Prayer is a prominent topic is this week’s Parsha and its effects can never be overstated. We have no idea of its power, whether to alter a decree, to incur favor, or simply to demonstrate our love for the Almighty in recognizing all the goodness we-friends and family-receive. Emotionally healthy people pray for positive things; why would anyone ask for something bad to occur? The following story is sad but has a twist in the end that serves as an inspirational message. It was told by a prominent (Rabbi) speaker in Israel who was asked to address a group of nonreligious Jews in a settlement in southern Israel. Following his speech, an elderly couple approached him with a strange request: “Rabbi, could you please pray for us – that we die?” they asked. He remarked, “I have never been asked to do something so unusual but I am sure you have a good reason for your request.” This was their story.
“We grew up in Communist Russia. Finally, we were able to immigrate to the Holy Land. Life was difficult; acclimating was hard; financially we were challenged every step of the way. Nonetheless, we had one blessing, one comfort, a double gift from G-d; our two daughters, both of whom were a great source of nachas. One daughter is a graduate student at the Technion in Haifa, the other lives in Los Angeles. Both are on the fast track of success. We saved money and purchased tickets to visit our daughter in Los Angeles. After a month of touring and spending time with our daughter she accompanied us to the airport. It was then that she told us something that broke us; ‘Ima, Abba, I have a request of you. Please erase my number from your phone book and do not contact me anymore. I want to move on with my life, become acculturated. In order to do this, I must sever my relationship with the past. As long as I am connected with you, I am still in the old country, but I want to live!’ “Understandably, our long plane trip home was filled with grief, and we wept the entire way home. We comforted ourselves, however, that we still had one other daughter. We traveled to Haifa to share our unfortunate news with our other daughter – who shocked us with a similar request. She felt that we are backwards and, if she were to remain connected with us, she could never become a part of the contemporary culture. Rabbi, it is now one full year that we have had nothing to do with either of our daughters. Our lives are worthless. This is why we want to die.”
If there has ever been a sad story – this is it. The Rabbi listened to their pain and looked at them with an expression of hope. “Rather than have me pray that you die, why do you not pray to G-d that He open your daughters’ hearts? Why don’t you pray for them?” he asked. “Rabbi, we are over seventy years old, raised as communists; we have never prayed to G-d and wouldn’t have a clue of how to begin doing so.”
The Rabbi said, “My friends can you imagine the feelings of a Father Who has waited over seventy years for His children to speak to Him? You have been sitting by the phone for a year – everyday – waiting, hoping that perhaps your daughters might call. Your Heavenly Father has been waiting for you for over seventy years! Call Him, talk to Him, cry to Him! Use any language that is comfortable – but call!”
What is the function-and benefit-of prayer? Many people think that we pray when we do something wrong and want to apologize to G-d. Others think prayer is reserved for bad times-sickness or financial misfortune-when we ask G-d to change the situation; it can also be used as a time for making deals with G-d. “If you give me this or heal this person, I promise to …” But this is not an accurate assessment of prayer. Our daily prayers contain requests for sustenance, health, and every and any other need. These needs are reflections of our own finite power. When we think about these things as we ask for them we realize that a human being has a limited influence on his or her destiny. We are weak and relatively helpless creatures. We are threatened by illness we cannot cure. Unexpected financial developments can undermine our hard-earned financial security. We cannot protect ourselves from the extremes of weather. In this context, prayer is not an acknowledgment of wrongdoing or culpability. It is a humble acknowledgment of our limitations and our dependence on G-d.
In the story above, the parents wanted to die rather than endure the overwhelming emotional pain they were experiencing. The callousness and insensitivity of their daughters could not be eliminated by them or any other human-but the Almighty can do anything. Either G-d is everything or He is nothing. In Judaism, there is no such thing as a semi powerful G-d. When we pray, we acknowledge our own limitations. Humility is the result of this recognition and has benefits not only for the petitioner but also for everyone else in that person’s life.
G-d wants to hear from us. Prayer is not just to get stuff, it is primarily to give-i.e. to give ourselves the knowledge that we are limited and don’t run the show.
Whether it is request or thanks, it does not matter if it is at home or shul, the main thing to understand is that prayer is your most valuable tool.