By: Rochel Holzkenner
When I complain to my friends, they call me a kvetch.1 But when I complain to G d, He appreciates it.
G d deeply values our requests. Maimonides explains this as a core element in the mitzvah of prayer. But first he gives us the biblical source for the mitzvah.
G d says, “Serve Me with all your heart.”2 The Sages of the Talmud ask, how do we serve G d with our heart? They answer that serving G d with our heart is done by praying to Him.
After establishing the biblical source for prayer, Maimonides tell us how to pray.
“This commandment obligates each person to offer supplication and prayer every day and utter praises of the Holy One, blessed be He; then petition for all his needs with requests and supplications; and finally, give praise and thanks to G d for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him.”3
So G d wants us to: a) praise Him; b) ask Him for something; and c) express gratitude to Him.
The fact that G d wants us to praise Him is understandable. What’s surprising is that He actually wants us to “petition for all of our needs.” So, if we need something and haven’t asked for it, we haven’t “served G d with all of our heart.”
Imagine G d pressing His ear up (or down) against your prayerful whispers and saying, “My precious daughter, tell me about life from your vantage point. What’s bothering you? What do you feel you need in order to make life even better? I want to hear!”
Now, what is the appropriate way to talk to G d when I petition for my needs? Should I put in a gentle word for myself or should I put in an assertive strong willed petition?
In 1970, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explored this question and many other questions about prayer.4 The Rebbe gave a talk in honor of his mother, Rebbetzin Chana Shneerson, and the topic of his discussion was the biblical Chana, mother of the prophet Samuel. For many, many years, Chana desperately wanted to have children but was infertile. She begged G d passionately for her dream to come true.
Chana and her husband had come to Shiloh to celebrate the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. As they sat and ate their pilgrimage meal Chana wept profusely. Even after all these years, the pain in her heart was like an open wound. Her husband, watching her weep, tried to console her.
“Chana, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than 10 sons?”5
Chana was fortunate to have her husband’s love and his compassion. But that didn’t stop her from wanting more. As the meal concluded, Chana got up and walked alone to the Tabernacle to weep again, this time pouring out her soul to G d.
“So Chana rose up after they had eaten in Shilo, and after they had drunk. … And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the L rd, and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow, and said, O L rd of hosts, If you will indeed look on the affliction of your handmaid, and remember me, and not forget your handmaid, but will give to your handmaid a man-child, then I will give him to the L rd all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head.”6
Chana was not alone in the Tabernacle. Eli, the high priest, was there and observed her praying. Eli was concerned. It seemed to him that in her desperation and pain, Chana was speaking to G d with disrespect, with too much assertion. He approached her and gave her some constructive criticism. He told her that she was speaking to G d like someone who is drunk and speaks without inhibition or decorum.7 Chana, however, didn’t accept Eli’s critique. Instead she responded by saying that there was nothing inappropriate about her prayer at all, quite the contrary.
“No, my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit, and neither new wine nor old wine have I drunk, and I poured out my soul before the L rd.”8
When you pour out your soul, she seemed to say, that is what it sounds like: intense, raw and vulnerable. And you only wear your heart on your sleeve like that if you know G d is listening and He cares.
When Eli heard Chana’s response he immediately retracted his critique and instead he blessed her.
That night, Chana conceived a miracle child, Samuel, a prophet of the highest caliber. The day that she defended her passionate prayer, her prayer was answered. Her story is not only inspirational, it is instructive.9 Chana was modeling a deep and heartfelt conversation with G d, conversation that is worthy of the Torah’s words about prayers: “serve him with all of our heart.”
Together with her passionate and assertive plea to G d, one can also sense Chana’s humility. It seems counterintuitive; how do you emphatically tell G d to change your circumstance and still feel humble?
A parallel example to this duality is the Amidah prayer (aka, Shemoneh Esrei) itself; it is the prayer of humility, and at the same time, it is the prayer of requests. The formalities of the Amidah prayer remind us to be humble in our conversation with our King. We stand (hence, its name—amidah, “standing”) like subjects, feet together and torso upright; the most humble and respectful stance. We bow several times, another sign of our humility and subservience to G d. And finally, we speak to G d in a humble tone. We whisper; loud enough to hear our own voice but low enough to be inaudible to others. And yet with all of those humble dressings what are we actually saying? G d, give me greater understanding, make me healthy and wealthy. How does that jive with acting all humble?
According to Kabbalah, the Amidah prayer is about humility. The daily prayer is compared to a four-rung ladder.10 Just like a ladder is climbed up and down, our prayers are brought up to G d, and His influence is brought down because of our prayers.
The fourth rung of the metaphorical ladder of prayer consists of one prayer: the Amidah. Kabbalah teaches that on this fourth rung, while reciting the Amidah, that we are elevated to the spiritual world of Atzilut,11 the world closest to G d Himself. In the world of Atzilut, G d’s creative power is so obvious that we become naturally humble and more G d-centered. That’s why we stand, why we bow and why we speak quietly. And that is also why we ask G d for what we want. Being G d-centered doesn’t mean not speaking up; it can mean speaking up and sticking out your neck for something bigger than yourself. It means mustering up the effort needed to make the world a better place, a dwelling for G d.
When a doctor passionately petitions for better medical equipment for the sake of his patients, is that coming from arrogance or humbleness? The doctor can make a good living with the status quo equipment. But if one more life can be saved with better tools, and the doctor goes to town with his petition to the hospital board, that’s humility!
Moving on to my precocious 7-year-old son … boy, can he lose control when he gets angry! In addition to teaching him to self-regulate, I pray and beg of G d for his emotional growth. I’m his mother, his advocate. I want to do everything I can to grow him into the amazing human I know he can be. When I’m at the top of the ladder of prayer, I’m going to give a big shout-out to G d for my son’s growth and well-being. I think that G d appreciates my concern and petitions for His child.
What about my house? I want to upgrade some parts of it. Is that an appropriate petition to include in the Amidah, or is that me just being selfish? Before I write off my attraction to materialism as purely selfish, I can ask myself this: What do I imagine that having a (nicer home, in my case) will give me? A more comfortable place for my family to grow. A nicer environment to host guests. OK, my soul can get behind that, too. Maybe it can be appropriate to petition for aesthetics during this prayer of G d-centeredness.
I’d argue that almost all of our requests have body-soul synchronicity After all, the soul wants us to live our best lives so that we can be productive, empowered and make the world a better place, and for that end, it needs material resources. G d’s deepest desire is for us to create a dwelling place for Him in this material world. Our soul is always on the lookout for upgrades and better resources, and all for G d’s sake. Like a dedicated servant, our soul tells G d: “Give me access to spiritual, emotional and material success so that I can be more effective at making a home for You.”
King David also acknowledges the body-soul connection in our attraction to materialism. “Hungry and thirsty, their soul longs within,”12 he writes. This verse speaks of two topics: hunger and thirst that are bodily urges, and the longing of the soul, a spiritual urge. Why are they spoken about together? Because the body is hungry when the soul longs to find G d in this world. When we eat, we can uplift the spark of G d in the food by saying a blessing over it and using the food’s energy to fuel our meaningful activities.13 Of course, our body can also get carried away by the pleasure of food and overeat. But at its core, our attraction to food is our soul detecting what it needs to function effectively and uplift our material universe.
That’s why G d wants us to petition Him for any life improvement. Of course, G d knows what we need and want. But G d also wants us to co-pilot our soul’s journey. He wants us to live our best life and plan for success. The more we ask Him for, the more engaged we are in His Master Plan for uplifting the world.
Sometimes, G d answers, “not yet.” But He’s still so glad we asked—and the more passionately, the better.
The Baal Shem Tov teaches that sometimes G d takes a few steps away; away from me. I’m left feeling anxious and lonely. But there is an opportunity here as well. To walk towards Him, to follow Him. The Baal Shem Tov compares G d in this moment to a parent who takes two or three steps away from a child who is learning how to walk. The child then takes three glorious and shaky steps, and then leaps into the parent’s arms. In the exact same way (and even more so), G d is eagerly waiting for me to look for Him in my vulnerability.
We begin the Amidah prayer by taking three steps backwards and then taking three steps forward.14 Perhaps we can relate this to the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching. G d, You step away from me and withhold some of my needs. But I will follow you. Only You can make my dreams come true.
Dear G d, let me tell you what I think I need in order to live my best life and to make the world a better and holier place in the way that only I know how. I know you want to hear.
Now I am ready to walk forward and pray.
Kvetch is a person who complains a great deal. See: What Does Kvetch Mean?
Mishna Torah, Tefillah and Birkat Kohanim, Chapter One.
Likkutei Sichot, vol. 19, p. 291
Samuel I 1:8
Based on the interpretation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
The Talmud tells us that we learn many laws of prayer from the story of Chana’s prayer (Brachos 31).
In Jacobs’s dream, he saw a ladder standing on earth and reaching to heaven. The Talmud tells us that in his dream, he was privy to the stages of ascent during prayer.
The name Atzilut is derived from the word aitzel, adjacent to
Keter Shem Tov, sec. 194, p. 25c; see also Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, p. 177.
Source in Shulchan Aruch.
Rochel Holzkenner is a mother of four children and the co-director of Chabad of Las Olas, Florida, serving the community of young professionals. She is a high-school teacher and a freelance writer—and a frequent contributor to Chabad.org. She lectures extensively on topics of Kabbalah and feminism, and their application to everyday life.