Every human being has a religion. If we define religion as attitude, conviction, belief and behavior, then every person, whether he calls himself theist or atheist, Jew or gentile, believer or heretic is religious, because every person has an attitude, holds convictions, believes beliefs, and behaves, with or without a code. As one atheist once said: Thank God, I am an atheist.
Every person prays. He may not pray in shul, from a Siddur, but he prays on the golf course or in the bowling alley. Wishing is a form of prayer, expressed or unexpressed. Show me the golfer who gets a hole in one and does not shout out: 'My God!' or 'Jesus Christ!' That is prayer. In fact, that is a sincere, natural, spontaneous prayer, which contains more kavana (intention) than is usually seen in synagogue prayer services.
We pray to ourselves, and if God hears or overhears, we are lucky. The word for prayer is tefila, and the one who prays is the mitpalel, which is the reflexive form of the verb. It means he judges himself.
Prayer in halacha is not only active - from us to God - but reflexive, from us to ourselves.
When does prayer pay off? It pays off if we pray to ourselves as well as to God. If not, it does not pay off.
According to the halacha of tefila, "tzarikh lehashmia le'ozno" - he must make the prayer heard by his ear. Why? Does not God hear prayer when it is whispered, or even just meditated? It is because we are praying to ourselves, as well as to Him, and we want Him to listen to us when we speak to Him, as He wants us to listen to Him when He speak to us, as well as when we speak to ourselves.
Most prominently, if prayer does not change us, it does not pay off. I am sure that everyone is a different person at the end of Yom Kippur than at the beginning of Yom Kippur.
When worshippers complain that the service leaves them flat, as one did when he said to me that not once in the four sermons of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur did I make him cry, they are right. My father z"l made his congregation cry and laugh in the space of the same five minutes. He moved them. They were changed. I promise to try hard to make you cry next Yamim Noraim.
But, all the same, the rabbi and the cantor and the choir cannot inspire the congregation if the congregation is not prerpared to be inspired.
To inspire means to breathe in. The worshipper must breathe in the prayer. The worshipper must inspire himself. He or she must pray to himself or herself. As we drink in our morning Lechayim we have to drink in our davening.
For prayer to pay off we have to study the prayerbook. For prayer to pay off, we have to listen to ourselves, as we expect God to listen to us. For prayer to pay off, we have to put into practice what we pray - we have to practice what we preach to ourselves, as we have to preach what we practice.
Rabbi Stephen Wise once preached in a small poor Church. In the lobby there was a charity box and he put in a half dollar. After the service, the resident preacher offered Rabbi Wise the proceeds of the box as an honorarium. They opened the box and there was only the same half dollar that the rabbi had put in. Rabbi Wise said, 'You see, you get out of life only what you put into it.'
Similarly, we get out of prayer only what we put into it.
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