What is tefillah? It’s a question that addresses something so basic, so foundational to our daily living as a Jew and human that we almost never entertain it. Mistakenly translated “prayer,” which is derived from the Latin word meaning “to beg,” tefillah plays a central role in our identity, but its true relevance, meaning, and power are not always clear. Rabbi David Aaron shared a profound insight on the nature of tefillah, one that can transform how we relate to and experience its beauty and wonder.
In Parshat Vayechi, the saga of Yosef and his brothers ends, as Yaakov gifts each of his children with berachot (blessings) before he dies. Earlier than that, however, Yaakov is blessing Yosef’s children, and just as he’s about to start, the Torah says, “And Israel said to Yosef, ‘I never pilalti to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well’” (Bereishis 48:11). It’s from this pasuk, focused on the Hebrew word pilalti, that Rav Aaron derives tefillah’s meaning.
The Hebrew verb for tefillah is lihitpalel, a word that shares the same root with pilalti. Thus, taking a closer look at this pasuk provides critical insight into the verb for tefillah. Rashi comments that when Yaakov said he never “pilalti,” he meant that he “never filled his heart with the thought” that he would see Yosef’s face again. That’s a powerful characterization of his emotions. Returning to tefillah’s verb of lihitpalel, when we apply that textual understanding, we’re left with something beautiful.
The verb lihitpalel is reflexive, meaning it’s one that affects ourselves. So, in essence, when we engage in tefillah, we “pallel” ourselves; when we engage in tefillah, we fill our hearts with the thought of something wondrous. In this regard, tefillah is a meditation to fill our hearts with our deepest will, to connect to the Soul of our souls, the Root of all existence: Hashem.
Every spoken word of tefillah is thus chipping away at the shell of who we think we are and revealing the Divine spark that makes up who we truly are, allowing the Divine light buried within to illuminate the world.
It’s crucial to note that tefillah is not limited to our own self-transformation, rather when we change ourselves, we can change the whole world in the process. Rav Kook writes, “a person who believes that by changing oneself, one changes the world — since all existence is influenced by the transformation of one of its elements — this understanding of prayer will bring blessing to one’s soul and the entire world” (“Shmoneh Kevatzim” 1:664).
Tefillah is a meditation of self-searching, reaching within the depths of who we are to connect with Hashem, the Source of our selves, the Soul of all souls. In doing so, we bring our minds to a world of perfection, re-aligning who we are with who we want to be, and it’s through this exercise that we have the power to change the very fabric of reality. Health, wealth, perspective, and all we may ask for during tefillah are readily within our reach and influence.
As Sefer Bereishis closes with the conclusion of Parshat Vayechi, it’s especially fitting to engage with this new lens of tefillah. The Torah showed us love, failure, peace, struggle, responsibility, service, family, and every theme we find in life. We can only want to fill our hearts with the thoughts of our deepest selves, bringing out the purity of our inner worlds into the outer world, what we wish to see with where it can be. This is the essence of tefillah.
 As translated by Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz in “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook,” p.87