A quick comment: I write and speak on this topic a lot. Most people say they believe in the power of prayer but when they confront a bump along their journey, or G-d forbid when they appear to be heading for a cliff, they forget about this vital tool and their emunah may waver. As a Sephardic Jew I have long appreciated the inspired wisdom of Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l. When I received this piece in my email I just had to share it. Through it may HaShem enliven your spirit and grant renewed emunah in the power of effective prayer.
The Way to Have One’s Prayers Accepted
Question: What does it mean that one should “not make one’s prayer established”-our prayer services are established three times daily? Also, is there any special advice for how one can have one’s prayers accepted?
Answer: Regarding the first question, let us quote the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2, Mishnah 18): “Rabbi Shimon says: Be cautious with Keri’at Shema and prayer and when you pray do not make your prayer established; rather, let it be a request for mercy and supplication before Hashem.”
Explanation of the Phrase, “Do Not Make Your Prayer Established”
Our Sages (Berachot 29b) explain the meaning of the phrase in the Mishnah, “Do not make your prayer established.” Rabbi Oshaya states that “making one’s prayer established” means when one’s prayer is like a burden on him (meaning when one feels like there is an established law that one must pray and one must do so forcefully in order to fulfill his obligation). The Sages explain this phrase somewhat differently and explain that this refers to one does not recite his prayer in the form of supplication (meaning that the style of one’s prayer must be one of supplication before Hashem, with subservience and with one’s entire heart).
The Rambam (Chapter 4 of Hilchot Tefillah, Halacha 16) rules in accordance with the opinion of the Sages. The Gemara in Masechet Sotah (5a) states that one’s prayer is not accepted unless one makes his heart that of flesh (which is soft, and not of stone), i.e. that one must pray with subordination.
Know Before Whom You Are Standing
The Gemara in Masechet Berachot (28b) states that Rabbi Elazar once told his students, “When you pray, know before Whom you are standing.” Similarly, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 22a) states that when one prays, one must envision that he is facing the holy presence of Hashem, as the verse states, “I place Hashem before me constantly.” Similarly, our Sages tell us (Berachot 31a) that the verse “And Chana spoke upon her heart” teaches us that one must concentrate with all one’s heart. The Rambam rules likewise that without concentration of the heart, one does not fulfill one’s obligation to pray and this means that one must rid one’s heart of all foreign thoughts and think only that one is standing before the King of All Kings.
One Who Incorporates Hashem During a Time of Distress
Regarding our second question, we have already discussed (in a Halacha pertaining to requesting one’s needs while praying) that one may request one’s personal needs from Hashem while praying during the “Shema Kolenu” blessing. We concluded that Halacha by saying that it is proper that when requesting one’s personal needs, one should intend for this to assist one in his service of Hashem and not just for one’s personal benefit.
The Gemara (Berachot 63a) states that if one includes Hashem during one’s time of distress, one’s livelihood will be doubled, as the verse states, “And Hashem shall be in your distress and you shall have abundant monies.” The Meharsha explains this to mean that one should pray that Hashem should save him in the merit of Hashem’s great name which is with us in every tragedy, as the verse states, “I am with him in his distress.”
The Sefer Ma’yana Shel Torah (end of Parashat Shemot) states: “The Chozeh of Lublin and the Magid of Koznitz would say that when one prays during a time of distress, one should primarily request salvation because of Hashem’s distress and not for one’s personal distress, for if one concentrates only one’s own personal distress, there is room to prosecute him. However, if one concentrates on Hashem’s distress (or at least both of them together) because Hashem participates in the distress of every Jew (see Sanhedrin 46a), the prosecution is forced to shut its mouth.
Hagaon Rabbeinu Chaim of Volozhin writes in his Sefer Nefesh Ha’Chaim that when one prays, one should not have in mind solely for one’s personal benefit, for this is not the correct path for those who are straight of heart; rather, one’s intention should be focused on the sake of Heaven, for when one is distressed in this world, the Upper Worlds are in distress as well. The Sefer Yalkut Sofer writes in the name of the Rambam that if one mentions Hashem in his distress, about such an individual does the verse state, “I am with him in his distress; I shall rescue him and I shall honor him,” and he shall be saved from his distress.
Thus, when one prays for his children to follow the correct path, one should focus his intentions on the sake of Heaven and that one’s children should fear Hashem and walk in His path. Similarly, if one prays for children, one should intend that this should be for the sake of Heaven and that one merit to fulfill the Mitzvot of the Torah through them and they should grow up in the ways of Hashem. Likewise, if one prays to get married, one should intend that the primary mission of a person comes about through marriage and one must get married in order to complete one’s service of Hashem. Similarly, when one prays for livelihood, one should have in mind that when one has an easy and abundant livelihood, one will have more spare time for the service of Hashem and one will be able to perform many kind and charitable acts and so on and so forth regarding all of one’s prayers. May our prayers be accepted favorably by Hashem, Amen.
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