Prayer is an utterly intriguing endeavor. It plays an integral role in many people’s lives, a significant role in the lives of countless others – and is instinctive to all people in the face of trying circumstances.
I remember the first time I really prayed, as a young child. I had a significant speech impediment that I became more conscious of as I grew and would often ask God to help me speak more fluently. "Please let me have an easier time," I would ask, "participating in class and conversing with friends."
The Torah relates that three of our Four Matriarchs were unable to bear children. The sages of the Talmud explain that God purposely created them so, since "God desires the prayers of the righteous." It was because God wanted the Matriarchs to ask Him to fulfill their desire for children, in other words, that He created them with this profound lack. Indeed, the sages continue, special people are often handed special challenges as a means of fostering their relationship with God.
Admittedly, a difficult concept to understand.
Indeed, it goes to the very essence of Jewish belief, that God is one and that He is infinite, unlimited and omnipotent, empowered in every way. Nothing can occur beyond His control, because, quite simply, there is nothing that can exist independent of Him.
Like most of us, I have always had a difficult time comprehending the concept of "the infinite." In the world around us, everything takes on definite dimensions, both in time and space. It is difficult to understand a realm in which such barriers do not exist.
However, although my mind had a difficult time understanding it, my soul understood it instinctively. All souls do.
For a soul is, in essence, a spark of the Divine. It can never be satisfied by the pleasures offered by the physical world. It always wants more, desires something greater. It yearns for an experience that is unlimited, an experience that is "complete." It yearns to touch the infinite, to touch God Himself.
Part of the expression of that yearning is prayer. And yet the endeavor remains baffling. If an infinite and omniscient God knows exactly what we need and want, and has chosen not to give that particular thing to us, how can asking Him for it possibly have any value?
In "The Art of Jewish Prayer," Rabbi Yizchok Kirzner, of blessed memory, conveys the traditional Jewish understanding: "The purpose of prayer is not to change God. God does not change… [Rather, prayer is an opportunity] to transform ourselves into more developed people through having to ask God to fulfill our physical and material needs. Prayer is a vehicle through which we can forge a relationship with God and make Him a reality in our lives rather than an abstract concept."
And by creating a world in which every individual has unfulfilled needs God has created the opportunity for human beings to relate to Him.
Our infertile Matriarchs were spurred by their conditions to create that relationship through continuous, soul-searching prayer. And when they achieved their incredible closeness with God, as it happened, children followed. God’s purpose in making them unable to conceive had been achieved.
Yet not all prayers are answered in the affirmative like those of our Matriarchs. There are times when the wish we express in our prayers is not granted. In those cases, God simply deems it better for us to not have what we desire. Our prayers in such cases are no less meaningful, no less creative of a relationship with the Divine, and, if we are sufficiently sensitive, we come away from the experience able to view the things we lack in a new light. No longer do we experience our deficit as arbitrary but rather as something God has decided to withhold, for our ultimate good.
And so, prayer is always beneficial, whether our prayers effect the hopes they contain or not. The "praying field" is a level one; and everyone always wins.
Jews are commanded to pray, to connect with the Infinite, each day (Jewish men thrice daily). By doing so, we become better able to place the challenges of the day into perspective.
I personally pray at a local synagogue not far from my home. It’s a wonderful congregation with a very special atmosphere. Morning prayers usually take 50 minutes, and the afternoon/evening prayers about half an hour.
When I lead the service, though, it sometimes takes a little longer.
Because, you see, I still have my speech impediment.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt, a member of the faculty of the Dallas Area Torah Association, is the author of All I Need to Know, I Learned in Yeshiva, (Targum Press, 1995) and Maharal for the Layman (soon to be published by Feldheim Publishers).]