Shaarei Shamayim

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One of my great passions as a rabbi is finding ways to help people have a more meaningful prayer experience. One of the strongest impediments to prayer I’ve found for many is that they are reluctant to ask Gd for what they need. Sometimes it’s because they don’t want to bother Gd; sometimes it’s because they don’t feel worthy; and sometimes they feel that Gd should know what they need, so why ask? And if He’s not giving it to them, then Gd has his reasons.  

Today’s Torah reading begins with Moses asking Gd to reconsider and allow him to enter the Promised Land. Gd could not completely fulfill the request because Joshua would not become the leader he needed to be with Moses at his side. However, Gd did offer Moses an alternative plan where he could go up to a mountain cliff on the border and see the land in all its glory.

But there was an earlier time in Moses’ life when he didn’t ask Gd for help. Rabbi Benjamin Blech ( tells the story of when he was a young child that he couldn’t understand how Moses could be, as the Torah (Ex. 4:10) describes him, a man who was “heavy of speech and heavy of tongue?” How could Moses, the man destined to be the greatest leader of the Jewish people, have a speech defect? His stuttering should have made him as unsuitable for his role as George VI, as we’ve seen in the movie, The King’s Speech. So Rabbi Blech asked his teacher, “Since Gd can do anything, why didn’t Gd heal Moses?”

After 1st sharing with him how the classical commentators address the question, he told him the answer that he preferred and urged him to always keep it in mind when life confronts him with difficult problems that might need Gd’s help. Rabbi Blech writes that his teacher said to him: Yes, Moses would have been far better off had he had the gift of eloquence in addition to all of his other virtues. His stuttering was a disability and of course Gd could have easily removed this stigma. So why didn’t He? Because Moses never asked! In all his humility, Moses didn’t feel worthy of making the request. And Gd wanted to show us by way of His dealings with the greatest Jew in history that the prerequisite for His answering our prayers is for us to verbalize them.

Never be afraid to ask anything of Gd. If you’re withholding a request because you think it’s too much to ask for, that’s an insult to the Almighty, almost as if you’re implying it’s too hard for Him to accomplish. If Gd wants to say no, that’s up to Him. Your role is to make clear you believe in His power to accomplish anything, no matter how difficult.

So don’t be afraid to ask!

Joseph Plumeri, the chief executive of Willis Group Holdings, in speaking at the graduation ceremonies of the College of William and Mary last year illustrated this so powerfully. Let me read you an account of that speech.

He began by asking the students whether they heard of this big building in Chicago called the Sears Tower. Of course they all had. He reminded them that it’s the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. And then he shared with them how some years ago he told people that he was going to rename it the Willis Tower.

People laughed at him, telling him it’s impossible. The name Sears had been there since 1973. “Who are you to come along and change the name?” they said to him.    

He told them that Sears hadn’t been in the building since 1993. He then met with the owner of the building which was 20% vacant and said, “I need 2% of the space.”

He negotiated the price and when the owner asked, “Do we have a deal?”

He told him, “Almost, except for one small thing. Your name is a jinx. You need a new name, a vibrant name, a name that signifies the future, not the past. I want to change it.”

“When we dedicated that building,” Joseph Plumeri said, concluding his speech, “I was on the evening news with Brian Williams and he said to me, ‘How, Joe, after so many years it was called the Sears Tower, how did you get them to change the name to Willis?’

And I looked into the camera and I said, ‘I asked!’”

One of the classic Yiddish folk tales by Isaac Leib Peretz is the story of “Bontsha the Silent.” When Bontsha appears in heaven for his final judgment the angel who was appointed to speak on his behalf mentions all of his pious deeds. Bontsha had always suffered in silence. He was mistreated throughout his lifetime and never complained or questioned Gd’s ways. The heavenly court is unable to find a single blemish in Bontsha’s life and they come to a unanimous decision: “Everything in paradise is yours. Choose. Take what you want, whatever you desire. You will only take what is yours by right.”

The story closes with Bontsha’s repy: “Well then, what I would like, your Excellency, is to have for breakfast every morning a hot roll with fresh butter!”

As great as Bontsha was, life had beaten him down so he no longer knew how to dream. His tragedy was a tragedy that many of us replicate in our own lives when our aspirations become so diminished that we don’t dare to hope for more than hot rolls and butter.

My friends, we are all children of Gd. We each have Someone in heaven Who cares for us deeply. Our mistake all too often is not that we seek too much from Gd, but that we don’t have the sense to ask Him for enough. When we are troubled and our difficulties seem insurmountable, we need to ask Him to intervene. When we need help in a situation that seems humanly impossible to be resolved, we must implore Gd to get involved. When we suffer and feel helpless, we should seek out the One who promised to come to the aid of all those who have no one else to turn to and ask for His help. (Blech)

Gd created the world in such a fashion that we would pray to Him for our needs. We need rain to water our crops and so the world is set up so that we look to Heaven for rain. Rebbe Nachman (Sichot HaRan p. 233) advises that we pray for everything: Make it a habit to pray for all your needs, large and small…even for trivial things.

However, when we pray for our needs we shouldn’t ask for riches, honors and physical pleasures by themselves. No, we should ask Gd to give us what we ask—health, prosperity, good relationships—so that we may better serve Him. Give Gd a good reason in your prayers to give you what you ask.

And one more thing: Understand that none of us deserve the bounties that Gd bestows upon us. We have what we have, not because we are so righteous, but because of Gd’s love for us and His great compassion. As the prophet Daniel (9:18) teaches: “We do not present our prayers before You because of our righteousness, but because of Your great compassion.” So when you pray, go ahead and think big and ask Hashem—the All Merciful—to fulfill your dreams and answer your prayers. May it come speedily in our day. Amen!

                                                            Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis



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