During the month of Elul, and on the High Holidays of Rosh HaShana and Yom
Kippur, we spend much time in prayer. In Elul, we say special prayers
called "Selichos" in preparation for our day of judgment. On Rosh HaShana,
our prayers are considerably longer than those on othe holidays. On Yom
Kippur, practically the entire day is spent in prayer. Because of the great
emphasis on prayer at this time of the year, it is helpful to gain a little
perspective on what is the role of prayer.
There is a dispute between two great scholars regarding the nature of
prayer. The Rambam, Maimonides, is of the opinion that we are required to
pray. This requirement is Mi'd'oraisa, Biblical in nature. The Ramban,
Nachmanides, on the other hand, takes a very different approach. He feels
that G-d never intended for prayer to be compulsory, that people pray to
Him because He said they should. Prayer, in the eyes of the Ramban, is a
gift from G-d. G-d gives us an opportunity to take advantage of the open
line we have to Him at any time, in any place, regarding any matter.
Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa explained how prayer is truly a kindness from
G-d. In the beginning of Bereshis (Genesis), we read of the curses that G-d
meted out to Adam, Chava (Eve), and the snake upon their violating the
prohibition against eating from the Eitz HaDa'as (the tree of knowledge).
The snake received the punishment of "and the dust of the earth you shall
eat all the days of your life." Rav Simcha Bunim asked why this punishment
is a curse. The snake, by virtue of this curse, was now a creature who
would be able to subside on dirt. This being the case, the snake was now a
creature who never had to look for or toil to obtain sustenance, as dirt is
everywhere! How can this be a curse?
To answer the question, Rav Simcha Bunim focuses his attention on the
curses that Adam and Chava received. To Adam, G-d said "By the sweat of
your brow you shall eat bread." To Chava, He said "With pains you shall
give birth." What follows from this is that if a man is having great
difficulty sustaining himself, he can turn to G-d for help. If a woman is
having a difficult time with childbirth, she can turn to G-d for help.
While both man and woman have to endure hardship in order to achieve
certain goals, they can both turn to G-d to ask for His assistance. Hashem
wants us to ask Him for help when we need it. The process of asking helps
to develop a bond between man and G-d. One should feel that he or she is
asking a friend, someone who is close, caring, and willing to help. Hashem
wants a close bond to exist between us and Him, and prayer is a way of
creating and strengthening this bond.
The snake, unfortunately, has all of his needs provided for. He has nothing
to ask of G-d. Anywhere he turns, he has what he needs. He has no
hardships, and nothing to request G-d's assistance with. Because he never
has to turn to G-d, the snake will never have an opportunity to develop a
relationship with G-d. He will never have ties of closeness with Hashem.
Hashem does not want to have ties of closeness with him. For this reason,
the fact that the snake will forever have a ready supply of sustenance is
truly a curse.
During this time of the year, we are presented with numerous opportunities
to pray, to come closer to G-d. As the Ramban said, prayer is a gift, a
kindness from G-d. We should try not to feel uncomfortable when we pray. We
should not feel burdened by the lengthy prayers. We should view the
opportunity that we have in the upcoming weeks as a time when we can really
'get close to Hashem.' We should take advantage of this fantastic
opportunity to speak with G-d. G-d very much wants to hear from us, and we
should not let Him down.