Why Ask? Part 1

Photo by Prasanth Dasari on Unsplash

Author’s introduction: You may know from my writing — I study full-time in a Yeshiva. The curriculum is intense; hours every day spent on Talmud and Jewish law — as well as a good dose of Jewish thought and Kabbalistic mysticism. The greatest setback that I’ve found when it comes to the study of mysticism (and, in the case of this article, the study of man’s relationship with G-d) is its inherent elusive nature. It has trained me in a way of thinking — to grapple with the unknown until it clicks; until it settles. Until I think I got it. At least until a new doubt arises (and the process starts again.) To reach that clarity, at times, a parable is in order. It speaks to me of matters I more obviously relate to and which I can use as a stepping stone to grasp the concepts discussed in the texts. The following essay revolves around a parable which was formulated as I was deliberating over the question-answer (I had studied from the texts — not an original of my own) that will be presented in these pages. This essay, then, is with a personal twist — laying out my understanding of this delicately subtle subject, and the means (the parable) by which I came to appreciate it. I do hope the article only brings clarity to those that read it and I look forward to hearing your feedback, comments, and thoughts. Let it commence!

You’ve finally made it. With trepidation, you stand there silently in the courtyard. Quite an imposing structure you are facing. Exquisite water fountains surround the premise. You approach the entrance and show the unsmiling robust figure your pass, imprinted with the royal seal. Somewhat hesitantly, as if worried you might be denied.

Quite systematically, the uniformed official swings open the palace gate and an usher accompanies you inside. All the way. Past hallways and chambers of stunning art, riches, and beauty. And not just a few from the royal court, pompously strutting about in flowing robes. He then leads you into that one chamber. The most regal on the outside and the most formidable within. Because of that all-important seat at the far end of the room and the even-more-significant monarch whose aura pervades the very air. All present bow humbly and quietly withdraw. It is now your moment. An overwhelmed simple fellow, and the king himself. Alone.

The king is watching you. And you can feel his compassion and love in his gaze. His care for a people over whom he was appointed to protect and govern. Whom he is meant to represent amongst the countries of the world. And with a mixture of awe and a heart pumping with devotion, you find it hard to meet his stare.

The king starts, “What is it that you seek, my good man? What might you be lacking?”

“I lack nothing,” you find yourself saying. “Many thanks to his highness, but I have been granted all that I need and plenty more.”

“But I am sure there must but something that would enhance your being!”

“I am but forever grateful that I was granted this wonderful opportunity to stand in his majesty’s presence. I can think of nothing grander. This has been the fulfillment of my hearts deepest desire. I dare not ask for more.”

And with that pious sentiment, your meeting has come to its end.

You may have noticed that the story was merely a parable. Keep the narrative in mind; we will get back to it. Now for the meaning:

The moment described was a man in prayer — in its ideal form. Our nation has been granted a unique opportunity; each and every individual can stand in the presence of their benevolent Creator three times a day. In supplication and absolute nullification. Well, if one were to recognize the significance of the moment, that is.

The prayers have been set up as a process (assuming one is praying with the traditional prayer book — or siddur. But more on that later.) At first, one reads the verses describing G-d’s greatness — like the man awestruck by the beauty of the palace. Just to get into the feel of things. Then comes the Shma. The famous “Shma yisroel — Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One,” that was heard on the lips of holy martyrs throughout our (painfully) storied history. And we again affirm the core of our belief. That our G-d in heaven is the one force or power to reckon with. And we — Israel — are but a part of his sublime Oneness, created in His image.

And now we’re ready. We enter that chamber. The one which is known as the Amidah. It’s time to speak to Him directly.

“Blessed are You, Lord our G-d and G-d of our fathers… Abraham… Isaac… and Jacob, the great, mighty and awesome G-d, exalted G-d, who bestows bountiful kindness, who creates all things… Blessed are You, Shield of Abraham.”

And like the lucky fellow in our story, one is completely overwhelmed. Thinking only of G-d’s ultimate transcendence and His compassion towards His intricate handiwork — our world. And like our simple patriotic countryman, one feels no lack and in no need. Just blessed to be standing and conversing with the Master of all that is. Right?


Prayerful Meditation by Chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman

The prayers continue:

“Blessed are You, Lord, who revives the dead… You are holy… Blessed are you, Lord, the holy G-d.”

So eloquently full of praise. But here is where the tone changes:

“Blessed are you, Lord, who graciously bestows knowledge… who redeems Israel… who heals the sick of His people… who blesses the years (with livelihood)…”

And so it reads, on and on about our needs. With all due respect to the prayer book, isn’t it just a bit out of place? Disrespectful, even? Are we not, then, basking in the glow of the Omnipresent?

Let’s discuss the fundamentals. Prayer is a mitzvah (a Biblical commandment) that was granted to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai (as part of a package deal — 613 mitzvos in all.) Each mitzvah was given with its definition and key requirements as to its fulfillment. The core essentials for the mitzvah of prayer is the (praising and thanking G-d, as well as) “petitioning for the needs of oneself with requests and supplications.” — (Maimonides, Laws of Prayer.) Or, in the words of the Maimonides’ contemporary, the underlying mitzvah is “to beseech G-d for what you need, whenever you need it, especially in times of distress!” — (Nachmanides, circa 1250 CE.) Turns out, one who piously sticks to the “praising” component is missing a vital element of prayer!

And now, just a little about the evolution of prayer: In the times of the Court of Ezra (500 BCE), the sages noticed that, as a result of exile, the Jewish people did not have a clear tongue in any language. Rather, they commonly spoke some sort of compound dialect. (“Half Ashdodit… and according to the language of various peoples.” — Books of Prophets.) Consequentially, the average Jew did not feel comfortable and adequate in his/her prayers. Ezra’s court thereby enacted the prayers thrice daily with the gist of the siddur that we are presently familiar with — as a place where every Jew can find his or her needs and requests plainly and beautifully spelled out.

Although that explains the prayer books, (and thanks to Ezra for his hard work), the fundamental question still persists. Namely, how truly are we to reconcile the two distinct pulls of prayer? Is it to be a cherishable moment, in the presence of the Life of all that was to be? Or… just a chance to let Him know that we could use some help down here?

And here’s where our story might help us. The moment with the monarch is a bit less positive this time around, so we’ll alter our narrative from the personal second person to the more classic medieval story. Our protagonist who had entered the king’s chamber is now Peter — who has since made his way back to his village. This, then, is the Middle-Aged fable of Peter and the King. Enjoy!

The contrast is stark; ironic even. The royal entourage galloping blissfully into the town, on what should have been a road. Except it isn’t. It’s hardly a marked trail of earth and mud surrounded by more earth (and mud.) And what looks like huts — nearly the size of one of the king’s single stables. A couple of goats roam freely. Even the visitors’ horses were a rarity, in this town only accustomed to dire poverty.

The townspeople are gathered. (And yes, Peter is there too.) Exhilarated, yet nervous. They could not fathom what had triggered the king to set on this long trek, to a town that didn’t really seem to have much to offer on any standard. Rumors abound. Yet most are baseless and even ridiculous. The women of the town discussed the riches the king was surely to bring, as they sat together weaving by the fireplace into the night. The local pub had their own take on things. Surely he was coming to quelch a rebellion. For after all, historically, no good has followed in any ruler’s wake.

This time was different though. For this was a different kind of leader. The perfect monarch. (He may have never really existed, but bear with me here.) One who took responsibility. One who made it his goal to protect his people. And their honor was his honor. One who took pride in their happiness. And here he was to see for himself what he had accomplished. And a single glance at his surroundings was quite enough to arouse a deep-seated disappointment. Like he had been fooled.

His soldiers open the coach and he regally steps into the outside air. The town’s leader boldly steps forward to present the king with their meager tribute. He’s wearing the only suit in town. And clearly borrowed, at that, as it was obviously tailored for someone of bigger dimensions. (His name is Peter, by the way.) He stands with his head bowed waiting for permission to speak.

“What is it you would like to present, my dear fellow?”

“Your Highness, we had sent our finest delegation to the shops in the nearest city, and our entire loyal population has given all of their means, in order to present to your Royal Highness our most heartfelt tribute. Please accept this bottle of wine, from the choicest the city had to offer.”

It didn’t take a king to recognize that the wine was barely of medium grade. But they clearly had meant well. Never mind, more important things held his attention.

“Do you represent all of the townspeople?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Did you receive the invitation to have with me a private meeting at the royal palace?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“And did you make the arduous journey?”

“Of course, my master. I would never miss such a grand opportunity!”

“Did I not ask what it is you might need?”

“Yes, you did.” Peter looked straight down, starting to feel oddly uncomfortable.

“And?!” The king demanded, his eyes sweeping the surroundings. “Is there then nothing that this town lacks?! Do you never wish for a better life?! Why, do you even have the means for the basic necessities?”

“Yes,” Peter responded bashfully. “We make ends meet for bread — on an average day;” his face starting to turn colors, realizing how silly that just sounded. Yes, the people were hungry, even on the average day — not to mention the living conditions. The townsmen were simple, honest, hard workers, not the type to complain. (Unless they had a couple of drinks in the tavern. But even then, bickering was just a part of life. To be savored until the next day of labor.) But they deserved a break. A break he had neglected to ask for.

“Bread? On an average day?! So, why then,” the king started, sounding exasperated and almost desperate, “did you not ask for what you need? Do you think this is how I want my people to live? Why didn’t you ask?”

And at this point, no answer would really help. There was only a lingering question, from a loving king. One who was disappointed and irritated. (And just a bit angry, as kings can get sometimes.)

“Why didn’t you ask?!”

Which leads us back to a simple principle of faith; namely, G-d is good. G-d wants to do good. We are G-d’s creation. We were chosen to be His expression in the world which He formed. To be His children. To be a part of Him. And our honor is His honor; He takes pride in our happiness.

In our intimate moment, He wants us to let Him know what we need. Because our needs are (so to speak) His needs. Is it inappropriate, in the presence of the Omnipotent, to only think of oneself? Of course. One should think about Him. And He wants us to ask.

(Ok, this parable thing is ridiculous! G-d doesn’t know what I need? Don’t my hardships come from Him? Ah, of course He knows. Yet, in this scheme He created, we take on a big role; we’re in the driver’s seat. He wants us to ask.Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves though. Do remember, this is only part 1…)

So the next time you might be in need, turn your eyes heavenward and ask. It is, after all, a mitzvah.

And when we’re happy, you can be assured that the Great Artist is smiling as well. And when He’s happy, his devoted children can’t help but be overjoyed. Which creates a better universe; one that’s well worth living in.

“Blessed are you, Lord, who listens to our prayers.” Amen.

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