Prayer is a deep emotional and spiritual experience. It’s the entire basis of our relationship with G-d, which is why our sages entreat us not to relate to prayer as a burden, as a duty to be discharged. As Pirkei Avot says: “Do not make your prayer fixed…” Developing a keen sense of human frailty, and the precariousness of our lives, is a crucial stimulus of heartfelt prayer. Allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable can be the key to ensuring our prayers are alive and emotional and heartfelt, rather than routine and lifeless. Heartfelt prayer means acknowledging our weaknesses, our deficiencies, our limitations; standing before our Creator in humble supplication, fully cognisant that without His blessings, we are nothing and have nothing.
In this week’s parsha, Vayeitzei, Jacob leaves home and heads for Haran in order to escape his brother, Esau, who seeks vengeance after losing the blessing of the firstborn. Jacob ventures out into a hostile, uncertain world, leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of the home in which he grew up.
Early on in that journey, he has a momentous encounter with G-d, Himself. The text tells us, Vayifga baMakom – “and he encountered The Place”. (Genesis 28:11) Rashi, citing the Talmud (Brachot 26b), tells us the verse refers to a prayerful encounter with G-d.
How do we see this in the words? Though, in essence, G-d is one – perhaps the fundamental tenet of Judaism – He has many names, relating to the different ways in which He manifests in the world and relates to creation. And one of the names of G-d is HaMakom – literally: “The Place”.
The Midrash explains: “Because He is the place of the world, and the world is not His place.” In other words, we don’t look at G-d as part of our universe; rather, the universe exists within G-d, so to speak. Even this concept is merely allegorical because G-d has no physical form. In the same way that a place contains an object and ensures that it has a space within which to exist, G-d has created a space for the world to exist. The designation of HaMakom means there is nothing besides Him. He encompasses everything. When Jacob encountered The Place, he encountered G-d.
Why is the name, HaMakom, specifically used over here in the context of Jacob’s encounter with the Divine through prayer? Another reference in Pirkei Avot gives us a clue. The Mishna states, “…do not make your prayers routine, but [an entreaty of] mercy and supplication before G-d [HaMakom]”. (Avot 2:13) Rav Chaim of Volozhin explains that by relating to G-d as The Place – by meditating on the fact that He is front and centre of our existence, and encompasses our lives – we can tap into the sense of awe and deference and spiritual devotion that prayer requires.
Indeed, only with this more sophisticated understanding of our Creator are we able to fully engage in a meaningful relationship with Him through prayer. By relating to G-d as The Place, we can move beyond our childish notions of a being in the sky sitting on a throne, and arrive at a deeper understanding, a fuller knowledge, which can be the beginning of a real relationship.
Relating to G-d in prayer also helps us develop a keener sense of human vulnerability, and the precariousness of our lives. Think about Jacob. He has just left home and his future is not clearly set out. He is keenly aware of the perils and uncertainties that lie ahead of him. And it’s not incidental that he is extremely vulnerable at the moment of this encounter of prayer to G-d.
Allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable can, in fact, be the key to ensuring our prayers aren’t “routine”, as the Mishna warns us against. Indeed, Rabbeinu Yona, in his commentary on this Mishna, says that the phrase “mercy and supplication before G-d” refers to exactly this state of mind. Heartfelt prayer means acknowledging our weaknesses, our deficiencies, our limitations; standing before our Creator in humble supplication, fully cognisant that without His blessings, we are nothing and have nothing.
The mark of a secure relationship is being comfortable to expose one’s vulnerability to the other, which creates closeness. So, too, by exposing our vulnerability to G-d and coming before Him in supplication, we draw closer to Him. This is the very essence of prayer.
The heart and soul of prayer is articulating our needs, what we are lacking, where we are falling short. In fact, requests make up 13 of the 19 blessings in the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer recited three times a day.
The Maharal says that through prayer, we make a declaration that we are completely dependent on G-d for our needs. He explains that this is why prayer is called avodah, “service”. We are G-d’s servants in the sense that our welfare is entirely in His Hands. And during prayer, we turn to Him for help and support, with the faith that whatever the outcome, it is ultimately for our good and a pure expression of His love.
We see that Jacob’s profound encounter with the Divine emerges from the vulnerability of his situation – but it’s also an expression of his deep faith in G-d. Indeed, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein says that the mitzvah of prayer is intertwined with the mitzvah to believe in G-d – for faith in G-d means we know that our needs can only be fulfilled by Him and through Him, that our fate is ultimately in His hands.
For example, when turning to doctors for healing, we do so realising that they can only heal with the blessing of G-d; that ultimately, we pray to G-d for Him to heal us through their hands. Prayer and medicine are not two parallel solutions to the problem of illness – they are necessarily intertwined. And prayer is a declaration that G-d is in control, and that while He expects us to work through the natural forces of the physical world, these forces are simply His tools in the healing process.
Cultivating a state of vulnerability helps mitigate the potential dulling effects of the familiarity of prayer. We know that there are three daily prayer services – shacharit (the morning service); mincha (the afternoon service); and maariv (the evening service). According to the Talmud (Brachot 26b), Abraham instituted shacharit, Isaac instituted mincha, and Jacob instituted maariv (based on the verse from this week’s parsha: “And he encountered The Place and spent the night there because the sun had set“).
Because we pray three times a day and it’s a set formula from a set prayer book, we can start seeing it as something perfunctory, something we do because we feel obliged to. But the Mishna is telling us that prayer needs to be an entreaty of “mercy and supplication before G-d” – it needs to be real and raw and heartfelt, and not just something we do as a matter of course. It has to be service of the heart.
Another challenge is that by engaging with G-d at least three times daily, there’s this sense of easy access and familiarity when it comes to prayer, which can undermine our appreciation for this awesome mitzvah.
The secret to prayer is to heed the advice of our sages: “Know before whom you stand”. When we remember every time we begin to pray that we are standing before G-d, we can inspire the mindfulness and sense of devotion necessary to maximise the power of our prayers. When we realise the privilege that we, as human beings who are so frail and vulnerable, are given a private audience with the Creator of the world, that shakes us out of our complacency, and our sense of the over-familiarity of the experience.
But there’s a tension here. On the one hand, the Mishna is telling us not to make our prayers fixed and routine. On the other hand, our sages have formalised a systematic, finely tuned structure to our prayers. Can these two evidently crucial aspects to prayer – structure and heartfelt spontaneity – co-exist?
At first glance, they seem directly at odds with each other. Structure and routine seem the very antithesis of passion and inspiration. Yet it is on this unlikely combination that Jewish prayer stands.
Rav Ovadia Bartenura explains the word “routine” in our Mishna in two ways. Firstly, a person may relate to prayer as a duty to be discharged, with a focus on doing what must be done and getting it over with, rather than truly experiencing prayer. Secondly, a person’s prayer may be rote and robotic, without intentionality or emotional involvement. Our Mishna warns against bankrupting the rich experience of prayer in such a way.
And yet the structure is important enough for our Sages to institute it. What emerges from our Mishna is the unique idea of making inspiration a habit. In other words, we should build inspiration into our daily schedules. We might think we have to wait for a spontaneous burst of inspiration to galvanise us. However, our Mishna is telling us that we can create a regular experience of inspiration in our lives through the platform of prayer.
There is a structure and regularity to prayer, but at the same time, prayer is an opportunity for spiritual invigoration. The structure itself ensures that inspiration becomes a daily part of life and isn’t left to whim. Paradoxically, the Mishna is a guide to ingraining inspiration as habit. Real spiritual connection to G-d is too important to be left to spontaneous chance.
And so, Jacob’s first experience after leaving home is a direct encounter with G-d in prayer, paving the way for us, his descendants, to continue these dramatic encounters with the King of all Kings.