Conquering the Evil Inclination by the Power of Prayer
It is written, “Jacob departed from Beersheba…and he encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set” (Genesis 28:10-11). Rashi cites the Sages in saying that the expression vayifga (“and he encountered”) designates prayer. From this we deduce that Jacob instituted Arvit (the evening prayer), and in fact the Gemara tells us that the holy Patriarchs instituted our three daily prayers: Abraham instituted Shacharit, Isaac instituted Mincha, and Jacob instituted Arvit (Berachot 26b).
I would like, however, to raise some questions regarding this subject. First of all, why did the holy Patriarchs institute these prayers for us? Is it not enough to study Hashem’s Torah and perform the 613 mitzvot? Why must we also pray? Furthermore, is there really something specific in prayer that we do not find in the Torah?
In this regard I would like to explain a fundamental principle in serving Hashem. Torah study, prayer, and mitzvot observance constitute different paths to the Creator, intermediaries that draw us closer to Him and allow us to take upon ourselves the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven. True, the holy Torah is the foundation that establishes a connection between the Creator and ourselves. However in their holiness, the Patriarchs wanted to give Jews a special path to the Creator, an important intermediary filled with holiness. That intermediary is prayer, thanks to which Jews can come closer to their Creator and connect to Him.
Allow us to explain. When a Jew readies himself to pray, he pictures himself standing before the Creator. He focuses on just Whom he is praying to, and to Whom he is addressing his requests for goodness and blessing. Thus he begins to pray with a reverent fear before the King of kings. He opens his mouth and utters words of prayer much like someone counting his money – calmly and deliberately – regardless of whether he is reciting Birkot HaShachar, Pesukei D’Zimra, and above all Shema. In fact the Sages tell us, “If one distinctly pronounces the letters in reciting Shema, hell is cooled for him” (Berachot 15b). Thus a powerful and indestructible bond is created between a person and his Creator. However despite all the elation of a Jew in prayer, he may feel a sudden letdown and apathy afterwards. This occurs because the evil inclination comes after prayer and places itself before a person as it tries to control him once more. After a Jew prays, it immediately tries to break the bond between him and the Creator. Therefore it is not enough for a Jew to have aroused his heart only during prayer, since right afterwards the evil inclination attacks in order to make him fall into its trap.
On this subject the Sages have said, “If this repulsive wretch meets you” – if the evil inclination comes to you after prayer in order to disrupt your service of Hashem (since it is always lying in wait to ensnare you), what must you do? “Drag [it] to the house of study” (Sukkah 52b). In other words, conquer the evil inclination by means of Torah study! There’s more. The power of prayer is mentioned at the time the Torah was given to the Jewish people, as we read: “Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain” (Exodus 19:2). Here the Sages describe the people as “a single person, with a single heart” (Mechilta ibid.). This means that the Children of Israel achieved an extremely high degree of unity for the giving of the Torah. Yet how did they do this, since they had not actually received the Torah at that point? It is obvious that they achieved it through the power of prayer, a power that they possessed due to the Patriarchs, since they were the ones who instituted the daily prayers. The power of prayer is what purified the Children of Israel and led them to a level high enough to receive the Torah. Now it was not without reason that Jacob instituted Arvit. As we know, the Sages have said that Torah scholars should not go out alone at night, for the forces of evil are more powerful at that time (Berachot 43b). Yet Jacob, who was alone at night, instituted Arvit in order for people to conquer the forces of evil at night and reach the sources of holiness. I reflected upon the greatness of prayer, for there is almost no Jew who comes closer to Hashem simply because he studied the laws of Shabbat, purity, tithes, and so on.
A Jew who is far from Torah and mitzvot does not understand that he can come closer to Hashem in this way. On the contrary, he mocks everything he hears! Therefore how should we proceed with such an individual? We teach him to pray, to believe in the Creator of the world. We open his heart to a love of Hashem and a reverent fear of Him. It is only in this way, by the power of prayer and through the help of Heaven, that we can bring a person closer to the Creator.
On the other hand, to our regret and shame, we find many people who pray three times a day, yet they are still ignorant, scorning everything that is holy. How is this possible? It is clear that “prayer without concentration is a like a body without a soul.” If there is no body in the soul, then there is no life within! Therefore if we fail to concentrate during prayer, it becomes lifeless. An absent-minded prayer does nothing for the person who utters it. It has no power to sustain and uplift the body, and it certainly cannot help a person progress in Torah.
There are two kinds of ignorant people. Some do not pray at all, not even understanding the nature of prayer. It is only when their hearts are aroused, and when they are taught, that they begin to pray a little. On the other hand, some people pray while being scornful of it all the same. Their reproach is far greater, for they understand what prayer is. They can come closer to the Creator and spiritually progress by the power of prayer, yet they choose not to. This is why every Jew must remind himself of the power and greatness of prayer, for it only by an attentive prayer that a person can progress in Torah, perfect his service of G-d, and completely defeat the power of the evil inclination. In fact, who understands the power of focused prayer more than we do? It has the power to open all the gates of Heaven!