Prayer is a very personal thing, and it means many things to many different people. Nevertheless, there is a perspective which we learn from this week’s parsha which may qualitatively enhance our time we spend in prayer.
After the dramatic events which lead to Yaakov and his son Yoseif reuniting, the Torah describes the things Yaakov does near the time of his passing away. Yoseif is summoned to his father Yaakov with the news that his father is ill. Yoseif brings his two sons, Efraim and Menashe with him, so that they may receive Yaakov’s blessing. Yaakov brings them close; hugs them and kisses them, and exclaims “I never thought it possible that I might see you (again), and G-d has even shown me your children” (Genesis 48:11).
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th cent. Frankfurt) comments on Yaakov’s words. “I had not thought possible.” Rabbi Hirsch points out that the root word for “thought possible”, “Peelail” (Pey, Lamed, Lamed), is related the word “Tefilah”, prayer. The root word is also phonetically related to the word “Beelail,” which means mixing two substances together to make them one. For example, if one mixes water with flour, the mixture results in a new substance; dough. The two substances don’t remain separate entities, such as when mixing oil with water.
Rabbi Hirsch teaches us that “Beelail” (mixing) is to material substance what “Peelail” is to ideas, thoughts, facts, or principles. Hence, prayer, in the Jewish sense means “to penetrate oneself ever afresh again, with eternal, everlasting truths and facts”, to prevent them from becoming unclear and obscure in one’s mind and heart. According to this explanation, prayer is not from within outward, but from without inward. It is a time of reflection on truths, which in turn become part of our essential being. This is the reason why Jewish Prayer involves the use of a liturgy, and not just spontaneously pouring out one’s heart in prayer. Of course, there is a prominent place for spontaneous prayer as well, but even the nature of that form of prayer will be different when practiced by someone who embodies the truths which Rabbi Hirsch mentions. The liturgy is filled with ideas and perspectives which with daily review, makes us the embodiment of the principles and ideals which we live by. Rabbi Hirsch also points out that this is the nature of communal prayer. If prayer was only from within outward, it would only need to be practiced when one is moved by the desire to pray, which precludes communal prayer.
Another attitude toward prayer is written in the book Nesivos Shalom, by Rabbi Shalom Noach Bresovsky. He illustrates a point using the following parable. A king who was celebrating a joyous occasion decreed that all requests from subjects would be granted. Some requested honor, and others riches. All requests were honored. One subject asked only to have the opportunity to have an audience with the king three times daily. The king was so moved and flattered by the request that he granted it as well as that the treasures should be opened, and this subject should be allowed to help himself to its contents. We can learn to have the same attitude toward prayer as this subject did toward being with his king. That is, just to value the opportunity to have an audience with The King. If this is our attitude in prayer, then we may hope that G-d will treasure our prayers and meditations, and may He open his treasures and grant us our requests for our good.