This Midrash is difficult to understand. It implies that if a person does not pay attention to the words of his prayer, he has prayed albeit not properly. But the very definition of prayer is a request, a petition of God. If a person mouths the words while his thoughts are elsewhere, is this prayer?
To be sure, at the very least one must be attentive to his words. The Midrash, however, is referring to a higher level of prayer. The clue to understanding this Midrash is in the pasuk the Midrash brings. The pasuk says that God prepares their hearts and He listens to their prayers. Shouldn’t the pasuk say that the ones who pray prepare their own hearts? Why does it say that God prepares their hearts? The Sfas Emes explains that at the highest level, true preparation is also from God. The Midrash is teaching us that a person who prays in a totally unselfconscious way, pouring out his heart before God, has reached a level of prayer at which God Himself prepares and directs that person’s heart towards Him. This type of prayer is certainly heard.
But why would we want God to direct our hearts? Can we not direct our own hearts? The answer to this question is related to the reason a person approaches God with a request. At its highest level, prayer is not about asking for our own benefit. At its highest level, prayer is about asking for the sake of Heaven. The pasuk in Mishlei (16:1) says, “לְאָדָם מַעַרְכֵי־לֵב וּמֵה' מַעֲנֵה לָשׁוֹן/The preparation of thoughts in the heart are man’s but the response of the tongue is from God.” A person who reaches the highest level of prayer, whose prayers are for the sake of Heaven is so completely unselfconscious and involved in the connection to God that the prayer affords, that he even forgets the need that brought him to prayer in the first place. At this level God puts the appropriate words into his mouth to ask for what he really needs. Shlomo HaMelech is teaching us that if we prepare properly for prayer then God supplies us with the proper words. At this level of prayer for the sake of Heaven we want God to direct our hearts, to supply us with the proper words and the best way to approach Him.
What can we do to reach this level of prayer? The Sfas Emes learns the ways of preparing for prayer from the first Midrash on the parsha. This Midrash mentions ten different expressions that represent prayer. Significantly, the primary Hebrew word for prayer – tefilla, is not among them. Why not? The Sfas Emes explains that the Midrash is teaching us ten different ways of preparing for prayer. In order to reach a level of prayer at which God directs us we need to use the tools mentioned in the Midrash.
Chazal teach us that even the righteous who are able to approach God in prayer on the merit of their good deeds prefer to come before God as unworthy and rely completely on His mercy and compassion. The Kotzker Rav asks from a pasuk in Iyov, (41:3) “מִי הִקְדִּימַנִי וַאֲשַׁלֵּם .../I will pay to the one who comes before me …” God is telling Iyov that He will answer the prayers of the one who comes before Him and makes a request. The implication is that no one really deserves to be answered, not even the righteous. The Sfas Emes elucidates that if a person were truly deserving, he would not have to ask. He would receive what he should according to the letter of the law. Yet, Chazal tell us that the righteous are deserving in the merit of their good deeds. How does this Chazal reconcile with the pasuk in Iyov?
The Sfas Emes explains, according to what we’ve said, that while the pasuk in Iyov is referring to petitioning God with requests, Chazal are referring to approaching God in prayer. No one, not even the righteous, merit positive answers from God. And this is implied by the pasuk in Iyov. However, the righteous are certainly able to approach God and come close to Him in the merit of their good deeds. Still, they prefer to come before God as unworthy. They would rather approach God with entreaties. The last of the expressions of prayer mentioned in the Midrash, in fact, is tachanunim/entreaties which comes from the root chanun/compassionate. It implies that God in His mercy allows us to approach Him with our requests even when we are unworthy of His compassion.
This is why the first Midrash above brings the pasuk, “... תָּכִין לִבָּם .../… You prepare their heart …” as an expression of the highest level of prayer. As we noted earlier, significantly, the pasuk says that God prepares their hearts rather than their preparing their own hearts. At the highest level, we want to approach God from a position of unworthiness and rely upon Him to prepare our hearts, to guide us in prayer.
According to this approach to prayer we can understand the inner meaning of the first pasuk in our parsha, “וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל־ה' ... לֵאמֹר/I entreated God … saying.” (Devarim 3:23) VaEschanan/I entreated is in the reflexive form. The last word in the pasuk, leimor/saying is apparently extra. Moshe Rabbeinu is saying, “I prepared myself reaching the level of one who entreats before God so that I could be guided by Him in prayer.” Moshe Rabbeinu is teaching us that prayer is a reflexive activity. It is working on ourselves, preparing ourselves to approach our Creator. The primary goal of prayer is approaching and coming close to God.