Why do we pray? Obviously, there could be many answers to that question. I think most people would say, “To get something.” Anything. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel railed against that response. He posited that prayer was an end in itself, and it allows us to fulfill a spiritual need for contact with something greater. “Prayer is attachment to the utmost...the essence of spiritual living” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p.342). Dr. Yeshaya Leibowitz averred that we pray because it’s a mitzvah, an obligation. No more info required. Many people pray because of the proven benefits. Prayer improves us both psychologically and physically (check it out https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/more-mortal/201406/5-scientifically-supported-benefits-prayer). I think there’s a different reason, and, even though it might seem to be a chutzpah on my part to weigh in on this heavy topic, I’m going to try.
This week’s parsha is very melancholy. We bid adieu to the Patriarchs and, indeed, to the book of Genesis. But our beloved ancestors can’t leave the stage without potent parting words. So, on his deathbed, Yaakov Avinu bequeaths his legacy to his sons in the form of cryptic messages, which we call blessings. There’s so much to learn from these “instructions” to his progeny, us. Each phrase of these memos could become the subject of its own essay. This year I’d like to analyze the end of the blessing or directive to the tribe of Dan, “l’shuat’cha kiviti Hashem, For Your salvation I hope, O Lord (Genesis 49:18).” What is the message in this dictum? Midrashically, it was assumed to be a reference to the most famous scion of Dan, namely Shimshon Hagibor. I’ve grown fond of Shimshon lately, because when we go out the back entrance from our apartment building here in Yerushalayim, we almost immediately find ourselves on Rechov Shimshon, which brings us to the nearest minyan and then to the marvelous urban park that follows the old train tracks. But the street’s namesake had a precipitous downfall. After being blinded and imprisoned, he could have given up all hope of salvation or success, but with his last ounce of courage, he called out to God, “O Lord, God, remember me and strengthen me now, only this once O God (Judges 16:28).” As most readers are aware, this performance brought down the house.
Why did Shimshon call to God with this prayer? Because he had hope. He remembered the blessing of Yaakov and continued to hope for salvation, redemption, success. The blessing isn’t only addressed to Dan and his descendants; we all are the audience for these revelations. Our Sages understood this when they reworked this phrase to include it in the penultimate bakasha (blessing of request) in our daily Shemoneh Esrei prayer. When we remind ourselves, in this blessing, how important it is to reestablish the Davidic or Messianic dynasty, we further announce that we have hope. Our expectation of redemption is a result of continued hope, even in our darkest hours. I don’t believe that we’re asking for anything; I believe that we are reminding ourselves which things are appropriate to want.
But it’s the expectation, the anticipation of the return of King David and his descendants, that includes this critical phrase from Yaakov’s blessings, because this is the ultimate expression of hope. The Talmud teaches that one of the questions we are asked upon arrival in heaven is “Did you expect the redemption?” (tzipita l’yeshua, Shabbat 31a). The word tzipita comes from tzofeh and really means to see or look for or notice. Rav Kook explained that this expectation or anticipation was twofold: first it must be in our thoughts and then it must affect our behavior. Judaism is rarely about how you think. It’s mostly about how you act. Judaism has been called a praxis rather than a religion, a system of behavior.
What about that word for hope, kivita? I wrote about this word years ago when my grandson Kaveh was born. It comes from the Hebrew word kav, which means a line. It expresses that our hope springs from this sense of connection. There is a line drawn from heaven to us. God is always throwing us a line to keep us from drowning in this chaotic world. In Kabbalah, many believe that after God performed tzimtzum, sort of absconded from the scene and thereby created the scene, a kav was left behind through which Divine influence infuses our realm. That kav creates our hope that things will turn out fine, that God continues to supervise our world.
And what is it that we hope for? Yeshuatecha, Your salvation. What is this “salvation”? The first time sha’a appears in the Torah is concerning the offerings of Kayin and Hevel (Genesis 4:3-5). It says God sha’a to the offering of Hevel but not to that of Kayin. This seems to mean that God “turned to,” or paid attention to one and not the other. That’s what we want, desire and yearn for, God’s attention. Our prayers are an invitation to God to notice and regard us. We want God in our lives. We may view this as a communication of what is important to us, an expression of what we do and want, our aspirations and dreams. But that’s just the beginning. Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said that prayer only starts with what’s left in our heart after all the words have been said. The essence of our prayers is our essence.
Rebbe Nachman (Likutei Ma’haran II, 78) said that the greatest sin is ye’ush, despair. Therefore, isn’t it logical to assume that the greatest mitzvah must be tikva, hope?
Whether it’s Shimshon Hagibor or you and me, we pray because we have hope that God is on the other end of the line. Modern Zionists, of course, understood this principle, and chose Hatikva as our anthem over Psalm 126, because without hope our actions have no purpose. Yaakov taught this to us through his blessing to the tribe of Dan. It’s a life-changing lesson. When all has been said, when crisis is imminent, the greatest cri de coeur is l’shuat’cha kiviti Hashem!
By Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi David Walk, who has recently made aliyah, was a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s education director. He continues to be a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years, he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.