Rabbi Israel Chait

The preamble to prayer is “know before whom you stand.” If one’s ideas concerning the One to whom he prays are corrupt, his prayers must be equally corrupt. I think it should be made clear that one of the cardinal principles of our faith is that the Creator lacks nothing, needs nothing, and obtains nothing from his creatures. God gains nothing from our worship of Him. We recite this in our prayer of Neila on Yom Kippur “And even if he (man) is righteous what [benefit] does he give you?” This is based on a verse in Job (35:7). Nachmanides expands on this topic in Deuteronomy (22:6) and states, “our words [of praise] and remembrances of his wonders are considered as nothingness and emptiness to Him”. He states unequivocally that all the mitzvos we do are only for our own benefit and give no benefit whatsoever to the Creator, “This is something that is agreed upon by all our Rabbis.”

Similarly Maimonides in his Guide states clearly that no change or emotion can be predicated of God (Guide book 1, chap.55). He further states that the gravest of sins is to have a wrong opinion of God (ibid. chap. 36). One must never think that through one’s prayers, he can produce some kind of affect in the Creator of the Universe. Such an idea is not only absurd it is blasphemous. He who believes such an idea would, in the words of the Rambam, “unconsciously at least incur the guilt of profanity and blasphemy.”

Rambam states in the Yad, Laws Concerning the Fundamentals of our Faith, Ch.1 Law 11, “and He does not change, for there is nothing that can cause change in Him. There does not exist in Him... anger or laughter, happiness or sadness...” It is patently clear from the Rambam and Ramban that we cannot say of the Creator that He is at one time sad, at another happy, at one time lonely, at another fulfilled. He, being perfect, does not change - ever. We cannot affect Him or change Him no matter what we do, whether we are righteous or evil, whether we pray or do not pray, whether we give charity or do not give charity, whether we repent or do not repent.

Two questions immediately come to mind: 

(1) If this is so, how can we pray to God and expect Him to change our destiny for the better, as Moses did when he prayed to God to forgive the Jews for the sin of the golden calf? 

(2) How do we understand certain verses in the prophets and certain statements from our Sages which seem to indicate the contrary? 

Before explaining the answers to the above questions, I would like to state something very fundamental. When our Rishonim (early commentaries) teach us a principle of our faith, we do not say that they did not know a particular statement of our Sages or verse of the Torah, but that they understood it differently than it appears to us at first sight. We say that they had the correct understanding of these statements and verses and that we are deficient in our own understanding of them. We do not derive our own principles from these statements or verses and reject the ideas of our Rishonim. This is what is known as “emunat chachomim,” faith in our Torah scholars. If we abandon the above principle, we are destined to fail. 

One may ask as follows: “If God does not need our prayers, see the Gemara Yoma 38a which states, ‘Everything which God created was only for His own honor and purpose’” (Proverbs 16:4). If one would hear of someone who had children for the sole purpose of having them praise him when they reached the age of four, what would one think of such a person? Would one not think he is doubly imperfect, because he is overcome by his desire and need for prayer, and because he is moved by the praise of a four year old? How can we ascribe to God, Heaven forbid, such imperfection?

Let us take the statement of our Sages: “Why did God make our Patriarchs and Matriarchs childless? Because God desires the prayers of the righteous” (Yevamos 64a). What would we think of someone who tormented another person so that they turn to him for help? Would we not regard him as self-seeking and even vicious? How then can we ascribe such an imperfection, Heaven forbid, to the Creator? Is it not obvious that these words of our Sages are not to be taken literally, but that they are metaphors that contain a hidden idea, a deeper meaning which we must search for?

It is for this reason the author of the Siddur Avodas Halev, states in his introduction, “the agadic statements according to their outward appearances without understanding their deep meaning are prone to cause the blind to go astray on the way and to lead them to darkness and not light” (Otzar Hatefillos p.20). In this way he explains Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi’s statement in Masechet Sofrim, “Those who write agadic statements have no place in the world to come.” (It should be understood that this was at a time when we were prohibited to write the Oral Law).

Why do we pray if we cannot change God or exercise any influence over Him? The answer is that the change that takes place through tefillah is not in God, but in ourselves. It is the same changeless God who treats the wicked one way and the righteous another way, the person who repents one way and the one who refuses to repent another way, the one who prays one way and the one who does not pray another way. Rambam gives an analogy. The same fire makes one thing black, another white, one thing hard, another soft. The change occurs not because the fire is different but because the objects that come in contact with it are different. Prayer changes man in three ways. First, the change that takes place in man when he realizes that he is standing before the Creator of the universe. This comes under the term Amidah from the verse in Genesis 19:27 regarding Abraham’s prayer. The second is the change that takes place in man when he thinks through and organizes his priorities in life. The word Tefillah comes from the word “peelayle” which means to judge, as the above author in the Otzar Hatefillos says, “to clarify the thoughts that occur in the heart in a confused manner.” This is derived from the second term for Tefillah “sichah” from Genesis 24:63 regarding Issac’s prayer. The third change takes place when man, through his free will and creativity, presents before God an alternative life style, a change in his or her plans, as Hannah did when she stated to God (Samuel 1:11) “If you will... give to your handmaid a man child then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life.” This is derived from the third term for prayer, “pegiah” from Genesis 28:11 regarding Jacob’s prayer. Tefillah is the great medium, which God gave to man by means of which he can change himself. He can then establish a new destiny for himself in life and a new relationship with God. It is not the Creator that changes. Man does not influence the Creator as a defendant influences a human judge who has emotions and is subject to change. It is man himself who is changed. Once he has changed the same immutable Creator relates to him in a different way.

Anyone who thinks that through his prayer he effectuates a change in God denies the third principle of our faith, which we recite every day, that God is not physical and does not have any physical attributes. This means He is in no way to be equated with any of His creation whether inanimate or animate. The idea that man can cause a change in the Creator is an attempt to project onto God human qualities. This is strictly forbidden. As Maimonides quotes in the third principle of faith, “And to whom can you liken Me sayeth the Holy One” (Isaiah 40:18,25). Far be it from God to be like His creatures who because of their imperfection are subject to change for better or for worse. Rambam makes it clear that all statements in the Torah that imply otherwise are metaphors used by the Torah to teach us some idea and are not to be taken literally (Yad, ibid. law 12).

Now let us examine one of the statements of our Sages. “Why were our Patriarchs and Matriarchs childless? Because God desires the prayers of the righteous” (Yevamos 64a). Let us first examine the last half of this statement, “God desires the prayers of the righteous.” Our Sages are teaching that the prayers of the righteous are qualitatively differentiated from the prayers of the ordinary person; that the righteous, because their knowledge of God is different and their knowledge of prayer is different, in their act of praying [they] fulfill the potential of man that God has given him through prayer. As Rambam says regarding the love of God, “one’s love of God cannot exceed his knowledge of God” (Laws of Repentance, Ch. 10 Law 6). So too in prayer, one’s potential for prayer cannot be realized in excess of his knowledge and perfection. Thus only the righteous truly fulfill God’s will concerning prayer. The Rabbis do not mean, Heaven forbid the notion, that God, the Creator of the universe, is in want or in a state of loneliness waiting for some kind of satisfaction that He will receive when His creatures praise Him or ask Him for something. How can we think that man could praise God in any manner that would be satisfactory to Him, when our teacher Moses, the greatest of our species, was unable to comprehend God Himself in any way, even through prophecy, as it is written “because man cannot see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20), and could understand no more than God’s actions? Even the praise of a four year old of the greatest human being would be closer to reality than our praise of God since the four year old at least perceives something about the one he is praising. It is thus patently clear as Ramban states, that all our praise are as “nothingness and emptiness to Him.”

The above statement of our Sages was not meant to indicate that God is seeking some satisfaction, only that God’s will, as expressed in His creation is being fulfilled. Whether His creation is fulfilled or not gives no satisfaction or sadness to Him. Its purpose is to provide man with the opportunity to approach God. In giving man free will God made it possible for him to fulfill his potential, one of the methods being through the medium of prayer. This is accomplished on the highest level only by the righteous not the ordinary person whose ideas of God and prayer are distorted. Our Sages are teaching an important idea, that the ignoramus fails to realize his potential not only in Torah, but in prayer as well.

The first half of this statement of our Sages also teaches us an important concept. Our Sages wonder why our Patriarchs and Matriarchs were childless. Were they not righteous? The answer is that sometimes God puts man in a state of want not because he has sinned, but in order that he may have the opportunity to perfect himself. Our Patriarchs and Matriarchs were answered through their prayers. In addition they achieved thereby a higher degree of perfection. This teaches us the great value of prayer, since we usually only think of prayer as a means to obtain something we want and do not realize that the greatest benefit may result from the perfection we receive through the act of praying itself.

Now consider how in Tractate Yevamos, our Sages through the medium of a metaphor explained all this in the few short words, “The Holy One blessed be He, longs to hear the prayer of the righteous.”

I of course cannot expound on every statement of our Sages in this article, nor do I claim to understand every one of their statements. I only wish to stress how important caution is when approaching a statement of our Sages, and how careful we must be not to grasp at the first idea, which comes to our minds, especially where such an idea contradicts the basic premises of our faith.

In closing let me explain what is meant by Isaiah 43:7, “And everyone that is called by my name I have created for my Glory.” The Radak comments: “Israel, who believes in Me, I have created for my Honor, so that they spread My Glory to all the people.” Radak is saying that God’s compassion and kindness is not limited to the nation of Israel, but includes all of mankind. It is incumbent upon Israel to be concerned about all of humanity as well as themselves, and to teach all of mankind the true ideas of Torah. This is stated in Isaiah 2:2,3 and elsewhere throughout the Prophets. It is God’s will that all of mankind should have the opportunity to live according to the Torah way of life. This is what the verse is teaching, not that God, Heaven forbid the notion, is seeking His own glorification through human recognition.

We should understand Proverbs 16:4 mentioned above in a like manner. It is for our benefit that we recognize God’s Glory, not for His.

May we live to see the day when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9).


Addendum I

Due to several requests, I submit the following addendum to my article on prayer:

I did not wish to imply that God does not answer prayers. The purpose of my article was to make it clear that the very essence of prayer is [to attain] the correct idea of God. “Know before whom you stand,” is the preamble to prayer. If one has an erroneous idea of God, all his prayers are worthless. If, for instance, one believes God has emotions and that his prayers are affecting these emotions, he is not praying to God. Since God is one He has no emotions. Also, since God is perfect He cannot be affected by man. Thus in the above example, the individual is not praying to God but to a figment of his imagination. The fact that God does not change does not mean He doesn’t listen to or answer our prayers. God has endowed us with the ability and the right to place our requests before Him. When we turn to God it is we who change and thereby warrant that the unchangeable Creator of the universe hear our prayers since He is one who listens to prayer. This may seem like a mere subtlety but it is of the greatest importance since the wrong idea of God totally invalidates our prayers, indeed, even all our mitzvoth. As God’s wisdom is not the same as ours, we have no way of knowing whether or not He will answer our prayers. Even a person as great as our teacher Moses could not know this. Thus the Talmud says that we should not feel confident that God will answer our prayers. We can only be assured that He listens to our prayers. One should nevertheless turn to God in all his needs. It should be noted that the act of prayer is one of the great mediums through which man rises to a higher level. His fate will thus be changed for the better even if his particular request is not answered. He may indeed reap a far greater reward through prayer itself than he anticipates through the answer to his request.


Addendum II

One may and should pray for another person insofar as one has sincere concern about their well-being. It is nevertheless the prayer of the sick person himself, which is of the greatest value. This is stated in the Torah, Genesis 21:17, “And God listened to the voice of the lad...” Even though Ishmael’s mother Hagar prayed for him, God listened to Ishmael’s prayer over that of his mother’s. Rashi comments: “From here we derive that the prayer of the sick person himself is superior to the prayer of others, and it is prior in terms of being accepted by God.”

We must pray for Israel because since Sinai, the fate of each Jew is inextricably bound with that of every other Jew. No Jew can escape this. In praying for Israel, we are ipso facto praying for ourselves. There is a higher level of praying for Israel and concern for Klal Yisroel, but this is only for those few who have been fortunate enough to reach a truly high level of serving God. Nevertheless, we must all aspire to reach that level.