with God’s purpose and pray accordingly. It’s not clear that such prayer is petitionary in the common sense of petitionary prayer. Let’s consider Judah’s plea, which Or Torah understands to be a prayer. Judah is worried about his father, Jacob, who was heartbroken when he thought Joseph had been torn to shreds by wild animals. Judah is keenly aware that if he returns home without Benjamin, when [Jacob] sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief (Genesis 44:31). Judah cannot bear the thought of being responsible for his father’s pain and possible demise. His entreaty clearly serves his own purpose, perhaps not in an entirely selfish manner, but he is motivated first and foremost by his own self-interest.
Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” Judah’s words are a clear admission of his weakness. Yet they also shape a specific request.
The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, helps us here. He famously wrote: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Petitionary prayer that seeks personal growth and change fits both Gandhi’s teaching, as well as Kierkegaard’s characterization of prayer. And it certainly fills Or Torah’s standard that our intentions should be to fulfill what is lacking above. It removes us from the bind of selfish concern. And regardless of how we understand God, this is prayer that is both appropriate and can be answered.
With this in mind, I want to share with you a prayer I ran across some time ago. Unfortunately, I do not know the source. It’s one of those pieces that makes the rounds through internet sites and newsletters, but no less worthwhile for its extensive travels:
Help us become
A little less impatient with those we deem too slow;
A little less arrogance because of all we know;
A little more humility, seeing our worth is slight;
A little less intolerant even when we are right.
A little more forgiving and swifter to be kind;
A little more desirous the word of praise to find;
A little more eager to help others to rejoice;
A little bit more careful to speak with gentle voice.
A little more willingness to extend a helping hand;
A little more eagerness to listen and understand;
A little more effort to see another’s view;
A little more determined to live faithfully as a Jew;
A little more resolve to do what should be done;
And a greater understanding that, truly, “We are one!”
Rabbi Morris Adler taught: "One who rises from prayer a better person, that person's prayer is answered." Amen.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman