How To Improve Our Prayers
Lessons From The Five Daughters Of Zelophehad
Do you know the best way to ask God for what you want? The secret to successful supplication?
Let us introduce you to some people who do.
In Parshat Pinchas, the five daughters of Zelophehad ask God for a plot of land in Israel. And unlike so many other times in the Book of Numbers, God says yes – without any hint of anger or reservations. Why? What made their request so great?
It turns out that if we read the story carefully, it points us to another time God gave a hearty and surprising yes – and when we put these two stories together, they give us a crucial insight into what requests of God are supposed to look like.
Learn all about it here.
Hi! This is Daniel Loewenstein, and you’re watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Pinchas!
Sometimes, when we have needs, we turn to God and ask for help. College isn’t going to happen without a scholarship, or a loan. We’re desperate for a job. A close friend is sick or injured, and things could go either way. And we pray, and everything...turns out okay. It all works out. When that happens, it feels like God is close, like He cares about us, and He’s really listening.
But sometimes, instead of working out, everything seems to fall apart. The loan is denied. The firm goes with the other guy. Our friend...doesn’t make it. And a million different things go through our minds as we’re left picking up the pieces. One reaction I sometimes have is to ask myself: was there more I could have done? Something else I was supposed to say or do? I don’t mean that I blame myself. But I just can’t help wondering, if I had prayed a little differently, or more intently, if I’d found the right words, would my prayers, just maybe, have worked?
Can We Improve Our Prayers?Now I don’t think I – or any human being – will ever understand God’s calculus; how and when He decides to answer our prayers. That’s beyond me, and I accept that. But I do think it’s possible for us to make our prayers better, and more effective. Because sometimes, in the Torah, we find stories of people who make requests of God, and seem to be given everything they ask for. So – maybe – if we study those stories, and look carefully at how the people in them made their requests, we might discover what made them so great, and bring that into our own prayers to make them stronger.
One of these cases, of God fully granting a request, is the story of the daughters of Tzlophchad, here in Parshat Pinchas. And when you read it carefully, the chutzpah, the audacity of the request on the one hand, and the almost enthusiastic response of God on the other, is actually mind boggling.
The Story of the Five Daughters of TzlophchadAllow me to explain: as the people are getting ready to enter Israel, the leaders of the nation divvy up the land in advance, and it’s apportioned by family. Now according to the law at the time, that meant each male head of household would get an allotment of land, which he would then pass on to his male children. And that presented a problem for the five daughters of Tzlophchad.
Their father had passed away, and they had no brothers. And that meant the Tzlophchad family plot would go to someone from outside of his immediate family. The Tzlophchad family name would be wiped off the map – literally. And his daughters don’t want that to happen. So, they come to Moshe, and they say to him:
לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם־אָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן
Why should our father’s name be left out, why should it disappear from his tribal family, just because he didn’t have a son? It’s not right.
תְּנָה־לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ׃
Give us, his daughters, a plot of land among our father’s brothers!
Now this might not sound all that audacious at first, but stop and really think about what they’re saying. They’re asking for God to make an exception in the laws of inheritance. They’re saying that the way things stand now isn’t right, and needs to change. I don’t mean to be rude, but – who asked them?
How Do We Describe the Faith of Tzlophchad's Daughters?God’s Torah isn’t a democracy. He didn’t leave a suggestion box at the base of Mount Sinai. It’s one thing to have a question, to humbly state that something doesn’t make sense to you – but to say תְּנָה־לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה, give us land? To appeal Divine rules? That’s not a thing.
And yet, despite all of that, inexplicably, God actually agrees.
כֵּן בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד דֹּבְרֹת, He says.
What the daughters of Tzlophchad are saying, it’s correct.
נָתֹן תִּתֵּן לָהֶם אֲחֻזַּת נַחֲלָה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אֲבִיהֶם
An inheritance plot will be given to them among their father’s brothers.
וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ אֶת־נַחֲלַת אֲבִיהֶן לָהֶן׃
And you will transfer the inheritance of their father over to them.
God grants their request, makes an exception to His own law to let them inherit their fathers’ land. That in and of itself is just astounding. But here’s the thing: God’s not even done yet. He goes further:
וְאֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תְּדַבֵּר לֵאמֹר
And to the rest of the Children of Israel, say:
אִישׁ כִּי־יָמוּת וּבֵן אֵין לוֹ
If a man dies, and he has no son – as a general rule, forever –
וְהַעֲבַרְתֶּם אֶת־נַחֲלָתוֹ לְבִתּוֹ׃
then you will transfer over his inheritance to his daughter.
This is beyond a special exception now. God doesn’t just give the daughters of Tzlophchad the specific thing they asked for. He issues a proclamation, and institutionalizes it, makes it an everlasting part of the laws of inheritance. This is way beyond God saying yes – this is a ringing endorsement. But why? What was so great about their request for family land, to get this unprecedented level of approval?
Studying Parallels to Tzlophchad's Daughters in the BibleWell the truth is, this isn’t really unprecedented. There’s actually another place in the Torah – and only one other place, as far as I know – where a request is made of God, and He doesn’t just say yes, but codifies that yes into law. And maybe if we look at that story alongside the story of the daughters of Tzlophchad, we can understand why God took to these requests so much, what was so special about them.
So this other story is a small little story, tucked away earlier in Numbers, in chapter nine. It’s about a group of people who were temei’im, ritually impure, and because of that, they couldn’t offer the Korban Pesach, the Passover offering. But that didn’t sit well with them. So they approached Moshe for help. Now, let’s look at what they say, and see if anything sounds a little familiar.
וַ֠יֹּאמְרוּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֤ים הָהֵ֙מָּה֙ אֵלָ֔יו
The temei’im said to Moshe,
אֲנַ֥חְנוּ טְמֵאִ֖ים לְנֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֑ם
We are impure; we’ve come in contact with a dead body
Why should we be left out?
לְבִלְתִּ֨י הַקְרִ֜ב אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן יְהוָה֙
Why should we be unable to offer the Korban Pesach?
So that’s the request they make - they don’t want to be left out. Now look at how God responds:
דַּבֵּ֛ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר
Speak to the Children of Israel – everyone - and say:
אִ֣ישׁ אִ֣ישׁ כִּי־יִהְיֶֽה־טָמֵ֣א ׀ לָנֶ֡פֶשׁ
If a man is impure from contact with a dead body
אוֹ֩ בְדֶ֨רֶךְ רְחֹקָ֜הׄ
Or he’s traveling a far distance, and doesn’t arrive in time for Pesach
לָכֶ֗ם א֚וֹ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם
For your generation, or in future generations, as well
וְעָ֥שָׂה פֶ֖סַח לַיהוָֽה׃
He can still offer a Pesach offering.
בַּחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בְּאַרְבָּעָ֨ה עָשָׂ֥ר י֛וֹם בֵּ֥ין הָעַרְבַּ֖יִם יַעֲשׂ֣וּ אֹת֑וֹ
On the 14th day of Iyar, one month after Pesach – a day we refer to today as Pesach Sheini, the second Pesach – that will be his chance to participate.
Doesn’t that sound familiar? God, not just giving these temei’im what they want, but issuing a proclamation to the whole nation, establishing a new law to address their problem? It’s exactly what happened with the daughters of Tzlophchad.
And if we look deeper, there’s more that these two stories share in common. Think about the problems the temei’im and the daughters of Tzlophchad faced. All of the Israelites would get to participate in something – in one case, Passover, in the other, inheriting the land. But in both cases, there’s a small group that, due to circumstances beyond their control, are being left out. And they both approach God and say, we don’t want to be left out.
And there’s one more thing these stories share. If you look closely at the requests – those pleas to not be left out – they share the same language, too. לָ֣מָּה נִגָּרַ֗ע, the temei’im say – why should we be left out? And לָמָּה יִגָּרַע, the daughters of Tzlophchad say – why should our father’s name be left out? It’s virtually identical wording, and it’s not used anywhere else in the entire Torah.
So it seems these parallels are no accident. The Torah is drawing our attention to the similarities between these two requests, maybe even telling us that they’re the same in some fundamental way. Maybe that fundamental idea can explain what made God so excited about them – and maybe it’s something that can inform our own prayers too. But what is it?
Lessons from the Daughters of TzlophchadWell, I have a theory. And to explain it, I’d like to take you back to high school English. No, we’re not going to talk about the Great Gatsby or Hamlet – we’re going to talk about essays.
I taught English for a couple of years, and essays are one of the most important learning experiences in the class. And for many of my students, one of the most important skills involved in essay writing is figuring out how to get an extension. No matter how fair or reasonable you think the deadlines you set might be, students need more time, and have all sorts of ways of asking for it.
Now imagine two students come to me asking for an extra week to finish up an essay. I try to keep an open mind, and I ask them why. The first student – let’s call him Steve – tells me that there just isn’t enough time after school. He has math homework and chemistry homework, and a ton of reading for Global History. But when I push him a little more, I learn that he also spends a hefty portion of his after school hours playing basketball and Call of Duty.
Now I don’t believe high school students should be all work and no play, but it’s also important to learn how to balance your priorities. So maybe I’ll give him the extension, and maybe I won’t – eh, I’m a softy, so I probably will – but it will be with a lot of reservations, and a couple of strong words too.
The second student – let’s call her Abby – explains that halfway through her essay, she realized that one of her main claims was flawed. She’d misunderstood an article she was using as a source, and because of that, the majority of her essay needed to be rewritten. And she could slap something together by the deadline, but it wouldn’t be well organized, and the analysis would be superficial. I don’t want to lose out on the chance to get meaningful feedback that can help me grow as a writer, she says. How can that happen if I don’t hand in my best work?
I think we can all agree she’s getting that extension.
And the reason is that the whole point of assigning essays is to help students grow as writers; to see what their skill level is, and give them the feedback they need to help them advance. So if a student comes and points out that her growth will actually be greater, she will learn more, if I just bend the rules a little, well, then being a stickler makes no sense. The rules would be doing the opposite of what they’re supposed to do.
So bearing this in mind, let’s go back to Pesach Sheini, to that petition by the temei’im to be able to bring a Pesach offering. Where was that coming from? Why did they want that? Look at what they say:
לָ֣מָּה נִגָּרַ֗ע לְבִלְתִּ֨י הַקְרִ֜ב אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן יְהוָה֙
Why should we lose out? We want to bring God’s offering!
[We want to celebrate this momentous occasion with the rest of the Israelite people!]
That’s not a request coming from being overwhelmed, or being neglectful, or self-interest. That’s a request coming from a desire to follow God’s will! A belief in the importance of this mitzvah, and a feeling of loss at the prospect of missing out on it. The rules are preventing these people from participating in Passover, preventing them from thanking God for the Exodus with the proper offering. And they want to thank God properly. They want to participate. And they’re asking if there’s any way for the rules to get bent to make that happen.
Is it really all that surprising that God said yes, with such enthusiasm?
And I think the same thing is happening with the daughters of Tzelophchad. See, it’s possible to read what they say, and to interpret it cynically, as a grab for land, an open case of self-interest. But there’s another way to read it also.
Before the Exodus even began, God proclaimed His vision for the Israelites to be His holy people, living in His Promised Land. And throughout the 40 years in the desert, the people reacted by rejecting the land and pining for Egypt, expressing a total lack of concern for God’s vision. But the daughters of Tzlophchad, they’re asking for a place in that land – for their family to have an everlasting legacy among one of God’s chosen tribes, to be a part of His holy nation. That’s not self-interest – that’s a buy in. That’s wanting what God wants you to want.
When the Torah uses that phrase, לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם־אָבִינוּ – why should our father’s name be left out – that’s telling us that the cynical read is wrong. It’s linking this story to Pesach Sheini, and telling us that same zeal to follow God’s will – that same sense of loss facing the prospect of missing out – that’s where they were coming from, too. And that’s why God gave them such a strong yes.
What Prayer Points Can We Learn from Tzlopchad's Daughters?The laws of the Torah are expressions of the values God wants us to hold. Values like truth, justice, compassion and holiness. And when the temei’im and the daughters of Tzlopchad made their requests, they weren’t trying to appeal a law they thought was unfair. They were trying to align with the value underneath the law. A value that, because of their specific circumstances, the law prevented them from expressing. And that kind of request – the kind where what you want, is what God wants you to want – that’s the best kind there is.
And maybe that’s the lesson about prayer – and, really, about life – that we’re supposed to take out of these stories. God gave us His Torah, and showed us the values He wants us to have. And we’re here to internalize those values, and to embody them. And if I turn to God and say, putting those aside for a minute, it would also be great if I could get a scholarship to grad school, I haven’t really given Him much of a reason to say yes. But what if I start with myself; what if I consider whether my plans fit with what I know about God’s values? And if I then say to God, to the best of my knowledge, getting that scholarship – or whatever it is I’m asking for – will help me do what I think You want me to be doing. That’s a whole different kind of prayer.
Am I promising that God will grant every request framed this way? Of course not. Do I have statistical evidence that God-aligned prayers get answered at a higher rate? I do not. But I do know that when my prayers come from a place of wanting to do God’s will, then I’ve given Him every reason to say yes.