If someone would interview all of us asking, why we come to shule, I’m sure that many of us would have different answers. Some come to socialize; some come to learn Torah; some come to hear the rabbi’s sermon; and some come for the Kiddush. But all of us would say that we come to pray. So let me ask you, what should we pray for? Should we pray that we all should become multi-millionaires, live in 6,000 sq/ft McMansions and drive Rolls Royce’s? No, we should pray for Gd to grant us what we need to serve Him better.
It’s sometimes hard to differentiate between our needs and our wants. Children have hard times separating needs and wants. The desire to watch television, play outdoors with their friends, or buy the latest toy seems as important to them as food, shelter, security and love. When a parent asks the child why he/she wants a particular toy, the child will answer, “Because I need it!”
With time, we learn—or at least we ought to learn—to distinguish between needs and wants. But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes we can’t distinguish between what we need from what we want out of life. Prayer is a tool that can help us with this.
In today’s parsha, we learn that the Children of Israel were unable to separate their needs from their wants. Having experienced the plagues in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and the daily rain of the miracle food manna, you would have thought that the people would be convinced that Gd would meet their needs.
But the people of Israel whined and complained to Moses: “Give us meat! We remember the fish we freely ate in Egypt; the cucumbers and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; but now, our souls are dried up. We have nothing but manna to look at!”
What an extraordinary statement this is! 1st of all, nothing was free for the Jews in Egypt. They paid a heavy price with their slave labor for everything the Egyptians gave them. Secondly, the Egyptians gave them mostly just matzah to eat. The cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic and fish were discarded scraps. One would have thought that after everything Gd had done for them that they would have been sufficiently satisfied, and would have sung Dayenu! “Thank you Gd. It’s enough!”
It’s a little like the old story of the Bubbe sitting on the beach with her beautiful grandson, her eynekel, who was all dressed up in an adorable sailor suit. As the little boy played in the sand, a giant wave came up out of sea and washed him away.
The grandmother furiously wades into the water, but she can’t find him. So she holds her hands to the sky, screams and cries: “Gd, how could you? Haven’t I been a wonderful grandmother? Haven’t I been a wonderful mother? Haven’t I kept a kosher home? Haven’t I been active in Jewish causes and given generously to charity? Haven’t I lit candles every Shabbos and Yom Tov? Haven’t I tried my very best to live a life that you would be proud of?”
She goes on and on till a voice booms from the sky, “All right already!” Suddenly another huge wave appears out of nowhere and crashes on the beach. As the water recedes, the boy is sitting in the sand smiling and splashing around as if nothing had ever happened. The voice booms again. “I have returned your grandson. Are you satisfied?”
She looks at her grandson and then pointing to the heavens she says, “He had a hat!”
The children of Israel were a little like that Bubbe. They were ungrateful for what they had and demanding of what they lacked. They wanted so much more and were willing to jeopardize everything by demanding it.
Moses turned to the Children of Israel and said (Num. 19-20): “You want meat? I’ll give you meat! You shall not eat one day, nor 2 days, nor 5 days, neither 10 days nor 20 days; but a whole month until it comes out of your nose, and it will be loathsome to you because you have rejected the Lrd who is among you and wept before Him saying: Why did we leave Egypt?”
Oscar Wilde once said: “In this world, there are only 2 tragedies; one is not getting what you want, and the other is getting it!” The Children of Israel learned the hard way that what we want is not necessarily what we need. All too often, we discover that what we want so badly is not at all what it’s cracked up to be.
Prayer should not be so much an expression of our wants, but of our needs. It allows us to separate the essentials from the frivolous in our lives. That’s why we have a written liturgy. When we stand in prayer before Gd it helps us to focus on what is really important. Who can think of big homes, cars and flat screen TVs when we stand before Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One Blessed Be He. It puts our prayers and petitions into a Jewish context.
The Amida, the central prayer of our daily service, is a prayer of petition. But if you study this prayer carefully, you will see that it is very specific about what we can and should ask for. Of course, it includes things that are essential: health, food, prosperity and protection from suffering. It even contains a generic paragraph in which we can offer our personal petitions.
But there are a few things we probably wouldn’t think of to ask for if it wasn’t in the Siddur. The 1st petition of the weekday Amida, for example, is for knowledge. Who would think to ask Gd to be smarter and wiser than they are? And yet wisdom and knowledge are essential tools to make the best of our lives.
The next blessing is for the ability to change. “Our Father, bring us back to Your Torah; draw us near to Your service.” Personal growth through repentance and change is crucial.
There’s a prayer for justice, a prayer to protect us from our enemies, prayers for the coming of the messiah to make this a better world, prayers of thanks and finally a prayer for peace. And for each thing we pray for, we commit ourselves to work for as well in partnership with Gd—and so we should be working for health, prosperity, justice and peace as well.
Too often, we spend our time thinking about why Gd doesn’t answer our prayers. A loved one passes away after a long illness. Why didn’t Gd answer our prayer for her recovery? We want our children to be happy and successful. When things don’t turn out the way we expect, we can’t help but wonder why? Gd listens to our prayers and yes, He answers them—but not always in the way we expect. Sometimes it’s without the hat. An important principle to understand is that Gd doesn’t necessarily give us what we ask for. He does, however, give us what we need.
The Children of Israel prayed for meat. They got it. But meat wasn’t what they really needed. What they really needed was the ability to appreciate, to trust and have faith in Gd.
One major impediment that some people have with prayer is that they don’t think that they’re worthy enough to have Gd answer their prayers and so they may recite the words of the Siddur, but they don’t ask Gd to help them personally. To them Judaism says, “Don’t be afraid to ask! No one is so righteous that he/she deserves what Gd gives them. Gd gives us what we have out of His mercy and love. Gd wants a relationship with us and so He created the world in such a fashion so that we would pray to Him for our needs.” We need rain to water our crops and so the world is set up so that we look to Heaven for rain. So pray for what you think you need and ask Gd to give it to you so that you can better serve Him.
And so I conclude with the words at the end of the Amida: Y’hiyu l’ratzon imrey fi, v’hegyon libi l’fanecha, Hashem tzuri v’goali, “May the expressions of our mouths and the thoughts of our hearts find favor before You, Hashem, our Rock and our Redeemer.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis