Prayer vs. Repentance
Friday, August 19, 2016
Va'Eschanan 5631 Fourth Ma'amar
Prayer vs. Repentance
The Midrash in this week’s parsha compares the efficacy of prayer vs repentance through an allegory. Prayer can be compared to a mikveh whereas repentance can be compared to the sea. A mikveh is open sometimes, closed sometimes. The sea, however, is always open. The gates of prayer are sometimes open, sometimes closed. The gates of repentance, though, are always open.
The Midrash seems to be teaching us that there are times when prayer is more easily accepted and other times when it is not. David HaMelech said clearly, “וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִי־לְךָ ה' עֵת רָצוֹן אֱ־לֹהִים בְּרָב־חַסְדֶּךָ עֲנֵנִי בֱּאֶמֶת יִשְׁעֶךָ/As for me, may my prayer to You, God, be at a time of desire; Lord, in Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation.” (Tehillim 69:14) There is a time of desire when prayer is more easily accepted and a time that is not “of desire”. Repentance, on the other hand, is always accepted.
Is this really the case? Are there times that God is more desirous of our prayers and other times when He is less desirous of them as this pasuk implies and as the Midrash seems to be saying? This is only so, if we take the Midrash at face value as pitting prayer against repentance. The Sfas Emes explains though that the gates of prayer and the gates of repentance are not comparable. The gates of prayer are in our hearts. Prayer, Chazal teach us, is a “service of the heart”. Repentance, though, is a rectification of our relationship with God.
When Chazal call prayer a “service of the heart”, they are teaching us something fundamental about prayer. In essence Chazal answer the following implied question. How is it possible to ask God for something? How does prayer help? If we deserve that for which we are praying, then God should grant it without prayer and if we do not deserve it then what difference our prayers?
Chazal therefore teach us that prayer is not simply asking God for something. Prayer means working on one’s self. It is a “service of the heart”. What must we do? How do we work on ourselves? The Sfas Emes explains based on the Midrash’s metaphor comparing prayer to a mikveh and repentance to the sea. A mikveh, as opposed to the sea, is an enclosed concentration of water. The word mikveh means this. Water is a metaphor for Godly enlightenment. The Sfas Emes explains that we are each like a mikveh. Just as the mikveh contains water, so too, do we contain Godly enlightenment. Successful prayer starts with accessing the Godly enlightenment within us. The way to do this is by discarding all our desires in favor of what we will receive from the enlightenment that is in us. This discarding is what Chazal refer to as a service of the heart which itself is prayer. Sometimes we are able to do this and sometimes we are not. Sometimes, sin acts as a barrier preventing us from accessing the Godly enlightenment within us. In the words of the Midrash, the mikveh is sometimes open, sometimes closed.
Prayer, according to the Sfas Emes’s understanding, is very introspective. Repentance, on the other hand, is a rectification of the sinner’s relationship with God. Repentance, literally return, is the tool that the sinner needs in order to repair the connection with God that was severed to some extent by sin. The gates of repentance are always open because our sins don’t affect God. He always wants our return. As long as we truly return to Him, as long as we dedicate ourselves totally to Him, He is always ready to accept us even though we’ve sinned.
This is the meaning of the pasuk in our parsha, “כִּי מִי־גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ אֱ־לֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּה׳ אֱ־לֹהֵינוּ בְּכָל־קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו/For who is the great nation who has God so close to them, as God, our Lord is whenever we call to Him.” (Devarim 4:7) Although conventionally, this pasuk is referring to prayer, the Sfas Emes understands it as referring to the dedication that is needed for the process of returning to God to be successful. He translates, “בְּכָל־קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו/whenever we call to Him”, as, “when all our calls are to Him.” The pasuk, then, is teaching us that God is close to us “when all our calls are to Him” – when we are totally dedicated to Him.
May we merit that the gates of prayer – in our own hearts – as well as the gates of repentance – dedicating ourselves totally to God – always be open to us.