In this week’s Parsha, Moshe Rabeinu describes how he prayed to Hashem on behalf of Aharon after the חטא העגל, the sin of the golden calf, begging Hashem to remove His wrath from his brother. ואתפלל גם בעד אהרן בעת ההיא – And I also [besides my prayers for the עם ישראל] prayed for Aharon at that time” (Dvarim 9:20). And a few פסוקים later, we find Moshe Rabeinu again turning to תפילה, prayer. ואתפלל אל ד׳ ואמר ד׳ אלוקים אל תשחת עמך – ‘And I prayed to Hashem [saying], ” Hashem O G-d, don’t destroy your nation…” (ibid. 9:26).
Now, we all know what the word תפלה means. It is part of our daily lives. We are a nation of מתפללים. In my first Shul we had a gentile neighbor, right next door to the Shul. And one afternoon, when we were gathering for Mincha, I heard him say, “What is it with these Jews?! All day, back and forth, back and forth, to the Synagogue. Don’t they ever finish praying?” And the answer is, no, we never finish praying. We are a people that are always davening.
But what does the word תפלה actually mean? In the Toras Hashem, where every word is calculated and precious, it surely behooves us to study this word ואתפלל. All the more so, when we see that it is a function that Moshe Rabeinu turned to again and again in his life of being an עבד ה׳. If Moshe Rabeinu used the opportunity of ואתפלל so often, then we should surely learn from his behavior and try to better understand the function of תפילה.
The word ואתפלל, if understood properly, is the key to unlocking the secret behind תפלה. The word תפילה in general, and the word ואתפלל in our Parsha, are both derived from the word פלל, “to think,” or “to contemplate,” as in ראה פניך לא פללתי – “I did not think to see your face” (Bereishis 48:11). And the reflexive form (התפעל) of the word, אתפלל, therefore means “I caused myself to think.”
A common misconception is that תפילה is for the purpose of making our entreaties and wishes heard by Hashem. We want something, we need something or we are distressed by something, so we cry out to Hashem, asking him to answer our prayers by providing us with our wants and needs, or by removing the cause of distress. We need something, and so we turn to Hashem, hoping that by approaching Him with our entreaties, He will find us worthy of having our prayers answered. And while that is to a certain extent true, it is a simple-minded and superficial understanding of תפילה.
It is important to understand that to have our prayers answered by Hashem, is not the primary purpose of תפילה. We turn to Hashem, not in order to make our needs heard, but primarily to impress upon ourselves, להתפלל, “to make ourselves think,” that Hashem is the sole source of our well-being. Much more important than the request being fulfilled, is to acquire the awareness, the awareness that it is Hashem, and only Him, Who is capable of fulfilling the request. Every single time that you turn to Hashem for every small thing that you need or want, you are becoming more and more perfect in the eyes of Hashem, because you are becoming more and more aware of Hashem. You might not notice the gradual change in your personality, but every תפילה – if said with thought – makes you greater and greater. And whether or not Hashem has answered your request according to what you hoped, you have gained a much more valuable gift – the gift of awareness of Hashem. And that gift, that success, will accompany you much further than anything you might have asked for.
In Mesichta P’sachim (118a) Chazal tell us the following about תפילה and its purpose: אמרה כנסת ישראל – רבונו של עולם, אימת אני אהובה לפניך? בזמן שתשמע קול תחנוני. “The Nation of Israel says – O Master of the World! When am I beloved by You? When You hear the voice of my entreaties.” The more we beseech Him, the more true knowledge we gain. And the more true knowledge we gain, the more Hashem loves us. Like Dovid Ha’melech expresses so clearly in Tehillim (147-11): רוצה ד׳ את יראיו את המיחלים לחסדו. “G-d desires those who recognize Him, those who hope to Him for His kindness.”
And I want you to know, that even when Hashem does answer your prayers in the way you had hoped for, it is not simply Hashem acceding to your request. It is much more than that. A תפילה that is answered is a form of encouragement that Hashem is sending to you, encouraging you to continue seeking Him out, through תפילה, in all areas of your life. Hashem is encouraging you as an incentive for you to continue your striving for awareness of Him. And that is because when Hashem sees that we are impressing upon ourselves the awareness that He is the All-Powerful One and that He is the sole source of the things we need, that is how we find favor in His eyes.
And sometimes Hashem will even bring misfortune upon a person in order to cause him to pray. Hashem will favor a wise person, one who is wise enough to use the opportunity, with suffering, in order to give him an opportunity for achieving an even greater awareness of Him. I’ll give you an example that you probably are familiar with, but one that is often misunderstood. There is a very queer phenomenon that is to be noted about our forefathers. “Sarai was barren, without a child” (Bereishis 11:30). “Isaac entreated G-d for his wife, for she was barren” (ibid. 25:19). “Rachel was barren” (ibid. 29:31). It surely is a noteworthy “coincidence” that the אבות and אמהות were harassed by such an adversity as childlessness. But really, it was a gift from Hashem. אמר רבי יצחק: מפני מה היו אבותינו עקורים? מפני שהקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים – Why were our forefathers and mothers childless? Because Hashem desires the prayers of the righteous” (Yevamos 64a). What does it mean that Hashem “desires” the prayers of the righteous? Does Hashem have any needs or desires? And why would Hashem, who is חפץ חסד, inflict pain upon the righteous because of His desires?
And the answer is this. There is no greater achievement in the world than awareness of Hashem. And the surest way to gain awareness of Him, is by speaking to Him directly. When a person needs something, and he approaches his Benefactor, he becomes more and more aware of his Benefactor. The additional True Knowledge which our אבות and אמהות gained by their prayers for offspring was a gift given to them because of their righteousness. And although they surely always called out to Hashem with the deepest devotion, even without this stimulus, but this lack of children caused them to pray even more fervently. Every added degree of awareness of Hashem is an added degree of greatness in True Knowledge. And that is the desire, the תאוה, of Hashem – the perfection of His children.
I was once visiting a talmid of mine in the hospital, and in the room where he was staying there was another patient – an elderly man who had just undegone surgery. And I remember, when his grandson, maybe it was his great-grandson, walked into the room to visit, he said, “Zaidy, was the surgery a success?” And I thought to myself, “However much of a success the surgery actually was – and ברוך ד׳ it was a success for that man – the primary purpose, the true purpose of that man’s heart failure and his need for surgery wasn’t because of the need for a new valve in his heart. The true purpose of his heart condition was so that he should call out to Hashem. Its true purpose was to give him an opportunity for greatness. And even if that man hadn’t lived, but if he had spent his last days, his last hours, asking Hashem for mercy, then it was a success, because that means he was wise enough to use the opportunity to make himself a success. And that’s what you’re living for – to make something out of yourself. An elderly man won’t always have so many more years to take advantage of the many small opportunities in life to become aware of Hashem. Nobody is going to live forever. You know, you don’t have to sign up with the chevra kadisha, the burial society. They will come to everyone whether you sign up or not. So sometimes, Hashem does you a favor and gives you a big opportunity for gaining awareness and perfection, before your opportunities cease forever. And therefore, the primary purpose of this man’s sickness and hospital stay was to encourage him to call out to Hashem. And by constantly beseeching Hashem for His help and His mercy, this man would make great strides forward in accomplishing the purpose for which he came into this world – to become more and more aware of the reality of Hashem.
Now, although we have said that misfortune is sometimes brought upon a person in order to stimulate him towards prayer and greater awareness of Hashem, it would be terribly wrong to believe that it is only those difficult situations where one finds this opportunity. On the contrary, if you listen to what I will explain now, you will understand that it is the normal day-to-day needs and difficulties that are the greatest opportunities for accomplishing the greatness inherent in the word אתפלל – “I cause myself to think.”
Did you ever wonder why the Mann fell down from the sky every day in the Wilderness? Why didn’t it fall once a week? הקדוש ברוך הוא could have just as well made enough Mann for the week fall down at the beginning of every week? Or even better; once a year. Why the need to go collect the Mann every day. It was a נס in any case, so why not just simplify it?
Now, that’s not my question. That’s the question that the תלמידים of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai asked of their Rebbi (Yoma 76a). And Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai didn’t think it was a foolish question. So let’s listen to the answer he gave them, as it is very important for our subject.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai gave the following mashal: There was a king who gave his son an allowance, an allowance for all of his day-to-day expenses. And he gave him the allowance once a year, in the beginning of every year. He wrote him a big check once a year. And what happened? The prince got busy spending the money. And he made sure, of course, to come back and visit his father. But only once a year. He came back once a year to pick up his check. Once a year! So what did the King do? He changed the allowance system. He told his son that from now on, he would have to come pick up his allowance once a day. Every morning, he would have to come back to pick up the day’s money. And what do you know, the prince found the time to come by and visit his father every day.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said that it was the same way in the Wilderness. A man had a family, with four or five little children. And children get hungry. Growing children eat a lot. And they complain when they get hungry. And every day the father of the house would worry: Will there be Mann tomorrow? Will I have what to feed my family? Don’t think that they were sure the Mann was coming the next day! Hashem was watching to see if they deserved it. So the father of the house would call out to Hashem. And the same thing was going on in all the tents in the Wilderness encampment. And what was the result, asks Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Everyone was thinking about Hashem. Everyone was turning to Hashem in prayer. נמצאו כולן מכוונים את לבם לאביהן שבשמים. Hashem was real. Hashem was always in the forefront of their minds. And that’s exactly why the generation of the Wilderness became great. The דור דעה was always aware of Hashem. Because when you are always turning towards Hashem in תפילה, then Hashem becomes real in your mind.
Have you ever paid attention to the interesting fact that cows don’t seem to have trouble making a decent living to support their large family of calves? A cow finds a patch of grass and can munch away happily for hours on end. No worries. No שלום בית problems for the bull and cow either. Have you ever heard about lions needing dental work that they can’t afford? Or trouble raising the children? Do cats have to spend years in the care of their parents learning how to navigate life? Now, I can go on for hours with examples, but you can already recognize this queer situation. We, the human race, created by Hashem as the pinnacle of the Universe and therefore so clearly more advanced than all life forms in the world, are for some strange reason beset by day to day difficulties and complications that we don’t find by any of the other creations. Hashem, the Perfect One, who created this world with His Perfect Wisdom, could have surely created man without the many obstacles that he faces. Why is it that every person, wealthy or poor, healthy or sick, young or old, is always facing adversity and struggles – either big or small, and usually both? In the typical day there are, without exaggeration, hundreds of events that can irk a person. Trouble at work. Stuck in traffic. A failing diet. Difficulties in school. Trouble with the car. A sharp word from a spouse. A child acting up. A difficult neighbor. Bills to pay. A toothache. Running late for the bus. The rent is overdue. I don’t have to explain to you – you’re well aware of the difficulties that everyone is facing all the time. No one is immune to it. Hashem, who created such a perfect world, with unfathomable Wisdom, chose Mankind for some reason, to be the one aspect of Creation where there are ever-present difficulties.
So let me tell you the reason for this seemingly strange phenomenon. And the answer is this. Cows have a certain purpose in this world. They were created to eat grass and miraculously turn that inexpensive green substance into milk and cheese and meat and leather. And they do that job perfectly. They fulfill their purpose here in this world exactly as planned by Hashem, without the need for them to experience any of the tribulations that we do face. And the same with all of the other creatures that Hashem created.
But we, the pinnacle of Creation, have a much more profound purpose than the cow – or any other creature. Our purpose during the limited amount of years that we are granted in this world, is to gain True Knowledge of the Presence of Hashem. To become more and more aware of Hashem – that’s why we are here. And when we turn to Hashem in prayer, we are not merely begging for the things that we want. It’s much more profound than that. We are being מתפלל – we are “causing ourselves to think.” When we speak to Hashem frequently, and when we address Him with the direct “You”, and we stand before Him and bow down to Him in thanksgiving and humility, we are being confronted with Him in a way which engenders the True Knowledge of Hashem – the True Knowledge that we were created to achieve.
All of these struggles, all of the complications and obstacles, are sent to us as an opportunity for greatness. Not only the more serious events in your life, such as a sickness, an eviction or a loss of a job חלילה. Even the small things that you face every day, and all day. Running to catch a bus. A small cut on your leg. A hard night’s sleep. Struggling with a bad מדה. A slight headache. These struggles are all intended as a goads that prod us towards the encounters and engagements with Hashem that make us more aware of Him in a most tangible way. Every small challenge that you face is actually challenging you to speak directly to Hashem and achieve greatness. Of course, you have to do what you have to do in this world to overcome the difficulties. Of course you should take the car to the mechanic. And yes, you’ll have to spend time learning a parnasa and looking through the classifieds for a job. Of course you must make an appointment at the dentist to fill the cavity. Every adversity must be handled and overcome in whatever practical way possible. And don’t be lazy about that at all. But don’t lose sight of the true and ultimate purpose of this struggle – the purpose of turning to Hashem and becoming more aware of Him. If you go to the mechanic and get your car fixed, or to the dentist and get your cavity filled but you stop there – you don’t turn to Hashem for His help, then you have failed in taking advantage of the opportunity, and you have lost the opportunity to achieve the actual purpose of that event in your life. And you have failed in achieving your true purpose in life.
And therefore, every time you take a medication – not only for a serious ailment, but even just an aspirin for a headache – Chazal tell us (Brachos 60a; Orach Chaim 130) that we should say a prayer to Hashem, asking him to make the medication be effective. יהי רצון מלפניך ד׳ אלוקי שיהא עסק זה לי לרפואה. It is of utmost importance to ask Hashem for His help. Don’t just mumble the words. One of the important purposes of the headache is to cojole you to stop and think. You’re turning to Hashem in תפלה in order to strengthen your awareness that only He is the one who heals. Don’t waste the golden opportunity.
When we set out on the road to travel between cities, we make sure to say תפלת הדרך, asking Hashem to watch us and protect us from any dangerous people or incidents on the way. Of course, we need Hashem to watch over us. But much more than that, we need to know that we need Hashem to watch over us. And when you stand before Hashem and ask Him to protect you from the crazy drivers or from any other dangerous people you might meet up with, you are being מתפלל – you are causing yourself to contemplate the truth that you are completely in the hands of Hashem.
And therefore, even when you are not technically required to say תפלת הדרך – even if you’re not travelling far enough between cities – you should still make sure to be מתפלל, to cause yourself to think and recognize that you need His help to be successful and to be safe. We are being taught here that every situation we face, no matter how minor, no matter how small, is an opportunity for greatness. Every situation is an opportunity for creating the true ציור in your mind that Hashem is real. And more than the safe and successful road trip, and more than successful medical treatment, and more than the successful business meeting that you prayed for – your biggest success will be your awareness of Hashem.
However, the greatness that is to be found in תפלה can only be achieved through constant and consistent words and thoughts. Every time you are looking for that elusive parking spot, you should be talking to Hashem. “Hashem, please help me find the parking spot that I want.” And then say it again. Over and over again. And each time you say it, you are impressing even deeper into your mind that only Hashem is the one who provides parking spots. Don’t laugh, because that is the truth. And if you daven for it, you’ll begin to realize this truth. And then you’re becoming great while looking for parking.
And the opportunities are as endless as the moments in your life. Every time you daven, and you say אתה חונן – You Hashem are the One who grants me wisdom and the ability to think. All day long you’re saying אתה – You Hashem are the source everything! And all day long you’re becoming more and more aware that Hashem is אחד – that He is the sole provider of anything that we have or want.
Every small degree of awareness of Hashem is immensely valuable. Moshe Rabeinu believed in Hashem. He believed in Hashem more than any of our great men. Hashem spoke with him פנים אל פנים. Of course he believed. But he also knew that every added degree of the True Knowledge of the Awareness of Hashem would be his biggest success. And therefore at every opportunity that he found, he was מתפלל to Hashem. He caused himself to think about Hashem and His omnipotence again and again and again. His brother, Aharon had incurred the wrath of Hashem, and Moshe Rabeinu used the opportunity to become great. ואתפלל אל ה׳ בעת ההיא. “And I caused myself to think about Hashem at that time.” Another added level of awareness of Hashem. And when the בני ישראל sinned, the same thing. ואתנפל לפני ד׳ את ארבעים היום ואת ארבעים הלילה. “And I fell before Hashem in prayer for forty days and forty nights” (ibid. 9:25). Forty days and forty nights of thinking about Hashem and His greatness! And that’s how Moshe Rabeinu became so great. Because he understood that every situation he faced, every big and small need, was an opportunity to be מתפלל to Hashem and become greater by becoming more aware of Hashem.
And that greatness is accessible to all of us. Hashem has purposefully created us as the most needy creatures in the world, as an impetus so that we should feel the need to turn to Him and become aware of Him. And our greatness is assured as long as we walk the beaten path of ואתפלל גם בעד אהרן בעת ההיא. Every עת, every moment, is your great opportunity to be מתפלל אל ד׳ – to cause yourself to think about Hashem. And every עת, every instance of need, is therefore your personal opportunity for greatness in this world.