Tag Archives: Gratitude

Marriage and Prayer: Why They Are the Same, and How to Succeed in Both

This week’s parasha is Toldot, which begins:

And these are the genealogies [toldot] of Isaac, the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac. And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca… for a wife. And Isaac prayed to Hashem opposite his wife, because she was barren, and Hashem accepted his prayer, and Rebecca his wife conceived.

The Torah explicitly juxtaposes Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca with Isaac’s successful prayer. One of the Torah’s central principles of interpretation is that when two ideas or passages are placed side by side, there must be an intrinsic connection between them. What is the connection between marriage and prayer?

Another central principle of interpretation is that when a word or concept appears for the first time in the Torah, its context teaches the very epitome of that word or concept. The first time that the word “love” is used between a man and woman in the Torah is with regards to Isaac and Rebecca, and the two thus represent the perfect marital bond, as we’ve written in the past.

So, we see that Isaac and Rebecca were very successful in their love and marriage, and simultaneously very successful in their prayers. In fact, our Sages teach that when the Torah says “Isaac prayed… opposite his wife”, it means that the two prayed together in unison, and some even say they prayed while in a loving embrace, face-to-face, literally “opposite” one another. God immediately answered their prayers. What is the secret of Isaac and Rebecca’s success in love and prayer?

Understanding Prayer

It is commonly (and wrongly) believed that prayer is about asking God for things. Not surprisingly, many people give up on prayer when they feel (wrongly) that God is not answering them, and not fulfilling their heartfelt requests. In reality, prayer is something quite different.

A look through the text of Jewish prayers reveals that there is very little requesting at all. The vast majority of the text is made up of verses of praise, gratitude, and acknowledgement. We incessantly thank God for all that He does for us, and describe over and over again His greatness and kindness. It is only after a long time spent in gratitude and praise that we have the Amidah, when we silently request 19 things from God (and can add some extra personal wishes, too). Following this, we go back to praise and gratitude to conclude the prayers.

Many (rightly) ask: what is the point of this repetitive complimenting of God? Does He really need our flattery? The answer is, of course, no, an infinite God does not need any of it. So why do we do it?

One answer is that it is meant to build within us an appreciation of God; to remind us of all the good that He does for us daily, and to shift our mode of thinking into one of being positive and selfless. Through this, we build a stronger bond with God, and remain appreciative of that relationship.

The exact same is true in marriage. Many go into marriage with the mindset of what they can get out of it. They are in a state of always looking to receive from their spouse. Often, even though they do receive a great deal from their partner, they become accustomed to it, and forget all the good that comes out of being married. They stop appreciating each other so, naturally, the marriage stagnates and the couple drifts apart.

Such a mindset must be altered. The dialogue should be like that of prayer: mostly complimenting, acknowledging, and thanking, with only a little bit of request. The Torah tells us that God created marriage so that man is not alone and has a helper by his side. The Torah says helper, not caretaker. We should appreciate every little bit that our spouses do, for without them in our lives we would be totally alone and would not even have that little bit. The Talmud (Yevamot 62a) tells a famous story of Rabbi Chiya, whose wife constantly tormented him and yet, not only did he not divorce her, but he would always bring her the finest goods. His puzzled students questioned him on this, to which he responded: “It is enough that they rear our children and save us from sin.”

A Kind Word

By switching the dialogue to one of positive words and gratitude, we remain both appreciative of the relationship, and aware of how much good we do receive from our other halves. Moreover, such positive words naturally motivate the spouse to want to do more for us, while constant criticism brings about the very opposite result.

Similarly, our Sages teach that when we constantly praise God and speak positively of Him, it naturally stirs up His mercy, and this has the power to avert even the most severe decrees upon us. We specifically quote this from Jeremiah (31:17-19) in our High Holiday prayers:

I have surely heard Ephraim wailing… Ephraim is my precious child; a child of delight, for as soon as I speak of him, I surely remember him still, and My heart yearns for him. I will surely have compassion for Him—thus said Hashem.

Ephraim is one of the Biblical names for the children of Israel, especially referring to the wayward Israelite tribes of northern Israel. Despite the waywardness, Ephraim’s cries to God spark God’s compassion and love for His people.

A kind, endearing word can go very far in prayer, as in marriage. The same page of Talmud cited above continues to say that Rav Yehudah had a horrible wife, too, yet taught his son that a man “who finds a wife, finds happiness”. His son, Rabbi Isaac, questioned him about this, to which Rav Yehudah said that although Isaac’s mother “was indeed irascible, she could be easily appeased with a kindly word.”

Judging the Self

The Hebrew word for prayer l’hitpalel, literally means “to judge one’s self”. Prayer has a much deeper purpose: it is a time to meditate on one’s inner qualities, both positive and negative, and to do what’s sometimes called a cheshbon nefesh, an “accounting of the soul”. Prayer is meant to be an experience of self-discovery. A person should not just ask things of God, but question why they are asking this of God. Do you really need even more money? What would you do with it? Might it actually have negative consequences rather than positive ones? Would you spend it on another nice car, or donate it to a good cause? Why do you need good health? To have the strength for ever more sins, or so that you can fulfill more mitzvot? Do you want children for your own selfish reasons or, like Hannah, to raise tzadikim that will rectify the world and infuse it with more light and holiness?

Prayer is not simply for stating our requests, but analyzing and understanding them. Through proper prayer, we might come to the conclusion that our requests need to be modified, or sometimes annulled entirely. And when finally making a request, it is important to explain clearly why you need that particular thing, and what good will come out of it.

Central to this entire process is personal growth and self-development. In that meditative state, a person should be able to dig deep into their psyche, find their deepest flaws, and resolve to repair them. In the merit of this, God may grant the person’s request. To paraphrase our Sages (Avot 2:4), when we align our will with God’s will, then our wishes become one with His wishes, and our prayers are immediately fulfilled.

Once more, the same is true in marriage. Each partner must constantly judge their performance, and measure how good of a spouse they have been. What am I doing right and what am I doing wrong? Where can I improve? How can I make my spouse’s life easier today? Where can I be more supportive? What exactly do I need from my spouse and why? In the same way that we are meant to align our will with God’s will, we must also align our will with that of our spouse.

The Torah commands that a husband and wife must “cleave unto each other and become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The two halves of this one soul must reunite completely. This is what Isaac and Rebecca did, so much so that they even prayed as one. In fact, Isaac and Rebecca were the first to perfectly fulfil God’s command of becoming one, and this is hinted to in the fact that the gematria of “Isaac” (יצחק) and “Rebecca” (רבקה) is 515, equal to “one flesh” (בשר אחד). More amazing still, 515 is also the value of “prayer” (תפלה). The Torah itself makes it clear that marital union and prayer are intertwined.

One of the most popular Jewish prayers is “Nishmat Kol Chai”, recited each Shabbat right before the Shema and Amidah. The prayer ends with an acrostic that has the names of Isaac and Rebecca. The names are highlighted to remind us of proper prayer, and that first loving couple which personified it.

Confession

The last major aspect of Jewish prayer is confession. Following the verses of praise and the requests comes vidui, confessing one’s sins and genuinely regretting them. It is important to be honest with ourselves and admit when we are wrong. Among other things, this further instills within us a sense of humility. The Talmud (Sotah 5a) states with regards to a person who has an ego that God declares: “I and he cannot both dwell in the world.” God’s presence cannot be found around a proud person.

In marriage, too, ego has no place. It is of utmost significance to be honest and admit when we make mistakes. It is sometimes said that the three hardest words to utter are “I love you” and “I am sorry”. No matter how hard it might be, these words need to be a regular part of a healthy marriage’s vocabulary.

And more than just saying sorry, confession means being totally open in the relationship. There should not be secrets or surprises. As we say in our prayers, God examines the inner recesses of our hearts, and a couple must likewise know each other’s deepest crevices, for this is what it means to be one. In place of surreptitiousness and cryptic language, there must be a clear channel of communication that is always wide open and free of obstructions.

To summarize, successful prayer requires first and foremost a great deal of positive, praising, grateful language, as does any marriage. Prayer also requires, like marriage, a tremendous amount of self-analysis, self-discovery, and growth. And finally, both prayer and marriage require unfailing honesty, open communication, and forgiveness. In prayer, we make God the centre of our universe. In marriage we make our spouse the centre of our universe. In both, the result is that we ultimately become the centre of their universe, and thus we become, truly, one.

The Purpose of Torah and Four Categories of Jewish Law

This week we will begin reading the Torah anew, starting from the first parasha, Beresheet. It is during this time that people often wonder about the origins of the universe. How do we reconcile the Biblical narrative of the 7 days of creation with the findings of modern science? Was there a Big Bang and a process of evolution over billions of years, or was everything set in place by God over a one-week period roughly 5775 years ago? Could it, in fact, be both?

Perhaps the real question is: does it really matter? At the end of the day, regardless of how the universe came about, we are all still here, and still have to deal with the challenges of everyday life. Ultimately, the Torah is not a science textbook, but a manual for proper living. The Torah is not here to teach us the minute details of nature’s physical laws—that’s for the realm of science—but to teach us how to maximize our lives, and make the most of the short time that we have here. So, how exactly does the Torah accomplish this?

It seems that all of the Jewish laws and halakhot can be grouped into 4 categories. Each of these four is there to develop within us a fundamental trait or skill that will allow us to live those fulfilled lives that we all wish for. Let us briefly explore each of the four categories, which are: awareness, gratitude, self-restraint, and belongingness.

Awareness

Central to most systems of personal growth and spirituality is the skill of awareness. In Judaism, too, awareness is critical. One of the most famous books of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746), better known as the Ramchal, is Mesilat Yesharim, where he lays down a multi-step path to holiness and prophecy. He bases this on a statement of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 20b). The first step to attaining holiness and fulfilling one’s inner spiritual potential is called zehirut, which may be translated as “watchfulness” or “awareness”.

In the simplest of terms, this means that each person should be aware of all their deeds and actions, all the time. We often make mistakes because we act mechanically, or fail to think twice before making a move or saying something. It is only after that we stop to think about whether what we did was wrong—when it is already too late. Awareness means seeing ourselves from a bird’s-eye view, or from a third-person perspective. It means to be conscious of the present moment; not to be lost in the memories of the past, or to race ahead towards the future. It is taking the time to act or speak with care, and be watchful of every action. This is crucial in helping us understand ourselves; who we are and why we do the things that we do. It is crucial in helping us stop hurting others, and hurting ourselves, from making careless errors, and from repeating the same mistakes we always tend to make.

The halakhot of lashon hara, for example, would fit under this category. These rules help us become aware of everything that we say. They build in us the ability to speak only positive things. Naturally, this will make our lives much better; no explanation necessary. The halakha of how to put on and tie one’s shoes is another example. Jewish law states that one should put on their right shoe first, then their left shoe, followed by tying their left shoe, then tying their right shoe (Shabbat 61a). Some may think this to be a tedious and unnecessary little rule. Yet, we can learn a profound lesson in awareness from this halakha. Instead of automatically jumping into our shoes and rushing out the door, as we often do in our mechanical morning routine, we are instructed to take the time to think about what we are doing. Instead of zooming out of the house thinking about all of the things that we have to do during the day, stop and appreciate the present moment. It is taught that putting on the right shoe first is meant to signify chessed, kindness, which is symbolized by the right. The left shoe is second because it symbolizes gevurah, restraint or strictness. Though we should have both kindness and strictness in our lives, by putting the right shoe first we meditate on the fact that kindness takes precedence. We therefore go out the door with kindness in mind, right foot first, with the thought that it should be a good and positive day.

It is little things like this that can make all the difference.

Gratitude

The second category follows directly from the first: gratitude. This one is particularly important in our modern, materialistic society, based on endless consumption and instant gratification. We are bombarded daily with advertisements that remind us how unhappy we are without product X or how beautiful we can be if only we bought product Y. We are constantly showered with bad news and tragedies in the media. That new gadget we just bought is already outdated, and the grass always seems greener on the other side. It is no wonder that depression rates are so high.

A major part of Jewish law is instilling a deep sense of gratitude within each one of us. Before throwing that chocolate in your mouth, take a moment to stop and appreciate that you even have such a delicacy so readily available! Take a moment to recite a blessing and say thank you. Jewish law has a blessing of gratitude for just about everything—even after going to the bathroom, which many people cannot do without much strain. Start off your day by recounting the morning blessings in the siddur, showing your gratitude for being blessed with eyesight and the ability to walk, for being given another wonderful day with unbounded opportunity.

Building a sense of gratitude is especially important for our children, many of whom are raised with a silver spoon and grow up taking everything for granted. Unfortunately, most of us are those same children grown up, and we fail to see how much we really have. We tend to focus on what we are missing, when we should be focusing on all that we have been blessed with. Without appreciation and gratitude, one can never truly be happy.

Self-Restraint

The next category of laws is also very fitting for our generation. In a society of overabundance, and the possibility to attain any pleasure within moments, the ability to have self-restraint is of tremendous importance. It is one of the greatest ironies of our world that at a time with so much available nutrition and knowledge about health, humanity is possibly the unhealthiest it has ever been in history. Over half the population in the Western world is overweight, statistically every other person is predicted to have cancer at some point in their life, and the number one killer is heart disease. Most of these are self-inflicted, mainly due to over-eating, smoking, alcohol, drugs, sedentary lifestyles, and so on.

The key to the solution is quite simple: self-restraint. Every person needs to learn how to conquer their desires. This is the beauty of a number of Jewish laws. Kosher food is one example where we put boundaries on what we can eat. Although it is just as easy to overeat kosher food, the idea is that at the very least we are teaching ourselves to hold back from certain things. No matter how great the smell may be coming out of that non-kosher restaurant, we simply can’t have any of it. No matter how much we may want a milkshake after that burger, we have to stop ourselves. These laws are meant to build within us the strength to hold back.

Perhaps most notable for today is the Sabbath. One day a week we are taught, among many other things, to turn off our computers and cellphones. Will you be able to go half an hour without checking your email or scrolling through Facebook? Many people cannot. In fact, some are labelling this new condition “technosis”. It may sound silly, but it is quite real.

Belongingness

The last category is hard to label. We may borrow a term from the field of psychology: belongingness. This refers to one of the vital needs that every person has (as in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs); the need to belong, to be a part of something, to participate in positive relationships, and to be a fragment of a greater whole.

It isn’t hard to see how much of Judaism is based on belongingness. We have a plethora of laws dealing with family and community. We are encouraged to pray in a minyan, a group of at least 10, rather than on our own. Our calendar is marked with dozens of holidays both major and minor that bring the family and community together. We have laws of niddah to help establish a fruitful relationship between husband and wife, guidelines for raising children, and instructions for each person to have a mentor they can trust, as well as a good friend (Avot 1:6).

Jews are famous for helping each other out, for setting up great community support services like the gmach, interest-free loans, free trips to Israel, and so on. In fact, the Jewish people are often described not as a nation, but simply as a family.

Putting It All Together

It is difficult to think of a Jewish law that does not somehow fit under this framework of four categories. Across both religious and personal development literature, as well as psychological studies, these four are frequently mentioned as essential for happy, productive living. At the end of the day, this is what we all want, and this is what Judaism is about.

To summarize, we’ll end with a verse from Pirkei Avot (4:1), which appears to tie in to the above four categories quite well:

“Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man, as it is stated: ‘From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonies are my meditation.’ [Psalms 119:99] Who is strong? One who conquers his inclinations, as it is stated: ‘Better one who is slow to anger than one with might; one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city.’ [Proverbs 16:32] Who is fortunate? One who is happy with what he has, as it is stated: ‘If you eat of the toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and it is good for you.’ [Psalms 128:2] …Who is honourable? One who honours his fellows, as it is stated: ‘For to those who honour me, I accord honour; those who scorn me shall be demeaned.’ [I Samuel 2:30]”