By Dr. 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
straightforward; 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 reads our parsha's first pasuk as:
"Va'eschanan" [I prepared myself for prayer] ... "laymor" [and then I
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 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 matnas chinam.
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. . Tefila
can initiate interaction with HaShem in which He takes over, and the
person can let go, becoming a passive participant in the prayer
dynamic. The Sfas Emes gives us a meta-pshat to help us absorb what he is
saying. He views the word "Va'eschanan" as a nif'al (passive--probably an
Aramaic Ispa'el) construction. This lets us read "Va'eschanan" as : " I
was prayed." Surely, this is the ultimate in prayer as total dependence on
Indeed, a 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 he came to request .
Thus, we end with a unique perspective, in which we rely on HaShem to put
the right words in our mouths. And lest you think that this perspective
is "extreme " or too Chassidische, the Sfas Emes quotes a pasuk in Mishlei
(16: 1): 'Le'ahdam me'archei lev; u'mei HaShem ma'aneh lashon". That
is: "A person has his thoughts about what to say; but what he actually
says comes from HaShem." Truly what the Sfas Emes has been telling us.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.