Pray to pray

We can pray for spiritual sustenance, and even for the ability to pray itself.

September 28, 2011 16:49
3 minute read.

Siddur 521. (photo credit: courtesy)


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The High Holy Days, and indeed the days leading up to this auspicious time, are filled with prayers. Synagogue attendance is at its highest, extra prayers are added to the service, extra services added to the regular schedule, and in general we make a greater effort to offer heartfelt prayers and supplications. For what do we pray? The answer should be obvious, but hassidic masters emphasized goals of prayer that might not be considered when first thinking about what to pray for.

On the verse describing the beseeching of Moses to enter the Land of Israel – “And I besought God at that time, saying...”

(Deuteronomy 3:23) – Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740- 1809) explained: Before “saying” – referring to the act of prayer – one needs to beseech the Almighty. That is, people should request that when it comes to the time for prayer, they will be able to offer a heartfelt prayer. This explanation reminds us that prayer is hardly an easy pursuit and not everyone will be born with the talent of prayer. Moreover, Divine assistance is necessary in order to attain the skill set for prayer. Thus before we begin to pray, we pray that we will be able to pray.

In a similar vein, an older contemporary of R. Levi Yitzhak, Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1786), authored a “prayer before prayer.” At first blush the notion of a “prayer before prayer” is strange: as soon as you start to pray aren’t you praying? How can you pray before praying? The “prayer before prayer” is essentially a gateway to prayer. Before embarking upon the prayer journey, R.

Elimelech advocated turning to the Almighty and asking for assistance in prayer.

Moreover, R. Elimelech added a request regarding relationships: “Entrust in our hearts that we should each see our peer's lofty value, and not their lacking. And we should all speak with our peers in a manner that is upstanding and desirable before You, and no hatred from one person to another should be countenanced, Heaven forfend.” In this way, R. Elimelech included a prayer expressing a desire to repair interpersonal relationships as part of the entrance into the world of prayer.

Just over a decade ago, in the summer of 2000, the current leader of the Boyaner Hassidim, Rabbi Nahum Dov Brayer, expanded on this idea. The Boyaner rebbe advocated preparing for Shabbat by requesting that we should merit to properly keep the holy day. This not only refers to the myriad of intricate laws of Shabbat, but also to another aspect of this special day. We beseech the Almighty that we should receive Shabbat with joy and happiness, that we should celebrate Shabbat as it should be celebrated.

The Boyaner rebbe connected this idea to the aforementioned verse describing Moses’s prayer – “And I besought God at that time, saying...” – the numerical value of the last three words of the verse together with the number of words (764+3) is the same as the numerical value of the two words “bayom hashabbat” (on the Shabbat day) with the number of words (765+2). Thus the verse could be interpreted in the following fashion: “And I besought God” regarding that which is alluded to by the words at “that time, saying,” namely, Shabbat.

The Boyaner suggested a further connection between the verse and Shabbat: The essence of Shabbat is speech. We are enjoined from doing work, and Shabbat is primarily sanctified by speech.

We greet each other with a “Shabbat shalom,” a peaceful Shabbat, we recite Kiddush and Shabbat gets special mention in the prayer services. Thus before Shabbat when we pray to keep the holy day we beseech God with regard to saying – namely, the power of speech.

The vistas of prayer, therefore, are not limited to the classic material needs and wants. We can pray for spiritual sustenance, and even for the ability to pray itself.

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.

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