Tefilla – Arguing With Hashem?

Our tefillos are powerful. So powerful that they can change destinies.

And that’s made obvious by this week’s story about the golden calf.

It’s a story about sin. Sin so great that it made Hashem proclaim: “Let my anger flare up against them and I will destroy them.”[1]

It’s a story about tefilla. The tefillos that poured out when Moshe sought forgiveness for that sin: “Why should Hashem be angry at his people….. relent from the anger and reconsider regarding the bad that you spoke about doing to your people.”[2]

And it’s also a story about tefilla succeeding and changing Hashem’s course of action. So much so that Moshe’s tefillos made Hashem “reconsider on the harm that Hashem had spoken about bringing on his people.”[3]

Yes, tefillos can change destinies. Moshe’s tefillos did that after that sin. And our tefillos can do that here and now.

Which is why we’re taught: “tefillos never come back empty.”[4]

These revelations about tefilla, though, cause you to question: Isn’t Hashem’s divine wisdom perfect? If so, if Hashem is punishing us, then that’s certainly right for us. How, then, can we ask Hashem to reconsider that punishment? Isn’t such a request a second-guessing of Hashem’s perfect master plan?

The answers to these questions? They may lie in the realization that tefilla isn’t about changing Hashem’s plans. Tefilla may not even be directed at Hashem.

Whose plans, then, is tefilla meant to change? At whom, then, is tefilla directed?

Perhaps tefilla is meant to change our plans. And perhaps it’s directed at us.

Tefilla may be moments of introspection. Moments when we’re meant to ask ourselves: Which of our attitudes should we change? What relationships should we improve? What commitments can we better honor?[5]

Tefilla, then is really about us talking to ourselves. And that’s, indeed, what the Hebrew term for davening – “mispallel”- suggests. Sure, the actual Hebrew word for davening is “pallel.” But, when discussing davening, we don’t say pallel. We, rather, add a prefix - “mis” - and say “mispallel.”

Why? Because an added “mis” makes a word self-directed. The examples of such self-direction are many. Look, for example, at “rachetz,” the Hebrew word for wash. Adding “mis” and saying “mis-rachetz” creates a word that means “wash oneself.” Look, as well, at “laveish,” the Hebrew for dress. Adding “mis” and saying “mis-labeish” creates a word that means “dress oneself.”

“Mispallel,” accordingly, means to daven to oneself. And that is what we do, as noted before, when we introspect during tefilla.[6]

Such introspection can be soul searing enough to prompt lifestyle changes. Such changes can turn us into different people. And once we’re different people, Hashem may treat us differently. Not because Hashem’s mind changes; Hashem’s mind never changes. But because we’ve changed. And if we’ve changed, we deserve different destinies.[7]

Hashem may be paining us. Why? Perhaps to humble us. But our introspections may humble us. That may render additional humbling unnecessary. Or there may have been other reasons as to why Hashem is paining us. One such reason could be to subject us to “sufferings of love.” Such sufferings can afford us merits in the world to come.[8] But our tefillos can grant us great merits. Those merits may make “sufferings of love’s” merits unnecessary.

No, there’s no certainty that our tefillos will change our destinies.

And that’s because we don’t know why Hashem makes us suffer. We may, indeed, be suffering because Hashem wants us to be humbled or to experience “sufferings of love.” If so, davening may reverse our suffering. Hashem, though, may be paining us for other reasons. If so, our introspections and self-betterments may not address Hashem’s reasons.

When we daven, then, we don’t know if our tefillos will change Hashem’s plans.

When we daven, though, we do know that our tefillos will change us.

And that’s because tefilla opens the mind. That let’s us rethink priorities and legacies. And it opens the heart. That let’s us unearth generosities of soul.

All of which, of course, opens vistas and creates merits. And that may explain the enigmatic dictum that: “tefillos never come back empty.”[9]

Our rabbis don’t say that tefillos reverse all suffering. Tefillos don’t necessarily do that. People succumb to cancer and suffer despite heartfelt tefillos. Our rabbis only say that “tefillos never come back empty.”[10]

They only say that tefillos’ accomplishments – the vistas, the merits and the legacies – last forever.

Our tefillos, then, aren’t really about changing Hashem’s plans for us.

Our tefillos, though, are really about changing our plans for ourselves..

[1] Shemos 32:10

[2] Shemos 32:11-12

[3] Shemos 32:14

[4] Rosh Hashanah 17b

[5] Sefer Ha-Ikkarim, Ma’amar 4

[6] Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, Chorev, 4

[7] Sefer Ha-Ikkarim, Ma’amar 4

[8] Berachos 5a

[9] Rosh Hashanah 17b

[10] Loc. cit.

Please consider becoming part of the Ohr Tzvi family by sponsoring a parsha podcast.

Copyright © Ohr Tzvi. All rights reserved.