Rabbi Shimon said: 1) Be careful with the recitation of the Shema and with prayer. 2) When you pray, do not regard your prayers as a fixed obligation but rather as [beseeching] mercy and supplication before God, as the verse states, 'For gracious and merciful is He, slow to anger, great in kindness, and relenting of the evil decree' (Joel 2:13). 3) And do not consider yourself wicked in your own eyes.
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:18
A rabbi passed away and found himself standing before the gates of heaven. The official at the front desk searched through his ledger and, finding the rabbi's name, asked him to have a seat since there were some technical matters that had to be resolved concerning his admission. The rabbi's curiosity and frustration grew when a completely unimpressive-looking individual arrived and was granted immediate entrance. Unable to contain himself, the rabbi stormed back to the desk and demanded, "Who is he?"
"He," the official politely replied, "is a bus driver."
"And why does a bus driver go in right away while a rabbi has to wait?"
"Well, rabbi," explained the official, "When you preached, the people slept. But when he drove -- oh, how they prayed!"
We often think of prayer as a response to crisis, a last resort in times of desperation. The true essence of prayer, however, may be gleaned from the Hebrew word meaning "to pray," l'hitpallel-- literally, to judge oneself. How is prayer an exercise in self-reflection and self-evaluation?
The structure of the Amidah, the thrice-daily standing prayer, follows the manner in which a supplicant should approach an all-powerful king. The first three blessings express praise, not because the Almighty needs us to butter Him up, but because we need to remind ourselves that God is indeed Almighty and has the power to grant our requests. (If He did not, what would be the point of asking Him?)
The middle 13 blessings are petitions: we request wisdom, good health, livelihood, success, good companions, return to the Land of Israel, and the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem -- in short, everything we could possibly need to live productive and virtuous lives.
We conclude the Amidah with three blessings expressing appreciation to God for listening to our prayers and considering them, as a person of refinement would thank anyone in a position to grant him assistance for taking the time to hear his requests.
Imagine having been granted an audience with an all-powerful king. When will you start to prepare for this meeting? As you stand before him in his throne room and open your mouth to speak?
Of course not. You would prepare well in advance, consider carefully what you would say and how you would say it, evaluate thoughtfully what you should ask and how your petitions will be received. Ask for too much and you might anger the king and receive nothing; ask for too little and you've squandered a priceless opportunity.
This is the way we ought to approach an audience with God. The Talmud records that the most pious Jews of earlier generations required a full hour simply to prepare themselves every time they prayed -- l'hitpallel, to judge themselves: What should they request? Would their requests be reasonable and appropriate? If they received what they asked for, would they truly use these blessings from above wisely to elevate themselves spiritually?
Part of the preparation for prayer is the recitation of Shema Yisrael, the Jewish people's declaration of the unity of God. This is the recognition of their unique mission to aspire to Godliness and thereby inspire all the nations of the world to follow in the ways of virtue. It reminds every Jew that he has a higher purpose, that he can elevate himself to the level of the divine by living a life committed to doing good and being good, and that he has a responsibility to live as a model of righteousness both for his children and before the world. What better preparation could there be for meaningful prayer?
Indeed, when the Philistine giant Goliath taunted the Jewish army of King Saul, scripture records that he called out his challenge to them every morning and every evening. The Talmud explains that he sought to disrupt the Jews from focusing on the words of Shema which are said every morning and evening. His taunts achieved their intended effect; the Jews lost concentration on their prayers, lost confidence in themselves, and trembled before their enemies.
Rabbi Shimon therefore warns us to be careful with our recitation of Shema -- for it is our preparation for prayer, and to be careful with our prayers themselves -- for they are an expression of how well we understand our relationship with God. And since any activity repeated three times daily can easily become routine, he implores us to take pause every time we pray, to remind ourselves as we step forward into prayer we have an opportunity to benefit from a personal audience with the King of Universe who, if we present ourselves with honor and integrity, is willing and able to bestow upon us His every blessing.
And lastly, Rabbi Shimon offers the insight that since continual self-evaluation can easily lead us to question our own righteousness, we must be careful not to err too much on the side of self-criticism. Yes, we must strive not to indulge in self-adulation or self-deception. And yes, we must look at ourselves honestly and seek out every imperfection in our efforts to refine our character. But if we find that the Almighty does not grant our every request, we must know that God holds precious the prayers of the righteous and therefore may withhold from them what they seek, since the spiritual growth they achieve by drawing close to Him in prayer may ultimately be a greater reward for them than the requests for which they pray.