Included in the Torah’s narrative of the lives of our forefathers are their respective dialogues with God. The Talmud attributes the three daily prayers we recite to the three forefathers. Abraham, the Midrash teaches, instituted the morning prayer, Isaac established the afternoon prayer and Jacob founded the evening prayer. While these reflect the formal prayers we recite daily, the forefathers’ involvement in their establishment is derived from hints in the Torah rather than direct instruction. The Torah’s explicit narrative describes particular and spontaneous prayers in the lives of these ancestors.
Abraham’s prayer took the form of a negotiation with God, a fervent attempt to avert the destruction of Sodom and its sister cities. Isaac’s prayer is echoed by the prayers of thousands of couples throughout history who could not conceive offspring, a typical supplication to a God Who has the power to make miracles. Jacob’s prayers were more personal and immediate; Jacob prayed for survival. When Jacob set off on his flight to Haran, at the respective instructions of both his mother and father, he asked for protection and sustenance. Now, as Jacob is leaving Laban and anticipates meeting his brother he again asks for protection. “Save me please from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, mothers with their children.” (Genesis 32:12)
A fundamental difference exists between our formal prayers and spontaneous petitions. Our formal prayers are deliberately structured and are recited from a permanent composition. We pray three times a day, and prayer is the first significant activity of our day. The average observant Jew, upon waking in the morning, hurries off to shul to recite the Shacharit prayers with a minyan. We return to the Synagogue in the evening to recite the Mincha and Maariv prayers. Our day is scheduled according to the prayer routine. In workplaces and offices where multiple Jews spend their days a Mincha service is often part of the afternoon routine, in a meeting room commandeered for 10 minutes at the end of the lunch hour. Minyan “factories” are common in Jewish enclaves with continuous prayer services operating as people pass through. As 10 men assemble someone steps up and starts the service, while in next room men begin to gather. In a third room a minyan is just finishing up, and the next group will occupy that space as soon as it is empty and available. This is basic to our day, inseparable to our life. Just as one grabs lunch when passing through the food court one chops mincha at some point in the afternoon.
A significant objective of these formal prayers is to focus our own mindset, re-calibrating our thoughts at every major juncture of the day. Spontaneous prayer, on the other hand, normally addresses a direct and immediate plea, a specific need. The prayer might be prompted by something quite dramatic, from a foxhole with bullets and shrapnel flying overhead, or it might be spurred by the struggle to make ends meet. It could be a challenging relationship, or even an attempt to assuage one’s guilt.
Rabbi Shimon Schwalb, a well known Torah scholar who escaped Europe and continued his teaching in New York, once encountered a Jewish woman leaving a Catholic Church. Seeing Rabbi Schwalb the woman figured that he must be wondering what she was doing in a Catholic Church. “But they have something that we simply don’t have in Judaism,” she explained. She went on to describe the confessional in the Church, where she can be unburdened from her guilty conscience, the priest assuring her that all is forgiven. “But we have the same thing in Judaism,” Rabbi Schwalb told her gently. “We recite three times a day in the silent prayer – ‘Forgive us our Father for we have sinned, pardon us our King for we have transgressed.'” “Rabbi, you don’t understand,” the woman answered. “In the Church someone is behind the screen, someone is listening…”
God is the big elephant in the room. God is the focus of all our prayers and services. God is the target of the praises and supplications included in the prayers. Most religions are predicated on the assumption of God’s existence. We take that for granted, but we don’t give it too much thought practically. In a conversation with several Christian theologians earlier this week I had to explain that although we conduct religious services our society is very secular. Theology is not a very luring subject, but if we are to have a relationship with God – and the prayers are geared to foster just such a relationship – we need to think about God’s listening ear, His care for us and His responsiveness to our prayers.
Two nearly identical stories illustrate that prayers are listened to. One, well known, is from the previous week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayetze. The Torah gave a brief description of Laban’s two daughters: “And Leah’s eyes were soft, and Rachel was of beautiful form and fair to look upon.” (Genesis 29:17) Commentaries discuss what the Torah means to convey by its description of Leah’s eyes. Some suggest that soft eyes imply beauty, but others note the contrast with Rachel’s beauty which is explicitly stated. The Midrash explains that Leah’s eyes were weak from weeping. Rebecca and Laban were siblings; Rebecca had two sons and Laban had two daughters. It was expected that these cousins would marry each other, with the older boy marrying the older girl. Leah, therefore, was assumed to marry Esau, and she was distressed by that prospect. She shed many tears in prayer that she should marry Jacob instead, and her eyes were therefore “soft” from the crying.
What happened in the end? To exact another seven years of labor from Jacob Laban pushed Leah under the marriage canopy in Rachel’s stead. Jacob did not realize until morning, when “behold she was Leah!” (29:25) Leah’s prayers had been answered. She was spared from a life chained to a man she feared and despised, instead meriting to be one of the Matriarchs of Israel, bearing six of the twelve tribes that would constitute the people of Israel. Laban unwittingly served as God’s agent in answering Leah’s prayers. Her tears did not fall in vain.
I heard a remarkable story related by Rabbi Mordechai Rhine that mirrors Leah’s experience. A Jewish family received a call that their grandmother, who was being cared for in a nearby nursing home, had passed away. The family dutifully made arrangements for the funeral, recited kaddish and sat shiva. After the shiva was over Grandma called and demanded to know why she hadn’t received any calls or visits from the family in over a week. It turned out that the nursing home had made an error. It was Grandma’s roommate who had died. This was an embarrassment for the establishment, and the director of the nursing home had the unpleasant task of informing the family of the deceased roommate. When she reached the son he noticed her hesitation in expressing the circumstances of his mother’s death. Before she could explain the son said, “I know what you want to tell me, that she wants a Jewish funeral and burial. I know that she has been praying every night for the last few years for this, but the family has long since decided that we want her cremated. We are not budging. She will not have a Jewish burial!”
Prayers are not always answered in the way we expect, but no prayer is turned away, no prayer is ineffective. Jacob was driven to pray before his encounter with Esau, not because of the foxhole instinct. For Jacob this was part of a relationship. Jacob knew and acknowledged that the Almighty was his guide in times of peace as well as times of trouble. It was only natural that Jacob would ask for assistance or intervention when he faced a challenge.
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