How to Pray – In Memoriam of Mr. David M. Warren (Menachem Dovid ben Harav Yosef Z’L)
How one Prays
“And Jacob said, ‘G-d of my father, Abraham, and G-d of my father, Isaac, Hashem who said to me, return to your land and to your birthplace and I will do good by you . . . Please save me from the hand of my brother, the hand of Esau.” (Genesis 32:10-14)
Thirty-two years earlier, Jacob had tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing meant for Esau, the firstborn. At the time, “Esau said in his heart, the days of my father grow near and I will kill my brother, Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41)
Now, Esau was approaching with four hundred men. Jacob prays to Hashem, “Please save me.”
Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Gerona, Spain; 1194-1270) asks, why did Jacob need to pray for something that G-d had already guaranteed him? In fact, as Jacob recounts in his prayer, G-d twice promised Jacob to do good by him. Genesis 31 & 28
Nachmanides answers that Jacob’s prayer wasn’t an expression of doubt but humility of a the future guarantee. “I have become small from all the kindnesses and all the truths that you have done for your servant.” (Genesis 32:11) Meaning, G-d had already done so much that Jacob felt he had no right to expect any more, despite G-d’s promises.
Rabeinu Bechaya (13th Century) takes this a step further and declares that Jacob was never entitled to G-d’s generosity. Nobody is ever entitled. Everything we have, our lives, our health, our possessions, our family and friends, we deserve none of it. There is nothing we did or can do that would entitle us to any of G-d’s gifts. Everything we have is solely through G-d’s kindness.
Despite G-d’s promises, Jacob prayed from the point of view that he was unworthy of salvation. “I have become small . . . Please save me.”
Rabeinu Bechaya teaches us a critical lesson regarding prayer. If Jacob our forefather, an exceedingly righteous person who was twice promised G-d’s protection, felt unworthy to be saved from his brother, then how are we to approach G-d when we have not reached the level of Jacob and have not received any promises of well-being? How do we, who have already received so much from G-d, approach the Almighty in prayer?
Like Jacob, we must first recognize that we, too, have “become small from all the kindnesses,” that we are both undeserving and profoundly grateful for the gifts we have already received. Second, we fully understand that nothing comes from the power of our own hands or from others but that everything comes from G-d and we are deserving of nothing. And only then, once we have plumbed the depths of humility, should we ask G-d for more.
Is this to suggest that, having failed to reach such levels of humility, we shouldn’t pray? Certainly not. We should always pray to Hashem in times of need and times of thanks. The question is how. “I have become small from all the kindnesses and all the truths . . . Please save me.”