Today, I attended the CJE‘s annual Yom Iyun, where the theme was God. After the initial keynote address by Rabbi Kushner, a reform rabbi from San Francisco, the 400+ participants broke up into several groups for talks by other community leaders. I attended a talk by Rabbi Goldberger, of Tiferes Yisrael, about talking to God, and the way we communicate with Him. The audience included people from all sorts of Jewish backgrounds and denominations.
He opened up with three basic questions.
- Who can daven? Does it have to be someone special? Should it be someone who does the davening for you?
- Are there specific times that one should daven? Meaning, is it something that should only be done mornings, set times, etc.
- What should we daven about? Can we/should we only daven about the ‘important stuff’ like world peace or the health of the sick?
Rabbi Goldberger then brought several sources where we see that people were under great distress and used tefilah (davening) as a way of communicating with God.
The first example he brought was from Yonah. Yonah was ordered by God to complete a mission, which he did not want to undertake. He therefore decided to run away. In the process, he was on a ship which had a big storm, and he was eventually thrown overboard and swallowed by a big fish. At this point, Yonah prays to Hashem to be saved.
With this kind of sincere prayer, we see that prayer doesn’t have to be at set times, but rather, at any time that we need the hand of Hashem. And we see that in fact, Yonah was saved, and he went on to continue his mission with success.
י וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב, אֱלֹקי אָבִי אַבְרָהָם, וֵאלֹקי אָבִי יִצְחָק: ה’ הָאֹמֵר אֵלַי, שׁוּב לְאַרְצְךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתְּךָ–וְאֵיטִיבָה עִמָּךְ. יא קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים, וּמִכָּל-הָאֱמֶת, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ, אֶת-עַבְדֶּךָ: כִּי בְמַקְלִי, עָבַרְתִּי אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה, וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי, לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת. יב הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי, מִיַּד עֵשָׂו: כִּי-יָרֵא אָנֹכִי, אֹתוֹ–פֶּן-יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי, אֵם עַל-בָּנִים. יג וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ, הֵיטֵב אֵיטִיב עִמָּךְ; וְשַׂמְתִּי אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ כְּחוֹל הַיָּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִסָּפֵר מֵרֹב.
Translation: Then Jacob said, “God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac; Hashem who said to me, Return to your land and to your birthplace and I will do good with you’ – I have been diminished by all the kindnesses and by all the truth that You have done Your servant; for with my staff I crossed this Jordan and now I have become two camps. Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him lest he come and strike me, mother and children. And You had said, ‘I will make your offspring like the sand of the sea which is too numerous to be counted.’
Again, Yaakov was in a desperate situation, not sure what the outcome would be with Esav, so he turned towards Hashem.
A third example: Chana was childless and desperate to have a child. So in Shmuel 1 1:11, she turns to Hashem and lets out a heartfelt cry and silently prays to Hashem for a child. Until that time, a quiet tefilah was unheard of, so Eili, the resident Kohen gadol, thought she was drunk, but we see that in the end, Hashem listened to Chana, and that she had a son, Shmuel, who would be one of the greatest Jewish people.
These are just a few examples where we see that people turned to Hashem in times of need. In all these cases, the tefilos were spontaneous and non-obligatory.
There is a concept in Judaism called “מעשי אבות – סימן לבנים” which means that the things that happen to our forefathers and the way the act upon those things or events are symbols on how later generations should act. Just like their davening was spontaneous and non-obligatory, our davening can also be the same way. Anytime you’re in distress, feel free to talk to Hashem. Just like in the above examples, we see that they can even be for personal issues. This helps build up a direct relationship between yourself and God.
Rabbi Goldberger told a story about his Rosh Yeshiva from the Mir, R’ Chaim Shmulevitz. The rosh yeshiva was observed one day learning alone, when he suddenly had an obvious look of frustration on his face. It was clear that he didn’t understand what he was learning. He stood up, walked over to the window and said in Yiddish, “Father, I don’t understand this!” He then sat back down, tried learning the same piece over again, but the same thing happened, where he didn’t understand the piece. So he got up and repeated the same thing by the window. This time, when he sat down, a look of understanding showed up on his face, as he finally figured out what he was learning. He then got up and went to the window and said, “thank you!” This story shows that R’ Chaim was truly comfortable with talking to God. He had a direct line of communication and felt that he had a good relationship, which enabled him to be able to talk to God.
In another story, the Kedushas Levi, known for his passion towards fellow Jews, once observed a wagon driver scraping mud off the wheels of his wagon, a very dirty task. But while he was doing this, the wagon driver was also davening. Most people would say, “where’s this guys respect? He’s got mud all over himself, how can he be talking to God at the same time?” But the Kedushas Levi said, “Master of the Universe, look how great the Jewish people are. Even when they do mundane things related to work, they still have You in mind and pray to You.”
This shows us that its the little things that we daven for that help us build up our relationship to God. The smaller they are, the more personal the are. We therefore build up that relationship.
One more story: There was a great rabbi who was travelling, and he passed by a shepherd who happened to be davening at the time. Upon listening to the tefilos of the shepherd, the rabbi realized that he was saying things completely out of order. He therefore sat down with the shepherd to teach him how to daven. The next day, the shepherd started davening, but forgot where some of the various tefilos were supposed to go. He ended up getting so frustrated, that he didn’t daven altogether. That night, the rabbi had a dream where he we asked, where are the tefilos of the shepherd? Because of you, he became confused and didn’t daven at all! The rabbi then went back to the shepherd the next day and told him that he should daven whatever way he wants. Because after all, its what comes from the heart that is the most important.
May we all merit to be able to build a direct line of communication and increase our relationship with Hashem.