Even people who have not read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie know that you have a better chance of getting something from someone if you are nice to them.
If you tell the person on the other side of the airline ticket counter how nice their necklace is, they may be more likely to fulfill your request. It’s human nature to be somewhat blind to the ulterior motivation of someone that praises us; but would we ever dream of trying the same thing with God?
That’s exactly what the Talmud seems to do when it offers 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 enter and 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).
Based on these words, the Talmud recommends: “A person should always relate the Almighty’s praise before praying.” Praising God is important. It is one way we show our appreciation for the gifts that God bestows upon us. Prayer, on the other hand, serves a different purpose. In prayer we ask the Almighty to help us and help others and grant us our needs and wants. This advice to mix the two — to preface our prayers with praise sounds like it’s a technique to make sure our prayers get answered. It sounds like the idea is to manipulate God as we might manipulate another person. 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? A reframing of the nature and purpose of prayer is helpful in resolving this issue.
Rabbi Moses ben Joseph di Trani (known as Mabit, 1505-1585), the Sephardic Talmudist and chief rabbi of Safed, writes that these praises are obviously not intended to attain the Almighty’s favor but are actually rather for the supplicant’s own benefit. The universe (Hebrew: Olam, derived from the root a’yin lamed mem, which means “hidden”) is a massive 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 the religious. 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. This Talmudic teaching is helpful in this context. 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 before he prayed. 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. JN
Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs is director of the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth, rabbi at Beth Joseph Congregation and director of the Jewish Enrichment Center.