In this week’s Parsha we read that Ya’akov davened in the evening and then dreamed of a ladder that reached from earth to heaven and angels went up and down the ladder. What is the connection between Ya’akov’s prayer and his dream of the ladder?
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l explained that the ladder represents the Torah and its 613 Mitzvos, a ladder with 613 rungs. The most important part of life is not on which rung a person is standing, whether it is the 200th rung, the 400th rung, or the 600th rung. Rather, the most important aspect of life is whether a person is climbing up the ladder or climbing down the ladder. A person on the 200th rung who is moving up the ladder, is accomplishing more than a person on the 400th rung who is descending the ladder. The former is progressing, while the latter is regressing.
How do we climb up the ladder of spirituality? One way is through prayer.
What is prayer? What does it do for us? Prayer is a commandment of G-d. The Rambam explains, “It is a Mitzva from the Torah to daven daily, as the Torah states, “And you shall serve G-d”. From our tradition – Oral Law – our Rabbis learned that this service is prayer as it says, “And you shall serve Him with all of your heart”. What is the service of the heart? Davening. The number of tefillos is not from the Torah. The format of davening is not from the Torah. From the Torah, there is no set time for davening. The Rambam goes on to explain that people used to daven whatever they were comfortable with saying. Some davened more . . . some davened less. However, with the destruction of the 1st Bais Hamikdash and subsequent exiles, the ability of the people and their fluency to daven declined. Therefore, the Rabbis established set times and a format for davening.
G-d has commanded us to pray to Him, and to Him alone. In times of distress, we must turn to G-d for help; in times of comfort, we must express our gratitude to G-d and when all goes well with us, we must still pray to G-d daily that He continue to show us His mercies and grant us our daily needs.
When Yaakov davened, for what was he davening? The Torah does not tell us. The Torah does not explain how Yaakov’s prayers were fashioned. We don’t know if they were words of gratitude, words of distress or words of repentance. All we know is that he prayed. This is a lesson in and of itself.
Why do we pray? Afterall, does G-d need our tefillos? No. G-d can do without our tefillos. But, we cannot do without our tefillos. It is good for us to acknowledge our dependence upon G-d for our life, health and general welfare. We do not pray in order to receive. However, the reality is that, for many of us, our most fervent prayers are offered when we are in need, when we reach a moment of desperation, when our only hope is divine intervention. When a person has a need, he or she does have a mitzvah to pray to have that need filled. However, praying to have that need met or filled is not the ultimate goal of prayer.
The goal of prayer is to strengthen our connection to G-d . . . to express the desires of our soul and thereby develop them . . . to climb the ladder of spirituality. . . it is a time during the day when we have a chance to converse with G-d. That should be our focus at the time of davening. Other conversations can wait.
But, what if you say, “I don’t want to daven.” “It’s just a ritual for me.” “I am not in the frame of mind for davening.” “I am not in the mood for davening.” Does tefilla still serve a purpose then?
Rabbi Twerski from Pittsburgh, writes about an alcoholic patient who was an avowed atheist. This patient had difficulty following the recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous. However, after some time he was able to pray. When he was asked if he believed now in prayer, he replied. “I didn’t believe in G-d when I started praying and I don’t believe in Him, now. But, when I pray, that reminds me that I am not G-d.” So, there is something to gain from tefilla, even though we can’t always get into it. We are not in charge.
What about how to pray? Somebody once came to the Kotzker Rebbe and said, “Rebbe, I have a problem!” The Kotzker Rebbe said to him, “Daven to G-d.” The Chasid responded, “I don’t know how to daven to G-d!” The Rebbe responded, “Then you do have a problem.” The ability to pray properly is very important. It helps us climb up the ladder and connect to G-d.
Just as we pray for other needs, we should pray for knowledge of how to daven. Just as we eat appetizers to build our appetite, we should pray to improve our prayers. If we recognize that we are not davening as well as we should, it means that we have a need to daven better.
Let us daven to G-d that He should help us improve our davening. May G-d bless us with the ability to climb higher and higher on the ladder of spirituality.