In this week’s Torah portion of Eikev we find the second paragraph of Krias Shema. It begins, “And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments that I command you this day to love Hashem, your G-D, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Devarim 11:13).
Rashi proves “to serve Him with all your heart” refers to prayer: and to serve Him with all your heart: i.e. with a service of the heart, and that is prayer, for prayer is called service, as it is said, “your G-D, Whom you serve regularly” (Dan. 6:17). But was there a [Temple] service in Babylon? Rather, [the term service is used] because he prayed, as it is said, “where there were open windows [in his upper chamber opposite Jerusalem, and three times a day he kneeled on his knees and prayed…]” (Dan. 6:11). And so, too, it states regarding Dovid, “My prayer shall be established like incense before You” (Ps. 141:2). – [Sifrei].
Rabbeinu Bachye, interpreting these words along the same lines as Rashi, elaborates on the concept of prayer. Rabbeinu Bachye says: “that Chaza”l in Berachos 26b says that tefilla, prayer was enacted in place of the daily offerings brought in the Beis HaMikdash. And you should know that the power of prayer is so great that it can (1) change nature, (2) save one from danger, and (3) nullify decrees.”
Rabbeinu Bachye goes on to show examples of all 3 categories then he says “And you should know, that from the days of Moshe until the Anshei Knesses Hegedola (The Men of Great Assembly) the prayers of the Jews were not in any order, set for everyone equally, but rather each person would pray and make an advocate for himself according to his knowledge and wisdom. Then the Anshei Knesses Hagedola put together and enacted the Shemone Esray so that it will be a formatted orderly manner coming out of everyone’s mouth. They therefore formatted it in a simple language understood so the minds won’t be confused in understanding the way it was written, and so that it will be equally accessible to every Jew whether they are wise or stupid. However, they put it together with great intent and extra supervision when putting it in the order of 3 blessings of praise in the beginning of the tefilla, which are (1) Avos (the forefather), (2) Gevuros (Hashem’s power) and (3) Kedushas Hashem (the sanctification of Hashem). And then the 3 concluding blessings which are (1) Avoda (service) (2) Hoda’ah (gratitude) (3) Birkas Kohanim (the priestly blessings). And in the middle there are 12 blessings which are inclusive of all the needs of a person, and all this was not just haphazardly put together, but rather after great in-depth analysis of what is compelling (muchrach) and needed.”
After discussing some of the kabbalistic intent the sages had when formulating the Shemone Esray, Rabbeinu Bachye concludes, “And you should understand a little bit and see how the sages made this with such intent, six blessings were for personal needs (1. Insight, 2. Repentance, 3. Forgiveness, 4. Redemption, 5. Health and healing, 6. Years of prosperity), and six were for the return of the crown to old, and the kingdom of the House of Dovid to its place (1. Ingathering of exiles, 2. Restoration of justice, 3. The righteous, 4. Rebuilding Jerusalem, 5. Davidic reign, 6. Acceptance of prayer), and with the blessing against heretics [that was added] there are 13 blessings, in conjunction with the 13 attributes of Hashem’s mercy. This is to hint to the fact that all good in the world whether its for the need of mankind or fixing the world with the Divine Kingship, all is linked to these attributes. It is upon you to pray to raise up the Blessed One On High in order to influence His power within these attributes, as it writes, ‘that has a G-D so close at hand’ (Devarim 4:7), which is to say that there is no nation which has the influence of these attributes so close at hand like us. And when is this? ‘Whenever we call [onto Him]’ (the end Devarim 4:7) …” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Anshei Knesses Hagedola was around at the beginning of the second Beis Hamikdash until around the Greek conquest of Alexander the Great, and included Torah leaders like Ezra, Nechemiah, Daniel, Chananiah, Mishael, Azariah, Mordechai and Zerubbabel. Before that time every Jew was able to tap in to and find the conduits and pipelines of prayer that would reach towards Heaven and Hashem’s Holy throne. Depending on the level of intensity intellectually and spiritual holiness one might have attained, his prayers might be answered quicker and or with more clarity. But the understanding, insight, and emotion was there to be able to potentially pray hard enough for ones prayers to be answered even if it means changing nature, saving people from danger, or even altering a Heavenly decree.
In the days of the Anshei Knesses Hagedola, after the return of the first exile, hiskatnus hadoros [the waning of the generations], both spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and even physically, became more and more pronounced. To the point that the sages felt that the Jews needed “crutches” to help them connect to Hashem, and therefore they made the prayers that we say to this very day. They made them with such depths of vision and insight that one can potentially reach the heights of prayer using these specific words, tapping into Hashem’s thirteen-character traits of mercy, just as the great men of yesteryear were able to achieve in their own personal prayers. Indeed, this is not just for the great and mighty sages of each generation, but even the layperson can use it to reach great heights and be answered by Hashem.
The question is how does this really make sense, and is it really possible? If we are such laypersons nowadays, and we don’t reach the toes of Jews who lived 2000, 1000, 500, 300, or even 100 years ago, how can our prayers do anything to tap into the conduits and pipelines of prayer, to reach Hashem and be answered, even if we do have crutches to help us? But we are still so far gone?
However, it would seem that Hashem still believes in us and made sure that He had sages who created for us a system that even the simple of simpletons can use, be inspired by, and tear out their hearts to reach Hashem, if they only truly try. It is within the potential of every Jew to scale the heights and reach very close to Hashem, to the point that Hashem will want to answer his or her prayers. Hashem is just waiting for you to reach those heights. It is within each and every one of us; we just have to muster up the energy and effort to focus in and find it.