The posuk in Mishlei states, “K’kesef lematzreif v’cur l’zahav, ish k’fi mehalalo – Like silver in the refinery and gold in the crucible, so is a man according to his praise.” The Sefer Chareidim explains this cryptic verse as follows: Just as the refinery reveals if there is dross in the silver and the crucible discovers if there are imperfections in the gold, so too the way one praises Hashem is a barometer of one’s yiras shamayim. The late Spinka Rebbe, zt”l, used to say that one of the ways to check out a young man as a potential mate is to see how he davens. As a proof to this, we find that the first time Rivka met her future husband Yitzchak, it says, “Then Yitzchak went out to have a conversation in the field.” The Gemara reveals that it was then that Yitzchak inaugurated the tefilla of Mincha and he was conversing with Hashem. Thus, Rivka got a chance to “check out” Yitzchak by the way he was davening to Hashem.
The Gemara teaches us in Masechtas Berachos, “Prayer is greater than good deeds.” The proof of this is the fact that no one had more good deeds than Moshe Rabbeinu. He took us out of Egypt and across the Red Sea, he brought down to us the Torah from Heaven and saved us from destruction when we sinned with the Golden Calf. Yet, it was only after V’eschanan Hashem that he prayed 515 prayers to Hashem. Then he was granted at least the right to go up to the high ledge and see all of Eretz Yisrael.
At first glance, the conclusion of the Gemara – that prayer is greater than good deeds – seems puzzling. If you ask your wife what she values more, the vacuum cleaner or the washing machine, the dishwasher or the microwave, the Magic Chef or the crockpot, the refrigerator or the stove, she’ll look at you quizzically and exclaim, “They’re all important and equally necessary. What kind of question is that?” Similarly, how could you compare prayer to visiting the sick, supplications to comforting a mourner or gladdening the heart of a bride?
I believe this is the explanation of this Gemara: When we visit the sick, it might not be altruistic. We might be hoping that one day the person we are visiting will remember the favor and do us a good turn as well. If we give money to an organization, we might be looking forward to an honor at the next dinner, and if we deliver a package for Tomchei Shabbos, we might be aspiring for someone to see our activism and that this will help us with our daughter’s shidduchim. But when one take those three steps forward and starts davening, whether they are talking to Hashem or thinking about what they are going to eat when they get home, or about taking a nap or going shopping, or the next client’s needs, only Hashem knows. Thus, davening is the true litmus test of yiras shamayim, one’s awareness of Hashem.
In a very real way, davening is one of the final frontiers of Jewish life. Many learn a lot, engage in significant charity and have fine families, but their prayer is still very subpar. Many are not familiar with what the words mean or how the sentences blend. Many people space out and just say the words aimlessly while their minds wander. As the Yarish Dvash bemoans, “What a chutzpah it is that we ask in the beginning of the Shemone Esrei, “Hashem open my lips and my mouth will relate your praise,” while in truth we are just muttering as our minds are just perusing over our daily need-to-do list.
Over a thousand years ago, the Gemara made the comment that “[prayer] is something that penetrate the very Heavens and people neglect them.” This was true then and it is certainly true now in our tech-driven, frenetically paced lives.
Incredibly, Rosh Chodesh Elul is right around the corner, beginning on August 8 this year. The word Elul, as we know, is an acronym for “Ani Dodi v’Dodi li – I am to my Beloved [Hashem] and my Beloved is to me.” Since, of course, we want Hashem’s special attention, the very best way is to seriously reevaluate our prayer habits and learn to focus exclusively on Hashem when we open our siddur or our bentcher.
In that merit, may Hashem answer our prayers and grant us all long life, good health, and everything wonderful.