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Hear My Prayer

With blessing number 16, we end the middle section of the daily Shmoneh Esrei prayer. This large block of material which appear in the weekday service is called BAKASHOT or requests, and we conclude it all with what seems to be a general catch-all for human needs and longings. And, indeed many authorities view our blessing that way. It is common to see printed in Siddurim requests for health or livelihood to be inserted before the KI ATA SHOME’A TEFILOT AM’CHA YISRAEL (For You hear the prayers of Your people Yisrael). But there is another approach, which I subscribe to: This BERACHA presents its own request for a basic human need. 

What is this new human urgency? The need to pray! The human soul wants to express itself to our Maker. We need to pray more than we need any other requests fulfilled. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains this, when the first sentence of our blessing (Hear our voice, O Lord our God, spare us and have compassion upon us) introduces the confessional part of the Selichot service: 

This is the core of our faith on which the whole life of prayer is predicated…God is a personal God, that is to say, One who loves, cares, forgives, and relates to us as persons with our own fears and loves. God is more than an impersonal concept, entity or force, the God acknowledged by philosophers and scientists through the ages, Whom Yehuda HaLevi called ‘the God of Aristotle’. For us, He is also the God of Avraham, who calls to us and listens when we call to Him…An impersonal force cannot hear a prayer. An ‘It’ cannot forgive. Only One to whom we can say ‘You’ can do these things’ (Koren Yom Kippur Machzor, p. 161). 

 Our BERACHA then begs: And receive in compassion and favor (RATZON, we will further elucidate this term next week, when we discuss the RETZE blessing) our prayers. Why do we add these conditions to receiving our prayers. Why not just beg God to give us what we want? Well, that would be a grave mistake. Often, we ask for things which aren’t in our best interest (but I want to win the lottery!!). In 1932, Rav Soloveitchik fervently prayed for circumstances which would have allowed him to stay in Europe rather than emigrate to America. God not fulfilling that request saved his life, and immeasurably enriched American Jewry and my life. 

The Rav went on to explain that we have the assurance that God indeed hears or pays attention to our prayers, but doesn’t necessarily accede to our specific requests. It is our persistent hope that our requests be fulfilled, but it is not our ‘primary motivation’ for prayer. The Rav concluded, ‘In praying, we do not seek a response to a particular request, as much as we desire a fellowship with God’. 

At this point in the blessing, we have a practice of inserting specific BAKASHOT (requests) for any pressing need in our lives. After the asterisk, we confidently announce: For You pay attention to the prayer of Your people, Yisrael, with compassion. Then we conclude the blessing with this closing or CHATIMA: Who pays attention to prayer. 

This expression SHOME’A TEFILLA (Who pays attention to prayer) apparently comes from this verse: O You, Who hears prayer, all flesh (BASAR) will come unto You (Tehillim 65:3). The previous verse gives us some context, which, in turns, explains our prayer habits: Praise befits You in TZIYON, O God. So, before asking for our personal and national needs, it is appropriate to praise God. Plus, we must understand that the praises and prayers are addressed and focused towards Yerushalayim. 

We understand that praise and prayer can get us into intimate contact with God. But there’s a term in that verse 3 which requires some explanation. We say that all flesh and blood human beings will come to God, but how close? The word in the verse is ADECHA, variously translated as ‘to You’, ‘unto You’, ‘approach You’, or the old fashioned ‘unto Thee’. But we’re still not getting the full impact of this term. The Malbim explains that this expression means that the supplicant can reach all the way to the Divine Presence in the Heavenly Court, as opposed to mere flash and blood kings, who often are unapproachable, and are persuaded by bribes to a lackey, without ever encountering the king. 

  But I am really moved by Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch’s explanation for this phrase: Through the medium of prayer, we reach a level of delight (perhaps bliss, SHALVA) and exaltation (MITROMAMUT) which brings us to make the right decision, pertinent to our life, which we previously never even considered. It’s this reality that God pays attention to our prayers, which brings assurance to the human psyche that we can truly achieve connection to the Divine…At that moment, we can overcome all barriers to reaching all the way to (AD) God, achieving SHALVA and fulfillment for our soul. 

So, we end this list of both personal and national human needs with the declaration that this effort has been worthwhile because our God is SHOME’A TEFILA, the Being who hears our yearning for connection. This is all the more remarkable because we readily acknowledge that we are mere ‘flesh’ (BASAR). Nevertheless, we are imbued with a soul which desires this connection to the Infinite, and God grants this great boon. 

This ends the weekday shopping list of BAKASHOT. It culminated in the realization that our greatest needs are really spiritual, and all we really desired was connection. As Avraham Yehoshua Heschel explained: We pray to pray. There is no greater need. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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