- Rabbi Isaac Roussel
The Rabbis are greatly concerned about our behavior during the Amidah because during this prayer we are before God’s throne. It is a kal v’chomer (lesser to greater) argument. Just as we would be on our best behavior were we before a human king, how much more so when we are before the King of Kings.
In our Haftorah reading from Isaiah we have his vision of the heavenly throne. He is literally before the King of Kings! In his dismay he cries out “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips!” In the midst of this the angelic choir sings, “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Adonai tze-va-ot. Me-lo kol ha-a-retz ke-vo-do!” Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of Hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory! This is what we recite during the third blessing of the Amidah. The image is that we are joining the angels in heaven as we come before Hashem in prayer.
In the Talmud there is prohibition from praying loudly during the Amidah. Their basis for this ruling is this verse in our Haftorah. If the whole earth is full of His glory, they say, then if we cry out loudly in prayer we are implying that God cannot hear us. The Talmud declares that one who prays out loud during the Amidah shows that they have little faith and are akin to false prophets.
This harkens back to the confrontation of Eliyahu with the prophets of Baal. He taunts them by encouraging them to cry out to their god because maybe he is asleep and cannot hear them. We are not to act in such ways. We are to pray like Chana whose lips were moving but her voice could not be heard.
But if this is so, what about the many times in the Torah that people did cry out? When Hashem struck Miryam with tzaraat, Moshe cried out (va-yit-zak!) for her healing. And when Israel saw Paro’s army bearing down at the Red Sea, they also cried out to Hashem (va-yit-za-ku!). We also have the Chassidic practice of hitbodedut where we are encouraged to pour out our hearts to Hashem.
The Mabit, Rabbi Moses ben Joseph di Trani, was a 16th Century rabbi in Tsfat, Israel who gave the solution. The distinction is the intent. If we are pouring out our heart to God, crying out to Him, this is acceptable as we are not trying to get God’s attention but are merely overcome with our emotions. But if we are doing it because we are afraid that God isn’t listening, then this is praying as the pagans do.
This is in agreement with Yeshua’s teaching on prayer. He encourages us to be persistent in prayer, like the widow with the Judge. But he also forbids us from babbling “on and on like the pagans, who think God will hear them better if they talk a lot.” He continues, “Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask Him”.
In fact, the author of Hebrews says that even Yeshua cried out to Hashem. It says “During Yeshua's life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions, crying aloud and shedding tears, to the One who had the power to deliver him from death…”
I don’t think that too many of us will be tempted to think that we have to chant magical formulas and scream for God to hear us. But I do think we can unconsciously do this in our anguish. I’ve told the story before about a friend of mine who was begging God to protect her husband who was going to a dangerous part of the world. After two weeks of this, God very abruptly told her to shut up. She realized that she was trying to make God do something through the pressure of her prayers.
Rav Shaul encourages us to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
We should indeed be free to express our heartfelt concerns to Hashem and allow our emotions to flow. But we should also approach His throne with confidence, knowing that He is a Loving Father who is eager to help and ease our pain.