Humility Through Prayer
By Rabbi Robert Kahn
When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart become haughty and you forget the Lord your God who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage (D’varim 8:11-14).
This passage in Parashat Eikev comes as a warning to the Israelites that in the future, when life is good, not to forget either who gave you the good life, nor how you got there. Particularly when life is good, the Torah teaches us to remember our humble beginnings.
The contemporary resonance of the above passage is striking! In today’s society, where privilege and entitlement often overshadow gratitude, we frequently forget God and overlook many of God’s creations who still lack basic needs like freedom, let alone silver and gold.
How do we keep ourselves from forgetting? And, how do we find room in our oversaturated hearts for others? The answer is tefilah (prayer). This is somewhat paradoxical, because most of us turn to prayer in times of need or distress. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes in Out of the Whirlwind, “Prayer is warranted and meaningful only when one realizes that all hope is gone, that there is no other friend besides God from whom one may expect assistance and comfort, when the soul feels black despair, loneliness and helplessness. However, if one is not haunted by anxiety and brute fear, if one does not look upon his existence as a heap of debris, if his self-confidence and arrogance have not been undermined, if neither doubt nor anguish assails his mind, then prayer is alien to him and any recital of a fixed prayer, text is meaningless. Success and prayer, impudence and prayer, are mutually exclusive (161).”
Surely, this constricted approach to prayer helps explain why tefilot (daily services) at Jewish summer camps and Jewish day schools across the country are usually uninspired. Kids’ hearts are worry-free, full of life, as they should be. But even among Jewish adults, we must ask, if Rabbi Soloveitchik is accurate, then what hope do we have for meaningful prayer? Are we relegated to pray only when we are ill or in danger? Must we simulate the above conditions with day-long fasts and prayer marathons (as we do on Yom Kippur) in order to make prayer feel relevant?
No. Our tradition wisely categorizes prayer into two categories: petition and praise. Tefilah is the large muscle that pumps life in and out of our hearts, ensuring that this mighty organ is never too full, and never too empty. In the daily Amidah, our needs are addressed in the first number of petitions – good health, a good living, avenging our enemies, securing our homeland, etc, but our gratitude is also expressed. Modim anahnu lakh, “We thank You and praise You for our lives that are in Your hand, for our souls that are in Your charge, for Your miracles that are with us daily.” These few words powerfully capture the dual perspectives of the one who feels he/she has nothing, and the one who feels he/she has everything; the one whose heart is empty, and the one whose heart is full though not quite haughty.
The Rabbis referred to prayer as avodah shebalev, because our prayers emanate from our hearts, and prayer requires hard work. If we only pray when we are in need, then we will rarely pray. The Torah’s insight is timeless. None of us will ever forget God in times of trouble. But, what about when life is good? Daily prayer is the inheritance and the evolution of the Torah’s prescription to remember God even when our lives are blessed, Thank God.
The publication and distribution of Rabbi Kahn’s commentary on Parashat Eikev are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.