The WORD 11/28/12. When we talk about Jewish prayer, we generally focus on the prescribed words that are laid out for us in the Siddur. However, reading the prayers that our ancestors wrote is only one form of Jewish prayer.
From the earliest days of our people, we know that our ancestors reached out to God – in good times and in bad – to communicate directly with God. Today, we do this as well. The question is, though: What should we ask for? Do we ask for wealth? Health? Strength?
In this week’s Torah Portion, we read the second of two extemporaneous prayers that our ancestor Yaakov offered up to God at defining moments in his life.
The first prayer (found in last week’s portion) was offered immediately after he fled in the aftermath of deceiving his brother Esav. He said: “If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God….. and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for you (Gen. 28:20-22).”
In other words, Jacob offered God a ‘quid pro quo.’ In the simplest of terms, Yaakov sees God merely as a proprietor of material goods with whom he can haggle. If God keeps up God’s end of the bargain, then God is worthy of worship.
Twenty years later (in this week’s parashah), Yaakov was making his journey home to confront Esav for the first time since swindling the birthright from him. As a more mature man, with significant wealth and large family, Yaakov’s prayer was very different.
He said: “O God of my father Avraham and my father Yitzhak, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you’! I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother…. (Gen. 32:10-13).”
Yaakov offered God nothing, because he realized that there was nothing he could offer God. Yaakov simply asked for God’s help, because he knew that the task of approaching Esav was incredibly difficult. Yaakov needed God’s support, or he knew he would falter.
From one person, we have two models of prayer. We can certainly ask God for material wealth. We can ask God to fulfill our wishes. However, we must be prepared for the answer to be ‘No’ sometimes. What Jacob eventually realized, though, is that God is always there to provide us with strength when we might not be able to go on by ourselves.