Question: When we pray, are we requesting or demanding that God fulfill our wishes?
Answer: Last week we cited a Gemara (Berachot 55a) that a person who anticipates the fulfillment of his prayers may cause great harm to himself. Rashi explains that this Gemara refers to a person who believes his kavanah is of such a lofty spiritual level that he assumes G-d will answer his prayers. Such an egocentric person causes G-d to scrutinize his character. A person should properly view his prayers as humble requests.
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Under certain conditions teffilah may be formed as a demand. The following is culled from a taped shiur of HaRav HaGaon R. Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l, of Yeshiva University, which was recorded over 50 years ago at Congregation Moriah in Manhattan, NY:
The Gemara (Berachot 34b) reports the following: Rabban Gamliel’s son was ill. To pray for his son’s recovery, Rabban Gamliel sent two Torah scholars to Rav Chanina ben Dosa. Seeing the scholars approach, Rav Chanina went up to his attic and prayed for the son of Rabban Gamliel. When the two scholars came before Rav Chanina, he informed them that the son was already cured.
We can ask several questions about this story. First, why did Rabban Gamliel send two students? Why not one? Second, why send Torah scholars? Why not just send ordinary people? And finally, why didn’t Rav Chanina wait for the scholars to formally ask him to pray for Rabban Gamliel’s son?
The Gemara records a similar incident. Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s son was ill and Rabban Yochanan asked his student, Rav Chanina, to pray for him. Rav Chanina put his head down by his knees and prayed; the son got better.
This story, too, raises questions. Why, for example, did Rav Chanina put his head down by his legs?
Rav Soloveitchik offers the following analysis of these stories. He explains that Rav Chanina’s actions expressed a unique orientation towards prayer. Who walks with his head down near his feet? Not humans, but animals. Rav Chanina was symbolically beseeching G-d to sustain the sick son of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai just as he sustains the animals in the field regardless of their nature to do good or otherwise.
In Rav Chanina’s opinion, praying for an ill person has nothing to do with the character, personality, Torah knowledge, or religious observances of that person. Rav Chanina believed that since G-d gave humans life, they deserve good health as well, just as animals are given good health. To emphasize this point, Rav Chanina put his head between his legs.
Rabban Gamliel had a different approach to prayer. He believed that people of merit have a right to make demands of G-d. For this reason he sent to Rav Chanina not one but two students who were Torah scholars. Together with Rav Chanina, they would constitute a bet din that could issue a psak that the son of Rabban Gamliel, the spiritual leader of the Jewish people, merited compassion from G-d.
When Rav Chanina saw the two scholars approaching, he understood Rabban Gamliel’s intent and hurried to pray before they arrived since he disagreed with Rabban Gamliel’s approach to prayer. He believed one should pray with great modesty and not make demands based on one’s performance of mitzvot.
(Any error or misstatement in this article should be attributed to my understanding of Rav Soloveitchik’s shiur and not to Rav Soloveitchik himself.)
Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, is the author of several books on Jewish law including the recently published “Jewish Prayer The Right Way” (Urim Publications).