Praising and Praying?

The Talmud offers some seemingly peculiar advice to one that wants to engage in prayer.  At the beginning of Parashat Va’etchanan the Torah records Moshe’s request to be able to see the Land of Israel.  But before making his actual request, he begins with a brief introductory phrase.  “My Lord… You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for what power is there in the heaven or on the earth that can perform according to Your deeds and according to Your mighty acts? (Devarim 3:24)”  The Talmud bases the following advice about prayer on this quote from Moshe:  A person should always relate the Almighty’s praise and only pray afterwards.  This advice appears to be a technique to make sure our prayers get answered, and the idea is to relate to God as we might relate to another person – like the manipulative techniques and tricks described in the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.  Praise that is only a means to get something is obviously not sincere; how could it possibly be an official, recommended-by-the-Talmud part of prayer?  As we will soon see, this is a misinterpretation of the Talmud’s idea that is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of prayer.

Rabbi Moses ben Joseph di Trani (known as Mabit, 1505 –1585), the Sephardic Talmudist, author of classic halachic and theological texts, and Chief Rabbi of Safed, writes that these praises are obviously not intended to obtain the Almighty’s favor but are actually rather for the supplicant’s own benefit and education.  The Hebrew word for world or universe is olam, which is derived from the root a’yin lamed mem which means “hidden.”  The universe is a gigantic cosmic veil that conceals its creator from mankind’s eyes.  It is this veil that makes agnosticism and atheism possible.  A more subtle ramification of this veil is that it dampens and deadens the awareness of and connection to God even among people of faith.  The effects of this religious challenge are particularly relevant in the area of prayer; how can a request for God’s assistance or intervention be sincere when it is expressed from a position of weak conviction?  To counter this reality, Moshe, as understood by the Talmud, practiced the technique of praising the Almighty before praying.  Praising God by mentioning His awesome kindness, might, and wisdom – encourages and enables one to contemplate these attributes.  Contemplating these attributes leads to deeper appreciation of Him, which is the perfect ingredient for more sincere and heartfelt prayer.

Our lives are so hectic that the idea of upsetting our spiritual status quo seldom crosses our minds.  It can seem unrealistic to think that we could be anything but locked into religious inertia.  The Talmudic idea of praising before praying can be enlightening in this regard.  There’s no need for days or even hours of study and contemplation to “move the needle” and change one’s spiritual paradigms.  Moshe merely uttered a few brief words of praise before he began to pray.   This demonstrates how easy it can be to reaffirm and deepen our sensitivities and attitudes to the degree that it will positively affect our prayers.  Then that cosmic veil can become at least one iota thinner.

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