Jewish Prayer

From outside in

Sometimes the shortest, most blunt questions do the best job.

Why should we pray? What’s the point of it all? It’s just a waste of time!

Why pray? This is actually a very strong question. Beginning with the assumption that God exists, here are some reasons why we should not pray:
God knows what we want anyway: if He wants to help us, He can do it without being asked first.God has much more important things to do with His time than listen to me.How can the ancient, pre-set prayers of the siddur relate to me?Who am I to tell God what to do? Isn’t it arrogant (and futile) to dictate to the master of the universe?Praying never seems to help anyway.
While the exact form of our set prayers is mostly rabbinic, the Torah itself requires every Jew to offer some kind of prayer daily (in addition to times of particular need).

So what is this mitzvah?

Prayer is, among other things, an act of faith (by talking to God, we’re acknowledging that He’s really there and that He graces us with His attention). It is also an educational process: Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (19th Century Frankfurt) demonstrated how the Hebrew word for prayer (tefila) is actually connected to the word “pelilus” – judgment. Just as a judge absorbs evidence and testimony, crystallizes the information in his mind into a decision and then articulates the decision, so too, one who prays is actually absorbing the wisdom of the siddur (Jewish prayer book) as much as pouring his heart out to God. What a wonderful book is the siddur…how full of wisdom and faith. Imagine the impact of thoughtfully saying those words day after day; how greater will be his moral and religious sensitivity! Now if a person were to come before his Creator with the added merit of personal religious growth and greater faith, would his prayers not be more beloved by God?

As an example, the amida represents the formal template devised for us by the Men of the Great Assembly to allow us to easily cover all the necessary bases of this Torah commandment. In the standard weekday version, there are three paragraphs of praise (designed, perhaps, to sensitize us to a greater appreciation of God’s essence and presence in our lives), thirteen paragraphs requesting help in specific fields of human need (in which all our needs are covered) and, finally, three of thanks (for all that we’ve received already in our personal and national lives). On Shabbos, when we avoid personal requests, the middle thirteen paragraphs are replaced by one blessing that helps us define the Shabbos (or festival) and thereby make better use of it.

I would point out further that nearly all the language of prayer is in the plural tense – we’re praying as much for all the Jewish people as we are for ourselves.

A second example: we might say that the Aleinu prayer (created, according to the Talmud, by Joshua upon his entry into Israel) is a call to action: now that the amida has helped us grow and become deeply inspired in our faith and love of God and His Torah, let us go out into the world and bring these ideals to our daily lives so that every business deal, every word to a spouse or friend, every private and public thought should be a fulfillment of God’s highest moral expectations for us!

Spend some time just reading the words of the siddur (in Hebrew, if you are able). Try to connect one paragraph with the next; to understand the juxtaposition of ideas. You’ll find that this is a most complex work (despite the disarming simplicity of its language). The effort needed to understand it, however, might well invest it with some greater significance for you.

Concerning points 4 and 5, we must indeed be careful to never instruct God, but instead to humbly and lovingly lay out our weakness and vulnerability before Him and ask to share in His infinite compassion. Will we be heard? Certainly (“God is close to all who call him…” Psalm 150). Will His answer always be “yes”? Certainly not. How could it be? It would mean that we’re the gods and he’s the slave! It also assumes that we know our true needs better than He does.

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