This Dvar Torah was written by Mrs. Lori Palatnik. She is the Rebbetzin of The Village Shul in Toronto, Ontario.
Prayer. How do we relate to prayer? Is it something only children do at bedtime? Is prayer reserved for services in synagogue? Why do we pray? Should we pray? Why is prayer considered one of the fundamental pillars of Judaism? Many questions. Let us look at this week’s parsha and try and derive some answers.
In VaYishlach, we find Yaakov receiving the news that his wicked and vengeful brother, Esav, (who, we remember from last week’s parsha had threatened to kill him), is planning to arrive with 400 of his men.
Rashi, the foremost commentator on the Torah, points out that upon hearing the news, Yaakov has three choices before him: to appease Esav through gifts; to prepare for war with him; and to pray.
Yaakov chose to utilize all three options, but the order in which he chose to implement them is significant– especially, when he chose to use prayer. Rashi notes that clearly Yaakov chose to prepare for battle first by dividing his people, only then did he pray, and then he sent gifts.
It seems surprising that Yaakov, one of the Fathers of The Fathers of The Jewish People, who was connected with The Almighty and fully understood the power of prayer, would not immediately turn to G-d for help.
Another familiar story where the Jewish People do turn to G-d first, is the at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. Remember, the Egyptians were behind them and the sea was in front of them. What did they do? They prayed. They asked G-d to help them. And what did He answer? “Speak to the Children of Yisrael that they should move on.” The Midrash relates that Nachshon Ben Aminadov began to walk into the sea. He walked deeper and deeper, and before the sea engulfed him, it dramatically split.
And in this we find an important insight into what prayer is all about. G-d responds to us based on our choices. Belief in the power of prayer is also the belief in our responsibility to make the supreme effort. Prayers are meaningful and effective when preceded by serious action and intent. G-d creates a situation where we are faced with a choice, because through that conflict and choice we have the ability to grow and realize our true potentials. Yes, we need His help, but to sit around and pray for everything in life, without ever making our effort in all areas, is to misread why the situation happened in the first place.
Prayer is also the confirmation of the Jewish concept of The Almighty as a personal G-d. Relating to Him should be a daily part of one’s life, and not just reserved for a special occasion or a pressing situation. One doesn’t have to be in shul, and it doesn’t have to be in Hebrew.
Prayer is talking to G-d. It can be in English, Chinese, Spanish, or whatever language one feels most comfortable. G-d understands and wants to hear our prayers. Don’t make the mistake of going to synagogue and saying hello to friends, neighbors and rabbi, and walking out, having forgotten to say hello to The Creator.
Yet G-d does not need our prayers. He doesn’t need anything. He has no needs; He can only give. No, G-d doesn’t need our prayers, but we do. Through prayer we recognize our Creator and come close to Him. And, being close to G-d is the ultimate pleasure.
When we pray, we focus on the fact that G-d is our Father, Giver of all. We ask for whatever we aspire to in life; whatever we need. Nothing is too big, and nothing is too small. We are not bothering G-d, and we are not using up His attention.
Rabbi Noah Weinberg once asked someone if they ever prayed. He said, “Rabbi, I pray every day.” “Really,” repied Reb Noah. “Did G-d ever answer your prayers?” “Are you kidding? He answers every prayer!” said the man. “Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes it’s no.”
When G-d answers, “No”, we should ask ourselves, what is G-d telling me? What am I to learn from this? What is the message? And keep asking. We should fill our prayers with praise and thanks for all that G-d gives us, and ask for things for our own lives, and for the lives of others.
But never forget the lesson of Yaakov. We must also make efforts in our own lives and know that G-d is there, protecting us, sustaining us, and watching over us with love.