So I was going to write a post about prayer. But then, as often happens, I found out I was writing two posts. The first one is about the concept of prayer in Jewish thought, and the second will be about the formal Jewish prayers and the structure of Jewish prayer services.
We’re going to define prayer as the act of speaking to God. In Judaism, we have formal prayers that we are required to recite daily and/or in various situations (blessings, for example). But there is also “spontaneous” prayer–speaking to God whenever you like, asking Him for things you want or need, thanking Him for good things that have happened to you, or generally sharing your thoughts and desires with Him. In Judaism we divide prayer into three elements: shevaḥ (praise), bakasha (request), and hodaya (thanksgiving). Jewish prayers usually contain all three of these elements, and usually in that order. Spontaneous prayer can be in whatever language you like, but all formal prayers, across the globe, are conducted in Hebrew (or sometimes Aramaic), for reasons we have already discussed. In Judaism, you have to really speak the words to pray. Intention, or thinking the words, is not enough. Even during “silent” prayers, we must whisper the words to ourselves loud enough so that we can hear ourselves.
But… why talk to God at all? If you think about this a little, it’s actually a pretty good question. If we believe that God is Ultimate Good, and that everything that happens in the world–even things that seem terrible–is for the ultimate good of all existence, why bother asking God to intervene? He’s going to do what’s best for us anyway, isn’t He? And doesn’t God know our thoughts? Why do I need to verbalize for Him what I want? He’s supposed to know them already.
To be honest, I still struggle with this question, but my struggle is more personal than theological. It is very difficult for me to ask for something when I know the answer might be no. And as you know from knowing me personally, it is very difficult for me to send a question, request, or sensitive statement out into the void and get no response. Even wanting something I know I might not be able to have can be very painful for me. So putting that desire into words, and offering it up to this invisible, omniscient, omnipresent Being who will never give me a clear and obvious response, puts me in an extremely vulnerable position. And Judaism–as you will see in Part II–requires us to ask for things we probably can’t have every day, several times a day. Every single day we pray for the redemption and the coming of the Messiah, not just “eventually”, but “mehera“–“speedily”; “b’karov, beyamenu“, “soon, in our days”. And though we are supposed to believe it is possible He will come any minute, realistically many of us don’t think the world is ready for it yet. There have been times in my life that I simply could not say these words anymore. I couldn’t say them with intention and really open myself up to wanting God to answer, when I knew that He probably wouldn’t. I couldn’t take the constant sense of rejection and disappointment, feeling like I was pleading in vain and repeatedly banging on the proverbial gates of Heaven, with no answer.
Well, to address the theological question, we will need…. a little Hebrew grammar lesson! 😉
The word “to pray” in Hebrew is להתפלל (lehitpalel). Hebrew has a number of verbal conjugations that can give the same root different meanings. For instance, using the root נ.ק.ה., you can say “לנקות” (lenakot), “to clean”, or “להתנקות” (lehitnakot), “to be cleansed”. The latter conjugation is reflexive, meaning that the object and the subject of the verb are the same (“to ___ oneself”), much like one of the uses for the se pronoun in Spanish (going with the example above: lavar vs. lavarse).
The conjugation used in the word להתפלל is reflexive. “To make oneself pray”; orarse.
What does this mean?
The idea is that praying is not something you do to God. It is something you do to yourself. It is something that affects, changes, and refines you spiritually. And maybe, in so doing, you can change your part in the situation enough that God will change how He chooses to conduct matters in a way that is easier for you.
Sometimes this is a vague theoretical idea, but sometimes it is very real. How many times have you prayed for strength, only to discover that the very act of praying gave you strength? I don’t know about you, but this has happened to me a lot. In my elevating myself spiritually, by connecting to God in this very personal and–for me–vulnerable way, sometimes I can make myself worthy of an easier path to wherever He has been leading me. And sometimes, prayer gives me the strength to handle it when God’s answer is “no.”
In Judaism we believe that every single prayer makes an impact, but we don’t always know what the impact is. Sometimes we are disappointed because He doesn’t answer our prayers the way we would have liked. Sometimes it feels like He’s not listening. But we believe that He is always listening, and He always answers–sometimes with “revealed good”, and sometimes with “hidden good” (which may look like evil or hardship to us).
Many people have experienced crises of faith because of disasters that happened to them despite their prayers. But seeing God this way is limiting Him. He is not a soda machine where if you punch in the right code, He’ll give you exactly what you asked for. God doesn’t always give us what we ask for, but He always gives us what we need. Sometimes what we need is terribly hard and excruciatingly painful. True faith in God is believing that He always gives us what is truly best for us on a cosmic and spiritual level, even if our limited human capacity for understanding cannot fathom the purpose of some things that happen.
As I mentioned briefly in this post, there is an idea in Judaism that the strength of one’s prayers increases during key moments of joy in their lives, such as on one’s wedding day, during childbirth, on a birthday, etc. These moments are also moments of spiritual transformation and renewal. There is also an idea that people who are closer to God spiritually have greater “spiritual power”, so their prayers are more likely to be answered; and that when you pray for someone else, your own prayers for yourself are answered first. All these strengthen the idea that it is not the request itself that can make an impact, but the spiritual process happening within the person making the request, and the impact that spiritual change has on the rest of the world.
Prayer is sometimes referred to as “avodah” in Hebrew, which means “work”. Sometimes prayer is as easy as telling your son “I love you”. Sometimes it’s as hard as asking someone you have hurt deeply to forgive you. Either way, in the moments that we connect and open ourselves up to Him–we allow Him into our lives, and that helps us grow and inch closer to our potential and our purpose in the world.
May all your prayers be answered with revealed good.
Lots of love,