The Nefesh Hachaim (2:11) shows that just as the tefilla for Rosh Hashana mentions lofty concepts regarding Hashem’s rule, so too, every day — the main prayers really concern Hashem. (His malchus should be revealed, Amalek should be destroyed, etc.) The “Kaddish” and “Baruch Sheim Kavod…” as well, are prayers for Hashem’s names.
The Koach of Tefilla
Yet, davening accomplishes on earth; it has the power to change the nature of the world. On the Gemara “Ein Mazal B’yisrael” (Shabbos 156a), Rashi explains that there is a natural order to the world (“mazal”). However, the tzadik, through his tefillos, may be able to override nature. This is also discussed by several commentaries in Mo’ed Katon 18b. (See Ritva, Ron and Rashi B’ein Yaakov — through prayer and zechusim one may change his destiny.)
Avraham and Sara were able to have children when it no longer seemed possible. Sara was chastised when she did not accept the strangers’ blessing that she would bear a child (See Ohel Moshe p.357). Yishmael’s cries and Eliezer’s wishes were miraculously answered.
Service — or Personal Requests?
The Alter of Kelm (Chochma Umussar, 2:1) asked several piercing questions about davening: 1. In our tefillos we beseech mercy (Avos 2:13; B’rochos 29b). How is this consistent with avoda — “service?” (1) What service do we accomplish by requesting personal needs? After all, the avoda is called “fulfilling a higher purpose.” (2)
2. What are we trying to do by davening when we have problems? The rule is that we serve whether we are in pain or not — so why should we ask that our problems be relieved? Quite the contrary: the more challenges we have — the greater should be the joy, because we can show the strength of our emuna! If so, why should we daven that the tzaros go away?
3. Further — Hashem knows what we need far better than we ourselves know. Why should we tell Hashem what we think we need?
We must say that tefilla is avoda; the main avoda is built on faith in Hashem’s hashgacha — His care for us. However, it’s very difficult to perceive Hashem’s watchfulness. We are trained to think that our toil and effort produce our profits, not Hashem’s concern for us.
The tefilla is to help us visualize that we are in the hand of Hashem. (3) Pleading before Hakadosh Baruch Hu reminds us that Hashem is the only one who can help us. In truth, though, we don’t really know what is good for ourselves, and we have to trust that Hashem will do what is best for us.
Is it Permissible to Ask for Ourselves?
How are we permitted to ask for our own needs? (4) As stated, this too, is part of Hashem’s service; in this way we recall that everything is up to Hashem. However, there is some ambiguity here. We come before Hashem’s presence to beseech Him, but we request that our tzaros be resolved. If so, we are asking that it should not be necessary to come before Hashem! This is not seemly; it should be our greatest honor to approach Hakadosh Baruch Hu!
Resolution of Tzaros Enables Our Focus
We must remember that the main service is for the “higher purpose.” We beseech Hashem that He solve our problems — so that we can focus on the “higher purpose.”
For this reason, Chazal say that we should daven before the tzaros come. When they have already come, it is very difficult not to be overwhelmed by the tzaros — and then it is hard to remember that the avoda is to “fulfill a higher need.”
1) “Tefilla is the service of the heart,” (Ta’anis, 2a). Also, the tefillos were decreed in place of the korbanos. B’rochos 26b. See the commentary Bacharta Bachaim to Nefesh Hachaim, p. 142 note 4.
2) See Nefesh Hachaim, Shaar 2, chapter 10.
3) See Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, part 3, chapter 44. However, Yismach Moshe, Eikev, p. 106b, quotes Tola’as Yaakov as disagreeing.
4) See further, Nefesh Hachaim, Shaar 2, chapter 11, and commentary Bacharta Bachaim notes 2-4.