During the month of Elul, and on the High Holidays of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we spend much time in prayer. In Elul, we say special prayers called “Selichos” in preparation for our day of judgment. On Rosh HaShana, our prayers are considerably longer than those on othe holidays. On Yom Kippur, practically the entire day is spent in prayer. Because of the great emphasis on prayer at this time of the year, it is helpful to gain a little perspective on what is the role of prayer.
There is a dispute between two great scholars regarding the nature of prayer. The Rambam, Maimonides, is of the opinion that we are required to pray. This requirement is Mi’d’oraisa, Biblical in nature. The Ramban, Nachmanides, on the other hand, takes a very different approach. He feels that G-d never intended for prayer to be compulsory, that people pray to Him because He said they should. Prayer, in the eyes of the Ramban, is a gift from G-d. G-d gives us an opportunity to take advantage of the open line we have to Him at any time, in any place, regarding any matter.
Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa explained how prayer is truly a kindness from G-d. In the beginning of Bereishis (Genesis), we read of the curses that G-d meted out to Adam, Chava (Eve), and the snake upon their violating the prohibition against eating from the Eitz HaDa’as (the tree of knowledge). The snake received the punishment of “and the dust of the earth you shall eat all the days of your life.” Rav Simcha Bunim asked why this punishment is a curse. The snake, by virtue of this curse, was now a creature who would be able to subside on dirt. This being the case, the snake was now a creature who never had to look for or toil to obtain sustenance, as dirt is everywhere! How can this be a curse?
To answer the question, Rav Simcha Bunim focuses his attention on the curses that Adam and Chava received. To Adam, G-d said “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread.” To Chava, He said “With pains you shall give birth.” What follows from this is that if a man is having great difficulty sustaining himself, he can turn to G-d for help. If a woman is having a difficult time with childbirth, she can turn to G-d for help. While both man and woman have to endure hardship in order to achieve certain goals, they can both turn to G-d to ask for His assistance. Hashem wants us to ask Him for help when we need it. The process of asking helps to develop a bond between man and G-d. One should feel that he or she is asking a friend, someone who is close, caring, and willing to help. Hashem wants a close bond to exist between us and Him, and prayer is a way of creating and strengthening this bond.
The snake, unfortunately, has all of his needs provided for. He has nothing to ask of G-d. Anywhere he turns, he has what he needs. He has no hardships, and nothing to request G-d’s assistance with. Because he never has to turn to G-d, the snake will never have an opportunity to develop a relationship with G-d. He will never have ties of closeness with Hashem. Hashem does not want to have ties of closeness with him. For this reason, the fact that the snake will forever have a ready supply of sustenance is truly a curse.
During this time of the year, we are presented with numerous opportunities to pray, to come closer to G-d. As the Ramban said, prayer is a gift, a kindness from G-d. We should try not to feel uncomfortable when we pray. We should not feel burdened by the lengthy prayers. We should view the opportunity that we have in the upcoming weeks as a time when we can really ‘get close to Hashem.’ We should take advantage of this fantastic opportunity to speak with G-d. G-d very much wants to hear from us, and we should not let Him down.