Should we begin prayer with praise or petition

Genesis 44:18-47:27
Ezekiel 37:15-28

Do you remember Robert Fulghum’s suggestion that everything he ever needed to know he learned in kindergarten? I feel the same way about Parashat Vayigash. I suspect that if I learned this portion deeply enough, it would teach me everything I ever needed to know about relationships, tshuvah/repentance, seeking and offering forgiveness, and about faith. Perhaps in a similar spirit, the early Chassidic masters found in Judah’s impassioned plea for Benjamin a model for prayer.

As our portion begins, Judah, having previously participated in his brothers’ treachery against Joseph, now digs deep inside, feeling empathy for his father’s pain at the loss of a son. Now, he is willing to beg Joseph to release Benjamin, and this changes everything.

Now if we imagine this openhearted expression of remorse and entreaty to be directed not only at the human “master,” Joseph, but at God, what might this text teach us about the times in our lives when we must beg for God’s mercy?

Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef of Polnoye refers to a disagreement in the Talmud about the process of prayer. The issue is whether we should begin with words of praise of God’s greatness and from there proceed to prayers of petition, or whether we should start by speaking to God of our pain and from there move to words of praise and thanksgiving. While classical Jewish prayer clearly teaches that we always begin with words of praise, the rebbe here teaches that prayer of the heart can move in either direction.

When we open our hearts in awe of all that creates and sustains us, the rebbe teaches, we remember that God’s presence fills all of creation. Every moment of life — every event, every experience, every thought and feeling — is suffused with the divine. If we understand this deeply, we come to know that even that which causes us pain contains sparks of the divine, though those sparks can be so deeply hidden that we cannot possibly see them.

Rebbe Ya’akov Yosef tells us that whenever we can embrace this truth, our pain is transformed. The external situation may not have changed at all, but our experience of it inevitably shifts when we remember that there is holiness even here, that divine power can be at work even in this situation, that we are not alone in our pain. (As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “In all our sorrows, God sorrows with us.”) Acknowledging the Infinite transforms our experience of pain.

On the other hand, says the rebbe, if we begin by praying for what we most desire, we can reach a moment of faith, sensing the possibility that God is there for us, that we will be supported, that this, too, will pass. Thus, from a moment of deep prayer for what we need, we reach an awareness of the power of the One to support and guide us. Petition has given way to praise.

Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef finds this teaching hidden in the very first verse of our portion, in the words: “Judah approached him [Joseph], saying, ‘Please, my master … .” (Gen. 44:18) Remember that Judah’s name, “Yehudah,” comes from the same root as the word for thanks or praise. The rebbe says that this verse comes to teach us that Judah knew to begin with genuine words of awe. In our story, words of humble acknowledgment open Joseph’s heart to forgiveness. A moment of awe and humility as we begin to pray gives way to healing.

On the other hand, if we focus on Judah’s first words, “Bi Adoni,” “Please, my master,” we see the reverse dynamic. The Chassidic masters stunningly reread these words to say, Bi Adonai, “God is within me.” This means that the Oneness of All is present in our own hearts, in our own private places of hurt, in our own deepest needs. When we can dare to take this truth to heart, then we can move from sharing our personal pain with God to remembering the infinite power of the divine to bring wholeness even in places of deep pain.

May this great story of remorse and reconciliation be a model for us in our own experiences of prayer, and a model for a world so much in need of healing.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg is a spiritual director in private practice.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at