What's Required for Our Prayers to Be Accepted and Answered?

What's Required for Our Prayers to Be Accepted and Answered?
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As we stand on the threshold of the new year, our thoughts go back over the calamitous events of the previous year and the year before, both in Israel and abroad, and we seek to redouble and reintensify our t’filloth (prayers) as never before, in hope that our people might finally merit a shnath rachamim vi-yeshu’ôth, a year of mercy and salvation, of respite from our cruel and implacable enemies. In this connection, I should like to share an insight which has come to mean a great deal to me over the last fifteen months, an êtza tova as to how to make our prayers truly heartfelt.

To put the need in proper perspective, consider what the Torah tells us of the dawn of the Jewish nation. As our ancestors languished in Egyptian bondage, we read: Va-yehi ba-yamim ha-rabbim ha-hém…va-yé’anchu bnei Yisra’él min ha-âvoda va-yiz’âqu, va-ta’âl shav’âtham el ha-Eloqim min ha-âvoda. Va-yishma Eloqim eth na’aqatham, va-yizkor Eloqim eth britho eth Avraham, eth Yitzchaq, v’eth Ya’âqov. Va-yar’ Eloqim eth bnei Yis-ra’él va-yéda Eloqim (“And the bnei Yisra’él groaned from the labor and cried out, and their outcry rose up to G-d from the labor, and G-d heard their outcry and He remembered His covenant with Avraham, Yitzchaq, and Ya’aqov. And G-d saw the bnei Yisra-’él and G-d knew”; Exodus II,23- 25).

Za’âqu mi-k’év lév âl âvodatham, says the Sforno; they cried out in heartfelt pain because of their exertions. Yet note that there is a process involved here: The outcry went up to  G-d, G-d heard the outcry, G-d remembered His covenant with the illustrious ancestors, saw their suffering, knew that they were suffering – but, apparently, did nothing. Why did Ha-Shem rachum v’chanun, the merciful and gracious G-d, not accept their t’filla immediately, and immediately send the necessary rescue? It is only later that we find Him ordering Moshe: V’âtta hinneh tz’âqath bnei Yisra’él ba’a élai….V’âtta lecha v’eshlachacha el Par’ô v’hotzé eth âmmi bnei Yisra’él mi-Mitzrayim (“And now, the outcry of the bnei Yisra’él has come to Me….And now, go and I shall send you to Pharaoh, and bring out My people the bnei Yisra’él from Egypt”; III,9-10). As the Rashbam points out, they had been crying throughout all of ha-yamim ha-rabbim ha-hém, those many days that they had been in servitude; why did the salvation take so long?

The Sforno makes two insightful observations: When the outcry “went up to G-d,” he writes, it was lo bi-shvil t’shuvatham u-th’fillatham, not because of their repentance and supplication. Their t’filla, their prayer, was ineffectual; the outcry rose up only min ha-âvoda, he goes on, âl achzariyuth ha-ma’âvidim (“because of the cruelty of the[ir] employers,” i.e. the Egyptians). The fundamental sense of Divine justice was offended and outraged (whence the exclusive use of the Divine name Eloqim, indicative of justice), but mercy was not awakened. The cruel acts of the Egyptians were meaningful, but Israel’s prayers, per se, were not.

Moshe only came to be sent to the rescue later, he writes, “now” (as the verse emphasizes) because at that point, finally, their outcry was kullo emeth…she-qibbalti eth t’filla-tham mé-achar she-qar’uni be-emeth, v’lo âl derech “va-yefattuhu b’fihem” (“entirely truth…For I accepted their prayer because they called Me in truth, and not in the manner of ‘and they seduced Him with their mouths’”).

The Sforno here is referring to a passage in Psalms: Va-yefattuhu b’fihem uvi-lshonam yechazvu lo. V’libbam lo nachon îmmo v’lo ne’emnu bi-vritho (“And they seduced Him with their mouths and with their tongues they deceived Him. And their hearts were not right with Him and they were not faithful in His covenant”; LXXVIII,36-37). If we look up the passage, we find that the commentators agree that it is speaking of prayer which is correct in form, that uses the right words, but is not 110% from the heart (cf. e.g. Rashi, Even Êzra, and Metzudath David ad loc.). The Sforno is telling us that the bnei Yisra’él had to suffer yamim rabbim, until they finally reached the point at which the outpouring of their hearts came to match the intensity of all the fine words passing through their lips, until they had finally come to call on Ha-Shem be-emeth.

So what of us?

We ask three times daily for the downfall of our enemies, for the restoration of our kingdom, for the re-establishment of our judges, of the Béyth ha-Miqdash, for our return to Tziyyon, and what has it got us? This season, Chazal tell us, is especially an êth ratzon, a propitious time to beg for Ha-Shem’s mercy, to seek an end to our sufferings. How can we achieve the shivyon ha-peh v’ha-lév, the equality of intensity between mouth and heart, which the Sforno tells us in so many words is required for our prayers to be accepted and answered?

So here is the êtza whose efficacy I have been learning at some pain over the last year.

Commenting on Orach Chayyim 122:2 concerning our thrice-daily recitation of the Shmoneh Êsreh, the Mishna Brura quotes the great 19th century rabbi of Danzig, the Chayyei Adam: Nachon v’ra’uy l’chol adam l’hithpallél b’chol yom b’yichud âl tzrachav u-farnassatho, v’she-lo yamush ha-Torah mi-piv v’zar’ô v’zera zar’ô, v’she-yihyu kol yotz’ei cheltzav ôvdei Ha-Shem be-emeth, v’she-lo yimtza chas v’shalom psul b’zar’ô, v’chol ma she-yodéa b’libbo âl tzrachav u-farnassatho she-tzarich lo; v’im éyno yodéa l’dabbér tzachoth bi-lshon ha-qodesh yomrenna af bi-lshon Ashknaz, raq she-yihyeh mi-qiroth libbo (“It is correct and proper for every person to pray each day especially for his needs and his living, and that the Torah not depart from his mouth and from his children and from his children’s children, and that all his descendants be true servants of Ha-Shem, and that he not find anything wrong with his children, G-d forbid, and everything which he knows in his heart of his needs and his living which he needs; and if he does not know how to speak eloquently in the Holy Language, let him say it even in German [the Chayyei Adam’s native language], just that it be from the walls of his heart”).

There is the êtza. We have to daven for ourselves. If we do not ask G-d, constantly and daily, to supply us with our needs for health, prosperity, success in learning, the success of our children, and so on, then how can we claim to believe in Ha-Shem as the source of all these good things? Why should He pay any attention to all of the fine words composed by Chazal which we utter three times a day? After all, do we really mean what we are saying? Do we really want what we are asking for, or expect G-d to deliver it?

The Chayyei Adam is not saying that we should not utter those prayers. But by accompanying them with our own heartfelt entreaties for ourselves and those close to us we lend them weight, poignancy, credence. If we sincerely ask for the simple, down-to-earth, daily needs, then maybe we mean the others sincerely, too.

In closing, it is worthy of note that the séfer Kol Kithvei he-Chafétz Chayyim records in the name of his son that the saintly author of the Mishna Brura (whose output of dozens of works in Hebrew surely demonstrates his fluency in the Holy Language) took the advice of the Chayyei Adam very much to heart, and was often heard by guests in his house or those fortunate enough to daven near him speaking to G-d simply and humbly in Yiddish, k’vén ha-mithchatté li-fnei aviv (“like a son seeking forgiveness from his father”).

Try it! Try spicing the many beautiful t’filloth this yom tov with your personal requests, and see the difference that it makes in your kavvana.

I can personally attest that it works.