Do you have a hard time praying to Gd for what you want or need? Perhaps you might have faced really difficult challenges in your life and are filled with anger over how unfairly life has treated you. Why should you have to pray for things to get better? Gd should make things better because it’s only fair! Perhaps you feel a strong need to be so self-sufficient you would rather deal with life’s problems on your own. Or perhaps you may think, “Gd should know what I need, so why do I need to pray?”
In my experience, the most challenging barrier to prayer is when one asks, “Who am I to ask anything of Gd? I don’t deserve that Gd should listen to me?” And that would be right. No one is so righteous that they merit Gd listening to them. But the Torah tells us that each of us is an image of Gd and Gd wants to hear our prayers.
How do we know? Our sages asked why did Gd bring the Jewish people from Egypt—a land where the Nile River watered the crops whether there was rain or not—to the land of Canaan—a land where most of the necessary water comes from rain? They answered, so that the Jewish people would look to the Heavens for their sustenance and pray for rain. In other words, Gd created the world in such a fashion that we would pray to Him for our needs. Yes, we don’t deserve it, but Gd is merciful and He wants our prayers.
Rachel Anisfeld, in her wonderful blog on the parsha (http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.com/), points out that when the Israelites cried out in their suffering over their enslavement in Egypt, the Torah (Ex. 3:7) tells us that their cries went up to Gd. However, the Torah doesn’t say they cried out to Gd. They simply cried because of the pain of their oppression. When Moses discovered that his killing of an Egyptian had become known, he became frightened and ran away. He didn’t turn to Gd asking for protection as Jacob did when his brother Esav was coming to greet him with 400 foot soldiers and he became frightened.
When Moses named his 1st child Gershom, he explained (Ex: 2:22) he named him that because: “I was a foreigner in a foreign land.” There is no Gd in this name. Joseph too had been a stranger in a foreign land, but he explained that the names of his children referred to Gd’s help (Gen. 41:51-52): Menashe—“for Gd has made me forget my troubles”—and Ephraim—“Gd has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
Rachel Anisfeld learns from this that these descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had forgotten their legacy—their special relationship with Gd. They had sunk so low in their enslavement that Gd was no longer on the tip of their tongues or in their hearts. And so when Moses discovered Gd at the burning bush and was asked to bring back word of Gd and His plan of redemption to the Jewish people (Ex. 3:13), he asked Gd: Who are you? What is Your Name? I have no tradition of You—nor do these people, apparently.
It seems the Jewish people had forgotten Gd, lost sight of Him in their misery and lost the thread of their tradition of faithfulness to Him. But Gd remained faithful. He remembered and appeared and redeemed.
The symbol of the burning bush—Rachel Anisfeld points out—is important in this regard: It’s a bush that burns but is not consumed—like Gd Himself. He does not wear out; His love has not been used up by our ancestors; Gd’s symbol here is one of a never-ending supply of ardor and passion and connection. Most resources are finite and can be used up. Not so Gd’s love for us.
Moses was, in a way, the first real baal t’shuva. Like many former secular Jews today that have returned to Judaism, he knew he was “Jewish” on some level, but doesn’t seem to have a tradition of what this really means. He rediscovers the Gd of his ancestors, and in this rediscovery, brings about redemption and the revelation of the Torah.
In today’s Torah reading, after the 10 Plagues, when the Children of Israel stood at the Red Sea with the Egyptians in hot pursuit, the Torah (Ex. 14:10) tells us: vayitzaku v’ney Yisrael el Hashem (And the Children of Israel cried out—to Gd). They didn’t just cry out because they were afraid, they cried out to Gd! Rashi in his commentary explains: tafsu umanut avoteyhem (They caught up the art of their ancestors). When one returns to a relationship with Gd, one realizes that this connection can never really be severed. Like Moses and his generation, we need to know that we always had—and will always have—access to Gd Who is only waiting for us to rediscover Him.
Sometimes we sink so low that we don’t feel worthy of connecting to Gd. And so we try to forget Gd as we go about our business. We ignore the great blessings Gd showers upon us every day. When we become frightened and overwhelmed by life’s trials we cry out—but not always to Gd. We need to know that just because we may have abandoned Gd, as did the grandchildren of Jacob in Egypt, this doesn’t mean that Gd has abandoned us. Gd’s love for us burns eternal.
For those who still would ask, “But who am I that Gd should listen to my prayers?” listen to this story from my book (Dancing With God p. 227)In the synagogue of the renowned Rav Yisrael of Salant—founder of the 19thcentury Mussar movement—there was a poor ignorant tailor who stood praying the Amidah longer than Rav Yisrael, rocking to and fro with great ecstatic fervor. When Rav Yisrael asked how the man, who could barely read Hebrew and hardly understood even the plain meaning of the words, could pray with such kavana (focus and intention), this is the response he gave:
“I’m the most stupid, poorest member of this congregation. The gabbai doesn’t even know my Hebrew name and my father’s name to call me up for an honor to the Torah. No one has time or patience to listen to me. I once even conducted an experiment. I stood in the marketplace early one Thursday morning and cornered Reb Shmuel, the banker, asking, ‘Do you have time to listen to me?’ He at least didn’t pass me by, but he hastily referred me to his secretary, who would never dream of giving me an appointment. I even accosted you, the great Rav Yisrael, with my request for time to listen to me, and although you smiled at me more warmly than the others, you had to rush off to lecture your students.
“Apparently, no one important has time to listen to me, the lowest of congregants,” he continued, “not Reb Shmuel the banker, not Reb Dovid the judge, and not Rav Yisrael of Salant. But I have news for you, great Rabbi. When I take a Siddur in my hand, the same Siddur taken by the banker, the judge, and you the rabbi…and when I wrap myself in a tallis, the same tallis taken by the banker, the judge, and the rabbi, and I stand in prayer before Gd…Gd has time to listen to me. And if I stand at my prayers longer than you, great Rabbi of Salant, Gd has more time to listen to me than to listen to you! Now do you understand my fervor?”
Karov Hashem l’chol korav (Gd is near to all who call upon Him), as we say in the Ashrey prayer (Psalm 145)…l’chol asher yikra-uhu v’emet (to all who call upon Him in truth). In other words, Gd has time to listen to us all for as long as we need. So don’t ask “Who am I that Gd should listen to my prayers?” Just pray to Him…and as you do, thank Gd for loving you and wanting to be close to you. Amen!