Compiled by Dina Fraenkel
Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the holiest time in the Jewish calendar, is the day we proclaim Hashem as King over the entire world. Is it proper then, on such a holy day, that many of our prayers ask Hashem to fulfill our material and personal needs? Would any of us approach a human king during the coronation and ask a personal request?
A deeper understanding of the conundrum of, "What can we pray for?" can be found in the story of Chana, mother of Shmuel HaNavi. Chana had been married for many years, but was still childless, and each year she traveled with her husband Elkanah to Shiloh to offer sacrifices and daven. One year, Chana left the feast and entered the sanctuary to daven to Hashem for a son. She stood for a long time, moving her lips, but not making a sound, while she begged Hashem to fulfill her prayers. Eli, the Kohen Gadol, approached Chana and asked her, "How long will you be drunk? Put away your wine." "No, my lord," replied Chana. "I am a woman of sorrowful spirit. I have not drunk wine or strong drink; I have poured out my soul before G-d…" And Eli answered, "Go in peace. May the G-d of Israel grant your request…"3
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that Eli never saw Chana as literally drunk, or else he would have dismissed her from the sanctuary. Eli saw that Chana was sincere and spoke figuratively of her drunkenness. He could not understand how Chana could stand before Hashem and ask for a personal request. He considered her to be "drunk" with personal desires. But Chana replied, "I am not drunk." (I am not concerned with myself.) "I poured my soul before G-d." (My desire for a son came from my soul, not from a selfish desire.)
Chassidus explains that our physical desires are not always selfish – these desires can come directly from our neshama. Since everything in our world contains a spark of Hashem (a chelek Elokai mi’maal mamash), we are tasked with elevating the entire material world in every aspect to reveal the G-dliness hidden inside. The Baal Shem Tov explains this through a verse in Tehillim, "Hungry and thirsty, their soul longs within."4 Why are they hungry and thirsty? Because their soul seeks the G-dly energy in the food and drink.5
Even if we are unaware of the spiritual motivation for our desire, it is there. A Jew wants children, health, success, etc. in order to fulfill a G-dly purpose with these seemingly material things. Chana was not motivated by personal desire. We see this from her vow to pledge her son "to G-d all the days of his life."6 As soon as she explained herself to Eli, he offered her his blessing, that Chana should be granted this innermost need of her neshama. Our own desire for physical things is part of our acceptance of Hashem‘s Kingship. We need our material needs fulfilled in order to serve G-d fully, and not be distracted by our material needs.
The prayer of Chana continues, after she is blessed with a son, "May He raise high the standard of His anointed [Moshiach]…"7 When Moshiach is here the clear connection between the material and spiritual will be revealed and all of our efforts to use our material bounty to elevate G-d’s world will be apparent. May the day come speedily when we no longer have to struggle and ask for our material needs and we can focus solely on serving G-d with the complete Redemption.
1. Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Tefillah 1:1-2.
2. Devarim 11:3.
3. I Shmuel 1:12-17.
4. Tehillim 107:5.
5. Keser Shem Tov, sec. 194, p. 25c; see also Likkutei Sichos, vol. 1, p. 177.
6. I Shmuel 1:11.
7. I Shmuel 2:10