As is often the style of Midrash Tanchuma, the section on Chayei Sarah starts with a slow reveal of what will prove to be a radical, new understanding of prayer and what it really means to achieve maximum concentration.
First the Midrash grounds the discussion in Jewish Law. Specifically, a law concerning achieving the proper concentration during prayer.
What do you do if you are riding on a donkey (or on a plane or bus) and you can’t get off to pray? Perhaps you are carrying valuables and you don’t feel it’s a safe place to stop. In this case you should pray on the donkey because that’s where you will be most at ease and have the best concentration. Speaking of concentration, the Midrash describes our forefather Avraham as the person who prayed with the most concentration. Now you would expect five tips from Avraham that we can emulate.
Instead, the Midrash demonstrates Avraham’s exceptional ability to concentrate during prayer by recalling an episode that seems totally unrelated – the fact that Avraham challenged God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.
What does saving 2 cities have to do with praying with concentration
That is, as long as you redefine and reimagine what effective prayer is all about,
Our first clue comes from God’s response when Avraham prayed that G-d reconsider destroying Sodom: The Midrash portrays God’s reaction with this verse from Psalms:
“You (have a sense of morality that) is more beautiful than anyone else’s; your speech is endowed with (inner beauty and) grace; That’s why God has given you an eternal blessing.” (Psalms 45:3)
Upon hearing God’s praise, Avraham proceeded with another prayer – challenging yet another aspect of the way God runs the world. Avraham asked that people exhibit signs of old age. He and his son looked exactly alike.
Why would God praise someone who questions the way He runs the world
The commentator to the Midrash, Kol Haremez, (Rabbi Mordechai Zeev) sums it up best. The definition of praying with maximum concentration is achieved when “your goals and intentions are in perfect harmony with those of God.”
Avraham had no personal gain in sparing the entire city of Sodom. Rather, Avraham’s only goal was to spread a recognition of God’s righteousness and justice in the world. Despite the wicked, perverse morals of Sodom, God still would have spared the entire city for the sake of 10 righteous people.
Praying to look old
In our society people go to great lengths to look younger, Yet Avraham prayed to look like an old man. He thought that God’s moral goals can be better achieved if the younger generation can learn from the experience and wisdom of their elders. His request was immediately granted.
Take a quick look at our most basic prayer – the Shemona Esrei. Our personal requests are aligned with God’s desires because each blessing testified to God’s all encompassing power in the world. Only God can grant wisdom, forgiveness, redemption, healing ,sustenance, to bring the Messianic age and, finally, in Shema Koleinu, to hear our prayers.
So next time you pray, take a lesson from the master of prayer – Avraham. He recognized that the essence of a heartfelt prayer is one that helps advance God’s ultimate plan for Mankind.