Prayer Essentials

For the week ending 18 January 2014 / 17 Shevat 5774

One for One and One for All

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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The prayers of the Jewish People stand at the pinnacle of the world. (Talmud Berachot 6b)

As we begin our day with the morning blessings, followed by the daily sacrifices and verses of praise to the Almighty, we undertake a spiritual journey ascending to the higher realms, culminating with the recital of the Shemoneh Esrei.

What is the purpose of this journey?

Although the language of the Shemoneh Esrei prayer consists primarily of requests relating to our physical needs, this is only according to the simple level of understanding. In fact, the Zohar goes as far as to criticize a worshiper who prays only for his own physical needs, comparing him to a barking dog saying, “Give me, give me.” Of course, one can, and should, include his own needs in his prayers; the criticism applies mainly when one thinks only of himself.

How do we achieve selfless prayer?

On a deeper level our prayers are designed to impact the spiritual realms above. The inner purpose of our prayers is to help facilitate the channeling of an influx of new Divine light and flow from G-d into the world, resulting in blessing and abundance. Within the holy words of our prayers lie the keys to the universe.

When praying, one should consider the soul within, asking for one’s spiritual needs ― like success in Torah learning or in praying properly. The next step in achieving selfless prayer is to place both the physical and spiritual needs of others before one’s own. This includes praying for individuals who are in need as well as for the Jewish People at large.

And yet the loftiest and most praiseworthy of all prayers is when one puts his own misfortunes aside and anguishes instead over the suffering of the Divine Presence (Shechinah), which is exiled along with us. For the truly righteous, praying for the world’s long-awaited redemption is of utmost importance, since only then will G-d’s name and kingship be complete.

There is a hint to the above concepts in the words of Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?” The implication is as follows: One must turn to G-d and pray for his own needs. For if he does not do so, then who will? However, to pray only for one’s own needs would be considered selfish. Accordingly, such a prayer may be rejected. Instead one should include requests for others together with his own. This type of selfless prayer will likely arouse G-d’s mercy, bringing about salvation to all in need.

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