By Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Parshas Va'eschanan, 5631 & 5639
This parsha begins with Moshe Rabbeinu davening to HaShem. So it comes as
no surprise that the first paragraph of Medrash Rabba on the parsha
focuses on the subject of tefila (prayer). So, too, the Sfas Emes also
concentrates today on the topic of prayer.
The Medrash begins by quoting a statement of R. Yochanan. He tells us
that "The Torah uses ten different words to refer to prayer." These ten
synonyms include "hischanen" (pleading), "tze'aka" (crying out), and eight
others. R. Yochanan's statement seems totally straightorward; and a
person might be tempted to skip ahead to more innovative material.
Fortunately, the Sfas Emes did not skip ahead, but instead, gave the
matter some thought. His cogitation led the Sfas Emes to ask a basic (and
startling) question. The Hebrew word most often used to refer to prayer
is 'tefila'. But, notes the Sfas Emes, the word tefila is not included in
R. Yochanan's list of ten synonyms for prayer!
Not only does the Sfas Emes pose a fundamental question on R'Yochanan's
statement, but thoughtfully, he also provides an answer. In true Sfas Emes
fashion, his answer leads him -- and us -- to a paradox. That apparent
inconsistency, in turn, leads him -- and us -to a radical new insight.
And not to just any insight, but to an insight that can help us in our
avoda, our service to HaShem.
The Sfas Emes tells us that the key feature of prayer is not prayer
itself, but rather preparing oneself for prayer. In that vein, the Sfas
Emes reads the ten terms that the Medrash lists not as referring to prayer
itself, but rather to "hachanos" (preparations) for prayer. Thus, the Sfas
Emes explains, the ten terms listed refer to ten avenues and suggested
aids ("derachim v'eitzos") conducive to reaching a state in which one is
truly in contact with HaShem. In that perspective, the Sfas Emes works
with the fact that our prasha's first word --: "Va'eschanan" -is
consturcted in " banyan his'pael"-i.e., as a reflexive verb ; that is.
an action word, in a context in which the subject of thr verb does
something to himself. Question : Who is doing what to themself.
Answer: Moshe Rabeinu is telling us that before he davened, he prepared
himslf for prayer ("Va'eschanan " ) .And only after the preparation. did
he progress to "laymor"" [and then I prayed] .
If the hachanos for prayer are more important than prayer itself, the
implication for our avoda is clear. Prayer is not about presenting our
wish list to HaShem. Prayer is about focusing our attention on our
relationship with Him. As we concentrate our thoughts on that
relationship, we can achieve a sense of awe (yir'ah) and perhaps of love
(ahava) for HaShem.
How does a person prepare for prayer? Getting into the right mindset
requires both one's own efforts and -- perhaps surprisingly -- help from
HaShem. On the latter point, the Sfas Emes quotes a pasuk in Tehillim
(10:17): "Tach'in li'bam; tak'shiv ahz'necha" (ArtScroll: "Guide their
hearts; let Your ear be attentive.") But a person's own efforts to open a
channel are also crucial. Thus, the Sfas Emes tells us that a person may
even use merrirus (bitterness) as his avenue to real tefila.
Real tefila is an outpouring of one's heart to be in contact with HaShem.
A person who is davening in earnest recognizes his total dependence on
HaShem. Rashi (following the Sifri on the parsha's first pasuk) makes an
imporant observation in this context. He notes that even though tzadikim
have many good deeds to their credit, when they daven, they do not rely on
those credentials. On the contrary, they petition HaShem for "matnas
chinam " (a pure gift -- one for which nothing is given in exchange).
Why so? Because of the basic fact of life just noted: that true tefila
entails recognizing one's total dependence on HaShem. In such a one-way
relationship, there is no place for a quid pro quo, (a "this for that")
deal negotiated with HaShem.
The Sfas Emes takes us further in his examination of prayer. He reports a
comment of the Kotzker Rebbe which essentially raises the question of "Why
pray? The Kotzker prefaced his comment with a quote from Iyov (41:
3): "Mi hik'dimami va'ashaleim". In the present context, this pasuk
translates roughly as HaShem saying to Iyov: "Don't I always pay my debts
on time? And since my books are always up-to-date, what scope is open for
tefila to change events?" Phrased more sharply, the Kotzker said: the
fact that a person has to approach HaShem to ask for something implies
that the person does not deserve that something. For, if the person truly
deserved that something, he would not have to pray for it.
The Sfas Emes addresses the Kotzker's question by taking us back to to the
word "Va'eschanan". Working "bederech remez" (allusion) he notes that the
letters of the word "va'eschanan" can be rearranged to make two key
words: "hachana" (preparation) and "chinam" (a free gift). The Sfas Emes
uses both of these resonating words to bring home his earlier remarks
about prayer. As we have seen, a person must approach prayer with
hachana. In that hachana, a person recognizes how little HaShem owes him
and; hence, how much would fulfilling his request be in the nature of
The Sfas Emes sees the prayer situation as follows. Realistically
speaking, a person starts his davening with a bakasha (a personal
request). But as the person gets into his/ her davening, the person can
be swept away into a deeper conversation with HaShem. The Sfas Emes gives
us a meta-pshat to help us understand what he is saying. He reads the
word "Va'eschanan" as a nif'al (passive) construction. Thus, tefila can
initiate interaction with HaShem in which He takes over, and the person
can let go, becoming a passive participant in the prayer process. Indeed,
the person can be so swept away that he forgets about his bakasha . His
tefila becomes so much leSheim Shamayim (focused only on the glory of
HaShem) that HaShem has to remind the person what it was he came to
request ! The Sfas Emes helps us absorb this unique perspective by
providing a non--pshat reading of a pasuk in Mishlei (16: 1) which speaks
of speech : 'Le'ahdam me'archei lev; umei HaShem ma'aneh lashon". That
is: A person has his thoughts about what to say; but what he actually says
comes from HaShem.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.