Haazinu – Attitude of Prayer

We are now in the midst of the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe; a time of heartfelt prayer between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Ironically, we can learn about a whole new dimension of prayer from this week’s Torah portion of Haazinu. The Torah says: “The Deeds of the [Mighty] Rock are perfect, for all His ways are just; a faithful G-D, without injustice He is righteous and upright” (Devarim 32:4).
The Medrish Tanchuma elaborates on this pasuk: “[Hashem] is righteous for he does righteousness with his children. When He sees a person who is poor but he has done good deeds and he prays before Him, and says, ‘Like Your Great Name do for me righteousness,’ Hashem would then open up the treasure houses and give to him, this is the proper judgement for he has done righteousness. And this is what King David meant in Tehillim 31:20 ‘How great is Your goodness that You have laid away for those who fear you etc.’ King David said before Hashem, ‘I know you have treasure houses of abundance of righteousness and if you don’t apportion any of it to me and my friends who need them what is the great goodness you have laid away’” (Medrish Tanchuma, Parshas Haazinu, paragraph 5).
One might mistakenly think that he or she should ask Hashem for the reward that he deserves for doing good deeds; it would enhance his trust in Hashem by acknowledging that Hashem is in charge of everything. Why else would the medrish mention the good deeds the poor man did? Either righteousness means that Hashem acts in the proper manner, which means he gives what people ask for which should be coming to them, or it can mean that he goes above and beyond what people deserve and acts kindly to everyone, regardless of the good deed he or she did. So why does the medrish mention the good deeds of the poor man?
Yet this is incorrect thinking, as the Etz Yosef points out: “Judgement refers to strict judgement and being straight and righteous refers to going above the letter of the law. So we find that if a person has done good deeds, is poor and asks from Hashem to give him in the form of tzedaka (charity), and Hashem gives him, this is strict judgement and charity together. It is strict judgement because the person has done good deeds but it is also charity but no person has anything against Hashem at all.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

It is clear that this poor person is asking of Hashem to help him out of pure righteousness or charity; not because Hashem owes him something.  It would be a chutzpah to request reward for the good deeds a person has done. On the contrary, we say in the long Tachanun on Monday and Thursday mornings after shemoneh esrei: “For not because of our righteousness do we cast down our prayers before you, rather because of Your abundant compassion.”

One might ask: Why is it better to deny recognition of our good deeds and ask Hashem to help us out of pure charity? On the contrary; it makes sense to say that even Hashem specifically wants us to pray for our reward in order that He can give us even more reward for acknowledging that Hashem is the ultimate giver of everything. We must therefore ask for our reward within our prayers, and not expect it to just come to us. It is true that all our good deeds pale in comparison to what Hashem does for us – that is why we ask Hashem to have mercy on us and not simply look at our deeds, but judge us at our own level. There is worth to what we have done, which has value in Hashem’s eyes; so why can’t we ask for this reward?

However, the reality is that this attitude of faith in Hashem is flawed, because we should never feel that something should be coming to us, that we deserve it and could request from Hashem to take for what we have given – because that right there is a lack of humility. We have to recognize that what we do is insignificant compared to what Hashem does for us; that we are really undeserving of any reward, but we have to live somehow; so we must ask Hashem to help us out of pure righteousness.

One might then ask: what is the point of doing good deeds? But of course Hashem weighs each deed we do. The last mishna in the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avos says in the name of Bar Hei Hei: “According to our efforts is our reward.” We can’t just ask for it; Hashem out of his benevolence decides to reward us for what we have done even though it pales in comparison to what Hashem does for us.

We can gain a greater appreciation of Hashem by doing His will and acknowledging that whatever we can do is miniscule compared to what he does for us. But we have that drive to live, and to live wholeheartedly; therefore we must ask Hashem to please take care of us, not because we deserve it, but because He is righteous and we need His charity.

May everyone have a healthy, happy and prosperous new year and may we all be written into the Book of Good Life and Peace!