"Bringing Hope through Torah" ATIME Shas-a-Thon 5776

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By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour

In the Torah reading this month we read about a prayer that was answered – and it might hold the secret for how to ensure that all our prayers are accepted by Gd.

It might be the only instance in the entire Torah where Gd Himself told people not to pray.

As Beneh Yisrael found themselves trapped against Sea of Reeds by the pursuing Egyptian army, Gd spoke to Moshe and said, “Why do you cry out to Me?  Tell the Israelites that they should journey forth” (Shemot 14:15).  Moshe had been standing in prayer, pleading with Gd to rescue His people, whom He had just released from Egypt less than a week earlier.  Surprisingly, Gd told him to stop, and to order Beneh Yisrael to proceed into the sea, which, as we know, miraculously split and allowed them to pass. 

The reason why Gd ordered Moshe to stop praying can be found in Targum Onkelos, the ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah, which translates Gd’s command to Moshe to mean, “I have accepted your prayer” (“Kabbalit tzelotach”).  Gd was telling Moshe that his prayers for help were accepted, and so the time had come to stop praying and to proceed onto the next leg of the Jewish People’s historical journey.

The acceptance of our prayers is a desire that all believing, practicing Jews share.  We pray three times each day.  Is there anything we want more than for Gd to lovingly accept our prayers and grant our requests? 

By carefully examining Gd’s response to Moshe at the banks of the Sea of Reeds – after first learning some background information – we can perhaps unlock this most precious treasure, and find the secret to having our prayers answered.

When Sin Becomes a Retroactive Asset

Many rabbinic sources underscore the importance and centrality of humility in the Jewish religious experience.  One would be hard-pressed to find a character trait more vital for the Torah Jew than humility.  It is no coincidence that Moshe Rabbenu, the greatest teacher and prophet who ever lived, is described by the Torah as the humblest of all men on Earth (Bamidbar 12:3). 

Personally, I find most striking the comments of Rabbenu Bahya ben Pakuda (11th century), the great Spanish philosopher, in his famous work Hovot Halevavot (Gate of Repentance, chapter 8).  He cites the well-known rabbinic dictum, “The place where penitent sinners stand – even the completely righteous cannot stand there.”  Our sages, astonishingly, viewed the ba’al teshuvah – the penitent sinner – as occupying a higher spiritual plane than a completely righteous individual whose soul had never been tarnished by sin.  Rabbenu Bahya’s explanation of this statement is even more astonishing than the statement itself.  He writes that a sinner who repents is, more often than not, protected from arrogance.  Once a sinner sincerely repents, undergoing the grueling process of acknowledging failure, experiencing genuine shame, and wholeheartedly committing to improve, he lives with a sense of embarrassment and lowliness.  If a person recognizes the true gravity of sin, then some feeling of lowliness will accompany him for the rest of his life.  He will always live with the realization that he had betrayed the King of kings.  The perfect tzaddik, however, does not experience this feeling.  He is at risk of what Rabbenu Bahya considers the gravest spiritual failure of all – arrogance and conceit.  And therefore, a penitent sinner is greater.

Rabbenu Bahya goes so far as to say that sometimes, a sinner’s misdeed can be a greater asset than a righteous person’s piety, and a righteous person’s piety can be a greater liability than a sinner’s misdeed.  If a sinner sincerely repents, then his sin becomes, retroactively, a valuable asset, shielding him from feelings of superiority and pride.  The perfect tzaddik’s piety, however, can turn out to be the cause of his downfall, if it leads him to feel important and to demand honor and prestige.

Let us consider for a moment the implications of Rabbenu Bahya’s comments.  If a person lives a perfect life of piety, without ever transgressing a single Torah law, faithfully and obediently complying with every halachic detail, but he is arrogant, he is on a lower level than a sinner who has failed and struggled to recover, and who understands his frailty and shortcomings.  Humility is so fundamental to the character of a Torah Jew that arrogance undermines all of a person’s spiritual achievements, to the point where we can say that a tzaddik is on a lower level than a ba’al teshuvah.

In light of the unparalleled importance of humility in Torah life, it should come as no surprise that humility is a precondition for prayer.  The Rama (Rav Moshe Isserles of Cracow), the great rabbinic leader of 16th-century Ashkenazic Jewry, rules explicitly (Orah Haim 98), “Before prayer, a person should think about his lowliness” (“Kodem hatefilah yahshov ha’adam beshiflut atzmo”).  He does not say that one should prepare himself for prayer by reviewing the deep insights of the Arizal and other Kabbalists or by studying their words and uncovering the countless layers of meaning lying beneath the text.  These measures are certainly valuable, but only if they are built on the more basic foundation mentioned here by the Rama: “a person should think about his lowliness.”  The single most important thought that one should have in his mind as he begins to pray is his lowliness, the infinite gulf that separates between him and the Almighty, how unworthy he is of having a private audience with the Creator and King of the universe, and how helplessly dependent he is on Gd’s beneficence.  One should not go into prayer feeling proud that he woke up in time, or that he took time out from work or his other pursuits to come to the synagogue.  Rather, one should enter prayer with thoughts of his “lowliness,” with the keen awareness that he has absolutely nothing and can achieve absolutely nothing without Gd’s merciful assistance.

This is one reason for why eating is forbidden before praying in the morning (a halachic prohibition which, unfortunately, many people neglect, especially when staying in hotels).  When we feel hungry, we are more aware of our frailty.  We recognize just how fragile the human body is, and how we depend on Gd to sustain us.  We therefore recite our daily prayers before eating, when we experience and sense the fragility and weakness of the human condition.

Moshe, David and Avraham

The Gemara, in Masechet Hulin, notes three inspiring examples of great people who remained humble despite achieving greatness.  Moshe Rabbenu led Beneh Yisrael from Egypt and ascended to the heavens to receive the Torah.  He was chosen to be the only human being ever in world history to bring the Divine Law from the heavens to the Earth.  Yet, as the Gemara comments, he – together with his brother, Aharon – said, “Venahnu mah – But what are we?” (Shemot 16:8).  He denied his stature of importance, despite having risen to the greatest possible heights of spiritual achievement.  The second example is David Hamelech, the king of Israel who finally secured the nation’s borders and subdued its enemies, ushering in a time of peace and prosperity and laying the groundwork for the construction of the Bet Hamikdash – not to mention authoring the Book of Tehillim and becoming the father of Shelomo, the wisest man who ever lived.  David said about himself in Tehillim (22:7), “Ve’anochi tola’at velo ish – I am but a worm, not a man.”  Finally, Avraham Avinu, who arrived at the belief in Gd in a pagan world, and who stood fearlessly as a lone voice opposing idolatry, for whom miracles were performed , who subdued four large armies, and with whom Gd made a special eternal covenant, proclaimed, “Ve’anochi afar va’efer – I am but dust and ash” (Beresheet 18:27).

If these are the three paradigms of humility, then we may perhaps gain a clearer understanding of Gd’s command to Moshe at the banks of the Sea of Reeds.  He asked Moshe, “Ma titz’ak elai – Why do you cry out to Me?”  The first letters of these three words – mem, tav and alef – are also the first letters of the words mah, tola’at and efer – the words used, respectively, by Moshe, David and Avraham to express their sense of lowliness.  Embedded within Gd’s response to Moshe is the reason why his prayers were accepted: because he prayed with a keen sense of mah, tola’at and efer – of his lowliness in relation to Gd.  When a person prays with this awareness, truly understanding his state of helplessness and dependence, then his prayers are far more likely to be answered.

To many, this concept will sound startling, if not revolutionary.  If we were asked to name the most important condition for prayer’s acceptance, we would have likely guessed kavanah – concentration on the words, or the intensity of one’s emotion.  It is hopefully obvious and self-evident that these are crucial elements of the tefilah experience.  But it seems there is something even more basic that we need to master, and that is the sense of mah, tola’at and efer – recognizing our lowly stature in relation to Gd.  First and foremost, we must approach prayer with this mindset, with the understanding that we rightfully deserve nothing, we are independently capable of nothing, and we depend upon Gd for everything.

Learning From Yishmael

Why is this so?  Why is humility an indispensable precondition for prayer?

The answer, surprisingly enough, can be found from the story of the prayers recited by Yishmael, Avraham’s son who was banished from his father’s home. 

Yishmael journeyed with his mother, Hagar, through the searing desert, until eventually their water rations were depleted.  Yishmael nearly died of thirst, but an angel appeared to Hagar and informed her that her son would live, “for Gd has heard the lad’s voice at the place where he is” (Beresheet 21:17).  Once again, we have here a situation where Gd answered somebody’s prayer, and it behooves us to understand Yishmael’s “secret,” why it is that his pleas were accepted and he was saved.

A fascinating approach to this story was presented by the 13th-century Spanish Kabbalist Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla, in his work Sha’areh Orah.  He notes the famous rabbinic teaching that all prayers we recite ascend to the heavens from the site of the Bet Hamikdash.  Even today, our prayers recited in New York do not ascend directly to the Heavenly Throne.  They must first cross the ocean, make their way to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and from there they rise and reach the Almighty.  For this reason, the Sha’areh Orah comments, prayers recited in the Land of Israel, and especially at the Western Wall, are so much more powerful than prayers recited elsewhere.  When one prays in the United States, such that his prayers must travel a long distance before rising to the heavens, many things can happen to the prayers along the way.  Prayers are exposed to the various harmful spiritual forces until they safely reach their destination, and thus the longer they need to travel, the higher the chances that they will not accomplish what we want them to accomplish.

There is, however, one exception to this rule.  Speaking through the prophet Yeshayahu (57:15), Gd declares, “ve’et daka ushfal ru’ah” – that He resides among those in distress (“daka”)and those who are lowly (“shfal ru’ah”).  When a person experiences pain or faces a dire crisis, Gd, our loving Father, comes to his side.  Indeed, the sages teach us that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) hovers above the bed of an ill patient, and for this reason, a patient’s prayers for his health are far more powerful than the prayers recited by anyone else on his behalf.  Thus, when Yishmael was dying from dehydration, Gd was right there with him, and so his prayers did not have to travel.  Gd was next to him, and this is why his prayers were answered.  The angel therefore told Hagar that Gd answered Yishmael’s prayers “at the place where he is” – meaning, because Gd was there with him.

In the verse cited earlier, Yeshayahu informs us that Gd resides among not only people in distress, but also those of lowly spirit.  If a person is genuinely humble, and clearly senses his state of helpless dependence, then Gd is with him.  He is right there, and so the person’s prayers do not need to travel.  When a truly humble person prays, he makes a “local call.”  His prayers do not need to travel, and thus they are more likely to achieve the desired result.

This concept, too, is alluded to in Gd’s response to Moshe, “Mah titz’ak elai.”  He is teaching us that “mah” – a person should say about himself, as Moshe and Aharon did, “venahnu mah,” that he is insignificant in relation to Gd, and then “titz’ak” – he should pray.  If he prays in this fashion, with this mindset, then “elai” – his prayers will reach Gd, because Gd will be right next to him.

Vulnerability in the Modern Age

This message of “shfal ru’ah,” of the need to feel humble and helpless before Gd, is, unfortunately, much easier to convey today than in years past.  Not too long ago, I would have faced the challenge of trying to convince people living in what outwardly appeared as a condition of security and stability that they are, in fact, vulnerable and dependent on Gd’s grace.  Tragically, this job has become relatively easy in our day and age.  Hardly a week goes by without heartbreaking news of terror, of young, healthy people waking up one morning like on any other, without realizing this was their last day.  Whether it’s our dear brothers and sisters in Israel facing nearly daily terror attacks, or terrorism in France and even here in the United States – the world is becoming more dangerous and less secure.  Over the last year, we have witnessed deadly attacks on synagogues, supermarkets, bus stops, theaters and office buildings – ordinary places where people go all the time.  We feel more vulnerable now than ever before.  As our community scrambles to shore up security, as we must, we are, at the same time, coming to terms with the grim, disquieting reality that we are exposed to the risk of violent terrorist attacks wherever we are.

My intention here is not to frighten or depress anybody, but to the contrary, to bring us all comfort and a sense of ease by emphasizing the message of “ve’et daka ushfal ru’ah” – that Gd is with us when we recognize how much we depend on Him for even our very lives.  We of course need to take prudent measures to protect ourselves, but we should not live in fear, because we know Hashem is right here with us.  As long as we believe and genuinely feel that we are “dust and ash,” “a worm, and not a man,” that we are entirely under Gd’s control, we can enjoy the security of living under His protection.  And when we live with Him at our side, we can feel confident that He is listening attentively to every word of prayer we recite, and will help us just as He helped our ancestors at the sea, and just as He helped the Jewish Nation at every station along our extraordinary 4,000-year history.