Imaginary Prayer

parshat vayechi, genesis 48

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on January 5th 2023. Jacob, upon his reunion with Joseph exclaims: לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי “I had never imagined” that I would see my son again. The word he uses for imagining is the same word we use for praying, so we imagine what prayer would be as a form of imagining.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is vayechi. Jacob, upon his reunion with Joseph exclaims: לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי “I had never imagined”.  He had never imagined that he would see his son again. The word he uses for imagining פִלָּ֑לְתִּי is the same word we use for praying להתפלל, and for prayer תְפִלָה  so join us as we imagine what prayer would be as a form of imagining. Imaginary Prayer


Well, welcome. Rabbi Mintz, you and I are both are headed to the Middle East. You’re going to be in Dubai next week, and I will please God be in Israel. So this is a bon voyage podcast. But welcome

Adam Mintz  01:15

And the end of the book of Genesis. So it’s perfect.

Geoffrey Stern  01:18

It is perfect. So, I think about two podcasts ago, I did it on body language. I really talked about prayer. And what if any aspect of physical movement was a part, could be a part of Jewish prayer. And today, as you could tell from the intro, we’re also going to be talking about prayer imagination in prayer. And I’m starting to think, you know, you question yourself, why you pick a topic. And I think, ultimately, and this is a confession at the beginning of the podcast, that I must feel when I go to my synagogue, that I am not getting the type of nurturing the type of stimulation that I want. I find that prayer in the typical American synagogue is grossly wanting. And I think that is the only way I can explain why when I read a parsha, I focus on something that has to do with prayer. So that’s my that’s my confession to you. Do you ever feel that your prayer needs recharge or reboot? You pray a lot more than me!

Adam Mintz  02:33

That’s right. Yes. I think that prayer needs a recharge or reboot, rethinking re reimagining I think that’s a great term you used.: imagination…  we need to think about it a little bit.

Geoffrey Stern  02:45

Well, great. So, in Genesis 48: 11, as I said, it says, and Israel and of course, we know that is Jacob, who had a name change after wrestling with an angel. And Israel said to Joseph, I never thought to see you again. And here God has let me see your children as well. So he’s looking at his son Joseph, who was a sold as a slave, but his kids told him that he had been torn to pieces and died. And here he is seeing that son, with grandchildren to boot. And he goes, and this is the translation. לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי I never thought another explanation. Another translation that you see is I never expected. So, we have thinking and expectation. But as I said in the introduction, פִלָּ֑לְתִּי comes from the same root as להתפלל to pray, and that we have come across previous times in Genesis in Genesis 20. It says, therefore restore the man’s life since he is a prophet, he will intercede for you, after Abraham pimps off Sara as his sister, and then the Pharaoh gets leprosy. And he says, why did you do this to me? Abraham says, I will pray for you I will intercede is the translation. In Genesis 20: 17. It says Abraham then prayed to God, and God healed. Avimelech, interesting that both of these referred references are to a prayer of healing. But nonetheless, להתפלל is typically taken as something that means to pray. And if you look at your typical concordance in the Sefira notes that go along with this podcast and are posted on this clubhouse. It talks about it’s a primitive word that means to pray, to entreat judgment, prayer, supplication and finally only one time, it means thought. So in our parsha, it is seemingly a very unique angle, a very unique way of taking this word to Palal. What do you think rabbi? Is it thought? Is it expected? Or is it something else?

Adam Mintz  05:21

I mean, both of those are good. And of course, the question is how it relates to prayer, להתפלל. And the amazing thing about the word להתפלל. להתפלל in grammar is called the reflexive, meaning it reflects back on you. So, prayer really means to think about yourself, or to imagine yourself, right. And I think that’s really interesting. By the way, the same word Pelilut is used later in the Torah, at the end of the book of Devarim it means to judge. To think into judges the same thing. But it’s an interesting idea that prayer might be that we judge ourselves.

Geoffrey Stern  06:05

So I think that there’s almost universal consensus that in  להתפלל, whatever Palel means the fact that it’s reflexive is fascinating. And so, and that really relates to what does it mean? Because whatever it means, you’re almost doubling over you’re doing upon yourself. So, I’m going to quote a few classical commentaries as we explore what it does mean, or what it could mean. So, the Hizkuni. He’s obviously troubled by the fact that if this means something different than elsewhere, how does it relate to prayer? So he says, It means he had not even prayed to see Joseph again. And at least a few commentaries say there is this concept in halacha. In Jewish law, that you can’t make a bracha l’vatala. You can’t make a prayer, especially one that uses God’s name. If you don’t have a justification to say it. In other podcasts, we’ve talked about just the idea of praying, you need permission, you almost need God to tell you, I give you permission to pray. But you can’t make a prayer over fruit if you’re not going to bite into and eat the fruit. According to the Hizkuni, because he’s struggling to connect it to prayer, is that this was so far from my mind from reality, that I didn’t even permit myself to pray, because I didn’t feel that there was any positive outcome that could happen. And that’s how he kind of relates it to this other concept of it hadn’t entered my thought, or it hadn’t entered my imagination. But I think he’s struggling with it. Do you agree?

Adam Mintz  08:01

I agree. I mean, it’s not clear exactly what it means. It’s a font. I mean, what the reason that you picked it out, it’s a funny use of the word in the context in this week’s parsha. It’s not the word you would expect. And that’s why it’s something that’s worth talking about.

Geoffrey Stern  08:19

Yeah. So I mean, like the Ibn Ezra says, and again, he this is in line with what you were saying. He says, it comes from the same root as פלילים, judges. And he says, So, in a sense, my mind never judged that I would ever see you. So, we have now two commentaries, who are trying somehow to link it to the traditional term of either prayer wouldn’t enter my name to make the prayer or to judge, I would never have judged rationally that this would be the case. And so, again, the Radak very similar to what I said before it says that he was afraid that he was saying that he had not prayed to God concerning being reunited with Joseph in this life, as he had considered it as forbidden, vain prayer. He was afraid of praying in vain. And that’s a fascinating concept as well, this concept of praying in vain. How does that strike you?

Adam Mintz  09:34

That’s a great concept; that praying in vain, because we generally feel that prayer is always good. Praying in vain. The Talmud is a great thing. The Talmud says if a woman who’s pregnant, it doesn’t pay to pray, whether it’s going to be a boy or a girl, because it either is a boy or a girl or not, your prayers are not going to change anything. So, a prayer in vain means a prayer to change something that is already reality.

Geoffrey Stern  10:04

I mean, but if you think in terms of kind of the audacity of prayer, the question of what sort of a prayer is a prayer in vain. And I think it’s pretty obvious when it comes to the example that I gave before, which is when you make a blessing, over doing something, and you don’t do it, but here, you kind of wonder, and I think this might touch on the crux of the issue here. You know, can we not pray for the impossible? Can we not pray for something that is not totally rational? And I think that’s kind of what they’re also struggling with. Where, what is this prayer that Jacob says he didn’t dare to make? I think when we go to Rashi and usually, I start with Rashi, but I think that Rashi is so much on the money here. I left him for last. And of course, all the other commentaries, saw Rashi first, Rashi says I had never dared to cherish the thought that I would again, see his face לֹא מְלָאַנִי לִבִּי לַחֲשֹׁב מַחֲשָׁבָה to think a thought. He says Politi is an expression for thinking. So now we’ve had Politi is for prayer. Politi is for judging. And now with Rashi we’re starting to come for prayer is just to think and I would dare say “imagine”. Because what he’s really saying is that I couldn’t bring myself. I was so…  I had given up I had been Me’ayesh on ever seeing my son, let alone grandchildren that I wouldn’t dare. This is a whole new level.

Adam Mintz  12:03

That’s a whole new level. That is absolutely a whole new level. That he admits that he had given up hope from ever seeing them again, is a very personal statement. Right? I mean, and it’s a statement of thanksgiving to God, like, I can’t imagine this happen and look what just happened.

Geoffrey Stern  12:24

So, before we follow up a little bit on what Rashi has instituted here, that פִלָּ֑לְתִּי is not necessarily judging, which is certainly a form of thinking. And it’s definitely not praying. It’s just It hadn’t entered my thought, or my imagination. What I did is I pulled out all my books on my shelf ….  I guess, I’m kind of a prayer aficionado,  I have Eli Munk’s book on prayer, I have Hayim H. Donin’s book To Pray as a Jew, the first thing that I realized is so much of the books on Jewish prayer have to do with less with prayer, and more on the siddur, less with prayer, and more on prayers. And each of them. And I’ve quoted a Donin in my notes. I’ve also quoted some other sources. They all seem to be focused on our prayers on the Siddur, and particular prayers. And you know, a few weeks ago, we did Nishmat Kol Chai, there are some amazing prayers. But the actual concept of praying, there’s typically one paragraph that addresses the issue that we’re discussing. And almost universally, it focuses on the fact that להתפלל is reflexive. And most of them say it means to judge oneself: introspection. If you followed most of these books, you would assume that Jewish prayer is all about introspection. That’s certainly a part of it. And of course, we have to say that in the rabbinic tradition, Tefilah is generic prayer, but it’s more specifically the silent prayer the Amidah, the Shewmona Esrai, the 18th benedictions. So am I right there.

Adam Mintz  14:26

You are definitely right there.

Geoffrey Stern  14:28

And so, what is how does that strike you? That prayer is about introspection. Is that an aspect of it or do you think that’s the whole story?

Adam Mintz  14:35

When you jump to the idea that it’s the eighteen benedictions;  what we call an Hebrew The Amidah. I think that’s a term they use in English too. You have to understand something. Prayer didn’t start off that way. Prayer started off that everybody prayed their own prayer. It was only because Maimonides says it was only because people lost the ability to articulate their feelings in words that the rabbi’s instituted a standard prayer. So when you talk about what prayer is, it’s hard to say that prayer is, you know, the 18 benedictions. Because actually, that’s too rigid. Prayer is much beyond that. It’s just that when people stopped being able to express themselves, they started expressing it through the 18 benedictions. I think it’s much better to say that prayer is the way that we kind of, say introspection that we kind of imagine ourselves standing before God, and what does that mean about us? And what does that mean about our relationship with God?

Geoffrey Stern  15:51

So I totally agree, I did a Google search for prayer, Jewish prayer, and imagining, and I came up with one hit. It was how to pray well by Rabbi David Rosenfeld, and he literally quotes our passuk. And he says, the word Jacob uses for imagine, is “filalti” of the same root as the word hitpallel. Prayer is thus not only asking God for something, it is imagining, becoming, whom I’d like to become. So, he kind of combines the concept of imagining with this reflexology that we’ve been talking about. So, it’s imagining about myself. Prayer is envisioning myself becoming a greater person, and asking God for the divine assistance to help me get there. Now, I totally agree. On the one hand, I have to say that I was surprised how few people that talked about להתפלל, quoted our verse and understood our verse was saying something slightly differently. I love what he says, the only criticism that I would have is if you put it back into context. This was not a prayer about Jacob or Israel, envisioning himself becoming a greater person. This was a Jacob an Israel, saying, I never imagined, you know, my daughter married a guy whose grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. And the first time I met her, she says, I’ve taken every one of my grandchildren to Auschwitz. And I said, if you ever go, please take me. And she was in her 90s. And she says, I’m going, my kids weren’t even married then. We went with her. She went on a trip of survivors from a single town in Poland, I never knew this. Every town has a group of people all around the world survivors, and now more and more children of survivors who stick together. So not only was my wife and I, the only people who were not related to a survivor, we were the only people not related to this town. And she goes into Auschwitz and her grandchild, got his guitar inside. They said no musical instruments, he said, this is going to be an exception. And he played Ani Ma’amin. And then she spoke, and she says, the only thing that kept me alive, was that I one day, and I have no justification for why….  I imagined that there might be “you” that there might be children and grandchildren. And this is exactly what Joseph… what Israel is doing right now.

Adam Mintz  18:48

That’s an amazing story.

Geoffrey Stern  18:50

It came to my mind when I read it.

Adam Mintz  18:54

Oh my God, that’s exactly the story! Jacob, looking at his son and his grandchildren. And I never imagined…  If she knew how to say a devar Torah, she would have said this Dvar Torah. She’s saying exactly what Jacob said,

Geoffrey Stern  19:10

Trust me, she knew. But in any case, that doesn’t come out here. I would like to pursue a little bit further, this concept of imagining, but not in imagination that is necessarily introspective, not an imagination that says, oh, if I could become a better person, because that wasn’t the imagination she was talking about in Auschwitz. It was an imagination of just ….. call it a leap of faith, call it believing in something that’s not rational that has no basis but gives you hope. That’s the type of imagination I think that Jacob and Israel was talking about. And that’s the type of imagination I’d like to pursue in terms of prayer. Are you with me?

Adam Mintz  19:15

I’m with you. Let’s go

Geoffrey Stern  20:00

So I want to start with, the Maharal…. I don’t think I’ve ever quoted the Maharalo on the Madlik podcast, but the Maharal reads Isaiah, and Isaiah 56 says, I will bring them to my sacred mount, and let them rejoice in my house of prayer. And the Hebrew for House of Prayer is בְּבֵ֣ית תְּפִלָּתִ֔י. So now we have an additional problem. Now we have not only do we not totally understand what prayer is, but we’ve got to understand what God’s prayer is. Because it says, בְּבֵ֣ית תְּפִלָּתִ֔י as though it was…..  if I was Orthodox, I would say kivi’yachol (as if to say) “God’s prayer”. And so, then you have classic rabbinic tests asking, whence do we know that the Holy One praised be, he prays.  מנין שהקב״ה מתפלל  And one lesson that the Ayn Yaakov brings from here we learn that amazing Hasidic lesson that prayers from the mouth of Brabes, prayers from the pure, those are as valuable as any other prayers, because ultimately, they are the prayers of God. And that is one of the lessons that is quoted in the in the Eyn Yaakov which brings us down Berachot,  And there were others that asked the same question of how is it that God can pray, and this is when we get to the Maharal, in his book called The Be’er HaGolah, and it’s where he is defending and exploring what Judaism is. And he says that the key is that is prayer. שהוא לשון מחשבה. Prayer is a language of thought. So what unites the previous interpretations of prayer is to judge prayer is to hitpalel is to pray. He says, it all comes from a לשון מחשבה and he says that God is as much a thinker as we are, you could even say, and he adds one additional thing, he says that it is ומה שאמרו לשון זה ‘שהקב”ה מתפלל’, ולא אמרו ‘שהקב”ה חפץ’, או ‘מבקש’, דבר זה יתבאר בסמוך למה אמרו בזה הלשון דוקאe, it is audible Machshava if you will. It’s important, we’re finishing the book of Genesis today, we have to remember how the world was created. It was created by God thinking and God saying, so it’s almost creating reality. So in a sense, the interpretation of Palel to be imaginative comes back to what Herzl said .. If you imagine it…. it is no dream. it, and we’re hoping that God will pray and enunciate in a similar fashion. There’s this kind of reflexivity, which I think is captured in the word lehitpalel. But you know, it really started me thinking about what I find it most inspiring in synagogue when I think back to the times that I have prayed the best. It’s when I’ve heard a rabbi give a drasha that inspires me. And it’s typically right in front of Mussaf. And you hear this, this, drasha, this sermon, and it inspires the way you think. And then you move it into prayer. It reminds me of before a yoga class or a meditation with a leader will give you an intention….  will kind of stroke your imagination. Today, it’s cold out let’s think of this. Today this has happened in the world think of this. And it reminded me of the Mishnah in Berachot that says that in the earlier times the rabbi’s would spend an hour before they actually prayed. So they would focus their hearts toward their father in heaven. And it’s always translated as kavanah, which is intentionality. But I’m starting to think in terms of our imagination. It’s an intention that when we pray, we need to be thinking, imagining something. That’s how I took it this week. And what do you think? Do you think it matters what we imagine, or it’s the experience of allowing ourselves to imagine whatever we imagine? What dawned on me is that the struggle that we choose have that is represented in all the books that I described, that talk about the siddur, the set prayers, is that the prayers stay the same. But their intentions can be totally different. And I imagined these rabbis an hour before prayers, fixing their intentions for that day. And I think based on one’s intentions, the same prayer can be 360 degrees different. That’s what kind of It struck me as?

Adam Mintz 

Yeah, that’s a really sophisticated point, that prayer means something different, depending on where you are. That’s why the institution of the Amidah, actually makes prayer less than it really is. Right?

Geoffrey Stern

Yes, and no, You know, it’s kind of like a Rorschach test. What do you see in it today? What does that tell me about you, but I really felt that this hour before a prayer establishing one’s intention was a game changer. And it even reflects upon a little bit of the body language at the end of that Mishnah in Berachot. It says, You have to focus your hearts towards the Father in heaven. And if the king greets him, he should not respond to him. And even if a snake is wrapped on his heel, he should not interrupt. There’s almost that you move….you take those three steps forward, and you’re in a different space, your mind is in a different space.

Adam Mintz 

So it’s so funny. You’re talking about the three steps forward. In the introduction to the ArtScroll siddur, Rabbi Saul Berman, you talked about Rabbi Riskin and Rabbi Saul Berman, who was the successor of Rabbi Riskin in Lincoln Square Synagogue. He wrote the introduction to the ArtScroll siddur. And he says that the most important part of the Amidah is the three steps forward, you’re supposed to take three steps into your own world. It’s a different world. That’s really a good a great idea.

Geoffrey Stern

And that’s totally amazing. So here’s what I did. I googled “imagination in prayer”. And I came up with Ignatius of Loyola who was the founder of the Jesuits. And there is a whole practice based on him in the source notes, but I am going to read you seven examples and seven ways he believes that you can use imagination in prayer. So he says, imagine the sights and sounds of a biblical story, either as an observant or as a participant in the scene. So the first is, again, exactly kind of what I was discussing before when you hear a great sermon, and he’s talking about feeding the hungry, that colors the way you pray. So think of a biblical story. He says to take inspiration from an object that sparks your imagination, focus on something, have a conversation with God is number three that kind of reminded me of the Bresovers, but definitely reminded me of this taking three steps forward as a sign of kind of meeting with God. Here’s a cool one….  4 imagine another person’s point of view. Ignatius suggests that we always try to put a good interpretation on another person’s actions. Can you imagine trying to step into somebody else’s mind as the reflexivity of the hitpalel? Then he talks about giving thanks. Bring to mind a series of pictures of people, relationships, communities, pets, or others, for whom you are grateful. He really focused on just this sense of what Jacob, Israel said he could not do. I couldn’t imagine it. And he’s saying, When you pray, try to just imagine somebody, and it will change your praise for the day. The he goes. Remember the Tzadikin…., he says saints. But remember that Tzadik… think of great people. The last, he says, let go of old images of God allow new ones to emerge. I mean, you know, you talk about trying to expand our horizons with prayer. This absolutely just blew me away that he was a religious thinker, that focused on combining imagination, with prayer, and what happens when you do that.

Adam Mintz 

That’s fantastic. That’s a great way to end the whole thing. It’s great that we started with Jacob, Jacob says, you know, he uses the word, the same word for prayer to mean imagine or think or contemplate or judge or whatever it is. And what we did is we showed how that same idea that same use of the word has kind of worked through the ages. And that the prayer that we have today, and like you said, the you know, the sermon or the drasha that we have today before Mussaf you know that that allows us to reflect a little bit better is really the same experience that Jacob had which is really beautiful. So you know, when we finish Vayetzei, we finished a book appreciate we worked really hard on it all the way since Bereshit. We say Hazak Hazak veHithazek. We should be strong, we should be strong, and we should strengthen one another. And we look forward to moving ahead. The book of Shemot it’s a whole different book Geoffrey, no more family now it’s all about the nation; nation-building. Next, thursday, I will be in transit. But Geoffrey has some treats and surprises for everybody. So enjoy. I look forward to catching up when I land. Shabbat Shalom, and enjoy the last parsha of the book of Bereshit.

Geoffrey Stern  32:28

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi and I just want to finish because in the pregame I said I was going to mention Harry Austryn Wolfson.

Adam Mintz 

Yeah, let’s hear

Geoffrey Stern 

I was reading an essay that he wrote called Escaping Judaism. And in it, he says many amazing things you can look in this source sheet, but he talks about our prayers. And he is not a religious Jew. He is a graduate of Slaboka. He is the most knowledgeable Jew in the ideas and in the history of ideas of Judaism. And he criticizes Reform Jews of his time for changing the prayer book. And he says, Do you not think that when Maimonides read about Mechay’yeh Hametim, about bringing the dead back to life….And he had a more sophisticated view of it, that he did not find it offensive. But and here’s where he talks about imagination. He says if you just change the word, where is the imagination? He calls them cowards. He says pray from a prayer book that has been written and stood the test of 2000 years and challenge your imagination to find new meaning in it. And that just blew me away.

Adam Mintz 

That is beautiful.

Geoffrey Stern 

So with that… Genesis if anything is imagination. We finish the book Rabbi, it’s been an absolute pleasure to do it with you. I wish you a nesiah Tova.

Adam Mintz 

You too and we look forward to doing it from the other side of the world a week from now. Shabbat Shaom.

Geoffrey Stern 

Thank you. And next time we speak, next Thursday, I hope to be in the Holy Land of Israel. And either I will do it alone or I will find somebody in Israel who wants to do it with me. But in the meantime, enjoy the last Parsha, the last portion of Bereshit. Shabbat Shalom to you all.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Listen to last year’s vayechi podcast: Members of the Tribe

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