All through nature, you will find the same law. First the need, then the means. -Robert Collier
God knows what we want. Luckily for us, He also knows what we need. Nonetheless, we are commanded to pray to Him on a daily basis. Our sages of the past even formulated specific prayers that we repeat every morning, afternoon and night. After a while, these prayers can appear monotonous.
However, at the end of the silent prayer (known as the “Amida” or “Shemona Esre”) there is space that is set aside for personalized individual prayers. This is the place where we can break free of the formal, highly structured liturgy composed by our Rabbis of old. This is the place to pray specifically for success in our upcoming deal, test or challenge. It is the place to pour our hearts, our innermost private thoughts to God, our wishes, hopes and desires.
The Sfat Emet for Parashat Vaetchanan in 5633 (1873) turns this paradigm on its head. He suggests that if we feel that we truly need something, we should focus on the established generalized liturgy as opposed to our specific personal requests. God knows what we want, knows what we need and knows why we are coming to pray. But by concentrating on the prescribed formulas; which include praise of God, general communal and national requests, and thanking God; we will merit fulfillment of our personal needs.
What the Sfat Emet recommends is counterintuitive. Don’t ask God directly for what you need in your prayer. Stick to the standard millennia-old text. He knows what to do. Somehow, acknowledging Him, honoring Him, thanking Him and thinking of the wider community and the world, opens up a channel for God to then demonstrate that He can in fact do anything. He then bestows some of that capacity and blessing on the petitioner who follows the correct sequence of words and thoughts.
May we appreciate the power of our ancient prayers and use them to our benefit.
To our son Akiva on his birthday. May he continue to have his prayers and needs gracefully fulfilled.