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Isha Bekia

Bereishit – What is the purpose of prayer?

Oct 20, 2020 | Weekly Parsha


Prayer is a journey of personal transformation, of changing who we are, of developing and flourishing into the best version of ourselves. And on that mission, we have at our disposal the most wonderful tool, given to us by our sages and adopted and embraced by generations of Jews for thousands of years – the words of the siddur, which empower us to fully experience prayer as the Divine gift it is for personal transformation on the deepest level. 


How everything begins is vital – it sets the tone for the future. This week’s parsha, Bereishit, is all about beginnings. The birth of our world, of our universe – everything began with G-d’s creation: “In the beginning, G-d created heaven and earth.” The fact that we are all the creations of Hashem determines our very identity.

This week’s parsha also tells us about the beginning of humanity, of human history in particular; not only the creation of Adam and Eve, but the very first moments they became aware of their environment. According to the Gemara, they were born into a world that was in a state of drought. This is quite remarkable. When Adam and Eve opened their eyes and looked around them, on the sixth day, there was nothing growing – no trees, no grass, nothing. But the parsha says that on the third day of creation, G-d brought out all of the plant kingdom – all of the trees and the grass and the flowers. So why was there nothing growing by the time Adam and Eve were created, on the sixth day? The Gemara resolves this apparent contradiction by saying that on the third day, G-d created the seeds and shoots, all of the trees and the grass, but they were all lying beneath the surface waiting to emerge. They would only start growing with rain (chapter 2, verse 5) – and G-d was waiting because there were no human beings created yet to pray for rain.

 The Gemara says that G-d desires the prayers of the righteous, and He wanted to start all of human history with an act of prayer. So when Adam and Eve open their eyes and they see that there is no vegetation, there is no grass, there is nothing, and they become aware of the fact that it needs to rain in order for everything to grow, at that point, they pray to G-d. The rains come and then all of a sudden there is this incredible growth in the world – the trees and the plants and the flowers begin to flourish.

 This emerges so powerfully from this verse: “And there is not a human being to work the land.” Rashi explains, in the context of this passage from the Gemara, that it means there was no one to pray for this. The reason G-d had not brought the rain was because there was no human being who could recognise the need for rain and call out to G-d to help them – so it becomes such an important part of the start of human history that the very first human act was to pray and to call out to G-d. And there’s another passage in the Talmud where it defines the human being as the one who prays. Let’s reflect on that for a moment. Why is prayer such a fundamental part of what it means to be a human being? Why did all of human history have to begin with an act of prayer?

We see in Pirkei Avot (chapter 1, mishna 2) that the world stands on three pillars, one of which is avodah – prayer. The Maharal of Prague explains that prayer is so intrinsic to the human condition because it makes the most powerful declaration, which is that we are totally dependent on Hashem. We are His creations, everything we have in this world comes from Him and we are completely reliant on Him. Prayer is described by Pirkei Avot as avodah, which means “service” – because it comes from the Hebrew word eved, meaning “servant”. Prayer expresses that we are totally dependent on G-d, we need Him, and therefore we are deeply connected to Him. The human being was created in order to be close to Hashem. Through our own free choice, we connect ourselves to Hashem, and one of the most powerful ways we can do this is through the act of prayer.

Prayer is about praising G-d and thanking G-d, but at the heart of prayer, we are asking G-d for our needs because we acknowledge that whatever we have in this world comes directly from Hashem. It is that deep connection to Him that determines who we are, and it could be for this reason that G-d wanted all of human history to begin with an act of prayer – establishing a bond between humanity and Himself. It’s an interesting dynamic: on the one hand, we have nothing without Hashem, yet G-d also wants us to put in our own efforts. Our sages in the Talmud express this very powerfully when they say we “cannot rely on a miracle”. So we pray to G-d, but G-d also expects us to invest our efforts. This is evident in the verse mentioned earlier, where G-d had not brought the rain because there was no human being to work the land. So another requirement was human ingenuity, human creativity – to get involved, to do, to act.

In fact, the Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, in his commentary on this verse, points out that it refers to the land as a sadeh – a field, as opposed to just adamah: “There were no trees of the fields.” So there was a natural growth, but what was needed was the cultivation of that growth, the concept of human beings continuing to grow and to develop the land, and turning it into fields – human fields. On the one hand, we pray to Hashem and ask Him for help with everything, but on the other hand, we are called upon by Hashem to do the work as well, and not to rely on miracles.

This reflects our innermost sense of a partnership with G-d. We need His blessings for everything we achieve, but He wants us to work for our achievements, and at the same time recognise that our successes and our failures are completely dependent on His blessings. That’s the balance – that we pray, which shows our faith that everything comes from Hashem – and that we toil.

Perhaps one of the most powerful expressions of this is when it comes to health and healing. If a person is sick, they must visit a doctor in order to be healed; in fact, the Talmud says that we were given explicit permission to see a doctor. Even more than that, it’s a mitzvah to heal. Yet, at the same time, we pray to G-d for healing. So which is it? Is healing in the hands of the doctor or is healing in the hands of G-d? The answer is that G-d wants us to put in the work in this world, but to realise that everything is in His hands. So we go to the doctors, but we know the doctors can only heal us if G-d will grant them the blessing of healing. So when we pray to G-d, we pray that He may grant us the blessing of healing, through His agents, His angels in this world: the doctors and nurses and healthcare professionals who devote their time to helping people and healing them. G-d works through them and through their actions, therefore we pray to G-d. That’s why prayer is so important. It helps us to remember that everything we have comes from Hashem.

There’s another dimension to this verse, which illuminates our understanding of prayer. We need to reflect on what Rashi is teaching us when it says that “there was no man to work the land”. But if the verse means that G-d had not yet brought the rain because there was no one to pray for rain, why didn’t it just say that? Why did it say “there was no one to work the land”? There is a deeper connection between the idea of prayer and that of working the land. Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, one of our great commentators from the nineteenth century, wrote a commentary on the siddur, and in his introduction, he explains the concept of prayer. Prayer is defined by the Talmud as service of the heart”. Rav Mecklenburg says that this evokes a comparison to agriculture – to working the land. Before you can plant on a piece of land, you need to plough the land. And even before you can plough the land, you need to remove the stones, pebbles and pieces of broken glass to make the field suitable for planting. When that is done, it needs to be fertilised and then, finally, it’s ready to receive the seeds. The land still needs to be irrigated and attended to, but there’s a thorough preparation process that must take place before the fruits of your labour emerge.

This is the same for the human being, says Rav Mecklenburg. The fruits of the human being are our good deeds, our character, everything that is part of our mission to become people of goodness, doing mitzvot and fulfilling G-d’s will. But in order to do that, he says, we need to prepare ourselves like we would prepare a field. In order for our mitzvot to have an impact on us, we need to make ourselves worthy and open to the flourishing of good deeds in our lives and the flourishing of kindness, compassion and faith. And this takes work. It takes effort to achieve self-improvement and personal development. How do we work on ourselves? Rav Mecklenburg says that this is the purpose of prayer. Prayer is about opening ourselves up from a psychological, spiritual point of view, and cleansing ourselves, uplifting ourselves, refining ourselves. Achieving greatness within ourselves – that is what the act of prayer is all about. The tools we’ve been given are found in the words of the siddur, and we should not underestimate their power. They were crafted and composed by the members of the Great Assembly more than 2 500 years ago. Many of these great sages were prophets themselves, and every single word in the siddur was crafted in order to help us refine ourselves. These prayers purify us, uplift us and connect us to G-d. They instil in us Torah values. That is what the process of prayer is all about. It is about personal transformation.

Maybe that’s what Rashi means when he connects the phrase “ and there was no man to work the land” to the act of prayer. Why is that a reflection of prayer? Because we are the land – adamah – and at this point in creation, there were no people to work on themselves. The human being is called “Adam”, as we see in this week’s parsha, because we were taken from the land. What’s the comparison? Surely the defining quality of the human being is the soul and not the body? So why is the human being named after the earth, which is really an element of the body? The Maharal explains that a piece of land is pure potential – it depends what you do with it. So, too, the human being is like the land – you could leave it to lie empty, or you could plant and nurture the richest fruit from it. The essence of the human being, says the Maharal, is converting our potential into actuality. And one way that we do this is through the act of prayer. It is how we flourish and transform ourselves – by connecting ourselves to Hashem, by imbibing the words and the meaning and the experience of the siddur, we have the potential to transform and change into people of greatness. 

The Albo, one of our great sages from the Middle Ages, says that’s how the dynamic of prayer works. When we are praying, we are not looking to change G-d’s mind, because G-d doesn’t change. It’s not like a child who is begging a parent to change their mind by nagging them. Prayer is something much more profound. We are looking to change ourselves, not to change G-d. We are coming before G-d to ask for help in our lives. And through this process of connecting with G-d, we are elevated and refined, and we ask G-d to respond to our prayers in the merit of our own personal transformation.  

This is what happens at this very first moment of human history, which set the tone for the future  of humanity. As human beings, we were created in order to be close to Hashem, which we can achieve through the act of prayer, when we turn to Him in faith. At the same time, we must put in the work and the effort while realising that our efforts will only be successful if they are blessed by G-d. Ultimately, the process of prayer is a journey of personal transformation, of changing who we are, of developing and flourishing into the best version of ourselves. And on that mission, we have at our disposal the most wonderful tool, given to us by our sages and adopted and embraced by generations of Jews for thousands of years – the words of the siddur, which empowers us to fully experience prayer as the Divine gift it is for personal transformation on the deepest level.