Elijah [the prophet] said to Rabbi Yehuda brother of Rabbi Salah Hisda: “When you set out on a journey, ask permission from your Maker, and then depart.” – Tractate Brachot 29B
What a beautiful teaching this is. It embodies a whole way of approaching life. Imagine what our lives would be like if we implemented this path of continually “asking God” before we acted every day.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that we should turn to God for everything in our lives, even the smallest needs.

Sri Ramakrishna compares this way of devotion to the behavior of a kitten:

 “It is necessary to pray to Him with a longing heart. The kitten knows only how to call its mother, crying, ‘Mew, mew!’ It remains satisfied wherever its mother puts it. And the mother cat puts the kitten sometimes in the kitchen, sometimes on the floor, and sometimes on the bed. When it suffers it cries only, ‘Mew, mew!’ That’s all it knows. But as soon as the mother hears this cry, wherever she may be, she comes to the kitchen.” [1]

Rebbe Nachman takes this image even a step further. He instructs us to have azut dekedusha – holy chutzpah – when praying. We should not just humbly ask God to take care of our wants, declares Rebbe Nachman, we should demand what we need from Him or Her. We should not be afraid to ask God to do the impossible for us – even to perform outright miracles.

Sri Ramakrishna also concurred with this approach.  Once some Sikhs came to him and said:” God is full of compassion.” To their surprise, Sri Ramakrishna answered:

“’But why should we call Him compassionate? He is our Creator. What is there to be wondered at if He is kind to us? Parents bring up their children. Do you call that an act of kindness? They must act that way.’

“Therefore we should force our demands on God. He is our Father and Mother, isn’t He? …when the child demands some pice [pennies/Indian coins] from his mother, and says over and over again: ‘Mother, give me a couple of pice. I beg you on my knees!’ – then the mother, seeing his earnestness, and unable to bear it any more, tosses the money to him.” [2]

There is a dispute among the Hasidic masters as to whether it is valid to ask God for our personal needs, or whether all our prayers should be only for the sake of heaven. Rebbe Nachman acknowledges that the focus of our prayers should be to ask God to give us strength to serve Him. Nonetheless, he urges us to pray to God for every little need, because through this spiritual practice, turning to God will become our natural mode of being. Once this happens, we will be filled with the constant awareness of His Presence. In this spirit, Rebbe Nachman urges us to immerse all of our heart, mind and soul into our prayers until we can feel the words in our very bones. This, he explains, is the meaning of Psalm 35:10 “kol atzmotei tomarna: Adonai, mi kamokha!” – “All my bones shall say: Lord, who is like unto You!”

Asking God before we act brings God into our decision-making process. By doing this, we acknowledge that we do not act alone. God is in command of everything that happens. He is in control of the universe. He is in control of our lives.

The Indian saint Swami Papa Ramdas made this approach the focus of his spiritual path. He accepted everything that happened to him as coming from “Ram” or God. He surrendered to whatever occurred as the Divine Will.

In his book, In the Vision of God, Papa Ramdas describes how while climbing down the mountainside one day, he reached an impasse with nowhere to go except straight down a sheer cliff. Turning to “Ram”, he asked for guidance. Ram led him to the edge of the cliff and told him to look down where he saw a tiny branch that was sticking out over the edge below him. Stepping onto the branch would mean stepping into thin air with nothing but this fragile branch to hold him. With complete trust in God, and not the slightest hesitation, Ramdas stepped off the edge and out onto the branch. To his amazement, he found that the tiny branch held his weight. Gazing below him, he now saw that the branch was, in fact, the top of a gigantic tree that stretched all the way to the floor of the valley thirty meters below. In a state of ecstatic bliss and wonder, Ramdas slowly made his way to the ground. [3]

What awe-inspiring faith. Who can imagine such trust in God? In the modern world in which we live, such faith is inconceivable. We are trained to be skeptical and to question everything. None of us would dare to risk our well being in this fashion. Ramdas’ faith seems naive or even reckless to us.

Yet what have we given up by forsaking this kind of faith and trust? What doors have we closed in our hearts, and in the higher worlds?

Rebbe Nachman believed that our prayers no longer are as potent as they once were because we have lost our faith in the power of prayer. Prayer, he declares, is in galut – in exile. We have forgotten how to wield the great spiritual force that is contained within a prayer.

In one of his teachings, Rebbe Nachman gives a beautiful description of the Baal Shem’s approach to prayer. In this approach, we use the intention in our heart to join together each letter, word and phrase in the traditional prayers, so that we create a single unified stream of praise and yearning that flows toward heaven. Rebbe Nachman compares this method of prayer to a person who gathers flowers, as he walks through a field, and turns them into beautiful bouquets to give to his beloved.

We have forgotten how to gather flowers to offer our Beloved. We have forgotten how to live with devotion. Prayer is an act of love and devotion. It is an act of surrender where we place ourselves in the Hands of God and acknowledge the depth of our own limitations.

This truth lies at the heart of the religious life. It is this recognition of our dependence on God and of our vulnerability as human beings which makes prayer a living experience. We can commune with the Infinite once we have accepted our own finitude. We can touch that which is Eternal after we have experienced our own mortality.

The practice of “asking God” is about living in this mindset. It is about living with humility, awareness and faith. “Asking God” is a path which opens our heart and expands our consciousness. It is a path of vibrant relationship, of dialogue and interaction, where we walk through life holding onto God’s outstretched Hand.

Copyright © 2013, by Yoel Glick

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)
  1. ‘M’, the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, as translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 83
  2. Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna p. 96
  3. Swami Ramdas, In the Vision of God

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