If you get on social media at all, you may have seen posts that ask people to pray for them either in advance of surgery, an important life cycle event, for example. Some, have asked their “prayer warriors” to start praying for them. Many have seen signs and billboards that state that “Prayer changes everything”. Many have pleaded with people to pray for the families and victims of natural and man-made disasters that resulted in tragedy.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? With a lot of people putting their desires and intention, the power of prayer may just work. It is interesting that the Chief Rabbi of Israel just told his followers that they can stop praying for rain now that Israel is seeing some massive winter storms.
Need better health? Let’s all pray for you to get better. I’m walking into a job interview. Hey, we’ll pray for you to get it. Tragedy? Let’s all pray for the victims.
Here’s the concern: what are we looking to do with our prayers? Are we trying to control the outcome and master nature? Torah warns us about this. Pagans believed that forces of nature were in control and therefore gods. They would do sacrifices, many times human, or engage in other practices that would attempt to control the forces and therefore the gods. They were also superstitious, engaging in specific activities that were purported to bring an auspicious outcome.
Yet we are encouraged and even obligated to pray three times a day. What is the difference? Why bother praying?
Let us illustrate the Jewish concept of praying with a story. A man was sitting on his porch as it started raining. A man drives by in a 4X4 and yells to him that a storm is coming, floods are expected and he’ll drive him to safety. The man yells back that he’s been praying and that God will save him. The rains keep coming and now it’s starting to flood. Another man comes by in a boat and yells to him to get on board and he’ll sail him to safety. Not to worry responds the man, I’ve prayed to God and He’ll save me. Finally, the man is standing on his roof to get to safety from the rising waters. A man comes by in a helicopter and tells the man he’ll drop down a ladder so he can come up and get flown to safety. Again, the man yells back that he’s prayed to God and he has faith that He’ll save him. The waters keep rising and the man drowns. So now he’s in heaven and comes face-to-face with God, who tells him that he sent a truck, a boat and a helicopter, what was he waiting for?
Abraham Heschel contended that we pray to get G-d’s attention. Artscroll quotes the sages who describe prayer as “Something that stands at the pinnacle of the world (Berachot 6b)”. (p. XXIII, Artscroll Siddur). Prayer is also the ladder that reaches from earth to heaven. The primary goal of prayer, Artscroll contends, is to achieve the highest possible degree of intimacy with G-d. (p. XXVII).
Achieving intimacy with HaShem allows us to act in accordance with G-d’s law, Torah. In acting in accordance with Torah, we are acting correctly. We would expect that acting appropriately with G-d’s will would help us achieve success and fulfillment in life. Prayer, like wearing tzitzi’s, helps us to continue on that path.
Prayer empowers us. It gives us the extra push to accomplish things. We approach challenges with a positive mindset, and we know that it’s OK if it doesn’t work out because that wasn’t right and we’ll be guided to that which is.
It would also seem that if prayers empower us, it is us who should take action. We can certainly pray for good health and an optimal recovery from surgery, but to that end we would also want to consider our lifestyle and improve our diet and exercise routine. We can pray for the victims of disasters, and we can work towards better laws and conditions that improve the overall environment.
Prayer reinforces our resolve. Why are we commanded to perform mitzvot? To carry out Hashem’s Will for Justice. So too would we want to consider praying—for inspiration—and then acting in accord with Torah.