An Attitude Promoting Meaningful Prayer and Happiness
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
In Parshat Vaetchanan, Moses beseeches God to allow him entry into the The Holy Land, Eretz Yisrael. Moses describes his prayer with the unusual Hebrew verb ‘vaetchanan’. Rashi explains that this term ‘vaetchanan’ refers to prayer with a particular attitude – an attitude of being undeserving and unentitled. He explains that although the righteous could base their prayers on the merit of their good deeds, they pray before God as undeserving people. The essence of prayer emanates from a feeling of humility and dependence on God’s benevolence.
Rashi explains that Moses learned this attitude to prayer from God’s statement ‘And I will give favor to whom I choose to give favor, and I will be compassionate to whom I choose to be compassionate.’ The Talmud explains that Moses was perplexed by the age old question of the righteous suffering and the wicked prospering. God did not answer him and stated: ‘I will give favor to whom I choose to give favor’ – even if he/she is not deserving. This verse seems to have nothing at all to do with one’s attitude in prayer. How did Moses learn from this that one should pray with a sense of un-entitlement?
I would like to suggest the following answer. God taught Moses that at times, for reasons known to God alone, God will choose to bestow His goodness upon someone who is completely undeserving. Moses understood that asking God, based on one’s merits, diminishes the likelihood of one’s prayers being accepted. Can one be sure that one’s merits are, in fact, sufficient to have a particular request answered? It is preferable to ask God unconditionally, thus ‘allowing’ God to answer in the affirmative even if we are not deserving. In truth, our sages explain that there is nothing we could ever do to repay God for our mere existence. Therefore, praying based on our merits is nonsensical.
Our existence, per say, is a gift of grace that we don’t merit or deserve. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes that internalizing this concept is one of the keys to living a happy life. When one feels that one is not really entitled to anything, one views everything as a gift. One can then really appreciate one’s blessing and live with the attitude of gratitude.
Friends, at times like these when we pray desperately for peace in the Land of Israel, let us appeal to God’s compassion and pray: ‘God, we know that we are not deserving, nonetheless we beseech you to be compassionate towards our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel and throughout the world.’