Prayer's Place

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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Parshat Vayeira contains the narrative of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. As part of this narrative, we have Avraham's prayers on behalf of these cities, pleading with Hashem to spare them if there are even a minimum number of righteous men within the city. After his final plea, Avraham returns home, not knowing whether his prayers were successful.

The following morning, Avraham rises early and goes to the spot where he had stood and prayed so fervently the day before. He looks toward the cities and sees that his prayers for the salvation of Sodom did not achieve his goal. Indeed, all Avraham sees is devastation.

Interestingly, Rabbi Lopiansky notes that our Sages point to this moment, when Avraham again stands before Hashem, sees the apparent failure of his earlier prayers, as the very moment we cite in attributing to Avraham Avinu the establishment of the Morning Prayer, Shacharit. Further, this is the source for us to establish a makom kavuah/designated, regular place from which we will pray. Avraham had indeed prayed on many occasions. What is significant about this moment and this place? This is even more puzzling as Avraham Avinu is not actually praying here at this moment; he is simply standing there, at the spot he had prayed the previous day, adds the Tolne Rebbe in Heimah Yenachamuni. Yet coming to this same spot implies a sense of humility, continues Rabbi Lopiansky.

Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz explains that our surroundings impact our physical bodies. A routine keeps us calm, while roving from place to place creates a sense of uncertainty. If this is true in the physical realm, writes R. Lopian, how much truer is it in the spiritual realm, for the body is the permanent "place" of the soul. If the body is restless, how can the soul be tranquil and contemplative? It is difficult to keep our minds from wandering even while standing in prayer in Shemoneh Esrei. At least if we designate a particular place for our davening, we are preparing our mindset for our "meeting" with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. [Lehavdil, psychologists and doctors tell people who have difficulty falling asleep to designate the bedroom completely for sleep only -- no devices, no TV's. Entering the bedroom will then focus you on sleep without distractions. CKS]

Establishing a designated place for tefillah not only helps one to focus, but also attributes importance to that space, adds the Sifsei Chaim. When I go to that set place, I am setting the tone for this important encounter with Hashem, for having a plan, and setting myself up for successful prayer.

A designated place creates a sense of permanence: This is where I meet Hashem. This is the מקום, the setting for God, Whose Name is also מקום. This is where I stand in prayer, as did Avraham Avinu, and as we do daily in the עמידה./Standing Prayer.

Avraham Avinu comes to his permanently designated place, the place he stands in prayer before Hashem. Standing before Hashem, he, and we, proclaim our complete dependence on Hashem, even without words. Tefillah/תפילה, prayer, internalizes that idea. Thus standing before Hashem is the very essence of prayer. Citing Rabbi Hirsch, the Sifsei Chaim notes that the root of tefillah means to judge. In the grammatical context, להתפלל is reflexive. When one stands in prayer, one is judging himself, his worthiness, his accomplishments. One questions whether he merits all that Hashem bestows on him, and if he is worthy of asking Hashem for anything. With this introspection comes the humility that true prayer requires.

Even within a shul one should try to have his designated place, urges Rabbi Nevenzahl. Having a designated place brings a sense of continuity from one moment of connection to the next. You go to your spot and you are entering the zone. We are entering this spot to bless Hashem and to ask for His blessing, As we intone ברוך אתה/Blessed are You..., we are acknowledging that You, Hashem, are the ברכה, the pool from which all good is drawn. We come to the humble realization that we can't do it ourselves, that we need Hashem's help in all we do and have. As we daven the Shemonei Esrei with all its requests, for life, health, wisdom, sustenance, although we are required to put in our own effort, all depends on Hashem. Even my ability to pray comes from Hashem., for we introduce this important prayer with, "May Hashem open my lips so that my mouth speak Your praises."

This is where Avraham Avinu becomes the model of true prayer, continues Rabbi Nevenzahl. Just one day earlier Avraham had spent what must have been many hours in deep dialogue, pleading with Hakodosh Boruch Hu to spare Sodom. Yet when he awoke this morning and gazed down at the land, all he saw was smoke and destruction. Rabbi Nevenzahl notes that וישקף/he gazed generally refers to looking negatively. Why did Avraham Avinu now look at Sodom with a negative eye when he tried so desperately to save the area? The worthiness or unworthiness of the people had not changed. Rabbi Nevenzahl explains that both in the earlier prayers and in this day's devastation Avraham was concerned only with Hashem. Had the city been saved because there were ten righteous men within, it would have been a great sanctification and glorification of God's Name. Now that the city was destroyed, as there weren't even a minimum number of righteous people within it, Avraham accepts Hashem's decision completely. Avraham's will was completely sublimated to God's will.

It is difficult to maintain that humility while we pray. Our prayers, often, are egocentric. Avraham was able to sync his desire with Hashem's so that his mind and heart were always aligned with God's will. This was the place and the time where that alignment was most manifest and obvious, where Avraham could sublimate his will to God's will.

One can have a business style relationship with Hashem and follow the letter of the "contract;" do whatever Hashem commands and refrain from doing anything prohibited. But I will still follow my personal agenda as long it it doesn't conflict. The higher level relationship, writes Rabbi Lopianky, is going beyond the letter of the law and asking yourself, "What would God want me to do?" Making His will your will raises the level of the relationship. Hashem then reciprocates by making our will his will.

Our prayers incorporate both these levels. We certainly asks Hashem to fulfill our desires, but when we are koveya Makom, we are affixing our prayers to the Makom/Omnipresent Hashem, we are making His will our will. That is why we introduce so many of our prayers with, "Yehi ratzon.../May it be Your will...."

It is in this spot, facing a destroyed Sodom, that Avraham Avinu changes and sublimates his personal will to God's will. in perfect humility. By setting a designated place for our prayers, we begin to focus on making His will our will, we are meeting Him in His "office" rather than at a random place.

Tefillah is not just about requests, writes the Tolne Rebbe in Heimah Yenachamuni. [What an appropriate title to comfort us today. CKS] Tefillah is about having a heart to heart talk with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, telling Him what is on my mind, creating a deep relationship. That morning, Avraham stands before Hashem without words, just wanting to connect. Even more than a physical space is the mental space we are setting for our rendezvous with Hashem. Dedicating a physical place should be the catalyst for the change in mindset.

In Siach Yaakov, Rabbi Blau brings a related perspective to our discussion. Rabbi Blau suggests that the place Avraham Avinu chose to designate as his spot for tefillah is described as overlooking Sodom, a most beautiful, fertile place, comparable to Egypt on the banks of the Nile. [As Gaza had the potential to be the Riviera of the Middle East. CKS] Here is where Avraham could see the goodness and beauty Hashem had bestowed on the world, and could easily be aroused to speak to Hashem and thank Him. Now, seeing the destruction and ruin of this same area, one could think that Avraham Avinu would move to a different location to speak to Hashem. But Avraham stays in the same place. Avraham is teaching us that in our prayers, we must thank Hashem both for the good He bestows upon us and for what we perceive as bad, for both answered prayers and unanswered prayers We accept both as God's will, and therefore inherently good, even if we do not understand. As Rabbi Weinberger teaches, a Jew cannot despair. Hold on tight, even when Hashem hasn't answered your prayer. Avraham Avinu kept his faith and continues to desire the relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, even in the face of such destruction.

Our prayers are never futile, reminds us Rabbi Pincus. Even if they are unanswered at this moment, with this particular request, the prayer is stored in God's flask to be retrieved when it is needed somewhere or sometime else. We do not know when Hashem will draw on those prayers, benefiting the children or grandchildren of he who offered the prayer. Avraham Avinu believed his prayer, although not answered at this time, was not in vain. Therefore, he established the morning prayer, Shacharit. Today we continue to benefit from his prayers, thousands of years later.

While Avraham's prayer did not achieve the full result he had hoped, his prayers were still effective. Although Avraham could not save Sodom, his prayers saved Lot, from whom the ultimate salvation and savior will descend. From his line will come Ruth the Moabite, the great grandmother of King David and ancestress of Moshiach.

A final lesson for us. Avraham did not see his prayers fulfilled, yet, his faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu remained the same. He did not get depressed or disillusioned. He returned to the same relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu that he had had earlier.

As we continue to pray for the safety of our brave chayalim, the return of the hostages, and true peace in Eretz Yisroel, may we merit to see our prayers answered very soon.