I was born religious; not observant, but deeply religious. I thank God that I was born a Jew but had I been born into any other religion, I would have been deeply engrossed in it.
When I was a kid, I devoured every book I could get my hands on about Judaism. My parents, who were newly observant, had a nice library of Jewish books. I remember The Midrash Says, Lilmod U’Lelamed and The Torah Anthology being childhood favorites whose ideas still inform my thinking to this day.
My birthday is in October. When I was six years old, my birthday fell on Sukkot. In light of the coming Simhat Torah holiday, my parents bought me a little Sefer Torah (Torah scroll). It was printed and not handwritten, of course, but I didn’t know the difference. It had a blue velvet cover and you could open it, unscroll it and roll it back up. I thought it was real, and I treasured it.
I had a nightstand near my bed and I remember that I cleared it off and placed the Sefer Torah on the empty surface. I took an old sheet and drew a picture of the Ten Commandments surrounded by two lions, one on each side, and covered the nightstand to form a makeshift Torah ark.
I spent hours sitting in front of that nightstand talking to God. I would come home from school and just tell Him about my day. And as long as God wasn’t talking back to me, my parents were all right with the situation.
But if God doesn’t talk back, how do we know that prayer works?
C.S. Lewis explains that if by “works” we mean that we automatically get what we ask for, then certainly prayer does not work. For if we can compel God to do our will, then the power rests with us, not with Him. So by definition, prayer must be that sometimes we get what we ask for and sometimes we do not.
But why, asks Lewis, would all-knowing God need us to tell Him what to do and why would all-good God need us to prompt Him to do good? Lewis quotes Pascal to explain that prayer was granted to humans to give us the dignity of causality.
THE REAL essence of prayer, Lewis explains, is to stand in the divine presence. To fill the time while we are there, we offer praise, thanks and petition. but those are not the essence. When a man asks a woman for a cup of coffee, he cares not for the coffee but just uses it as an excuse to be with her. Dinner, a movie or a walk in the park are all a means to the same ends.
When I take three steps back and then three steps forward to begin the Amidah (a prayer), I know I am physically in the very same place I was just a moment ago, but I am standing in another dimension. Once there, true prayer would be to just stand there in concert with God, but our inability to just stand there doing nothing prevents that. So we ask God to open our lips for our mouths to speak His praise.
My students often ask me why they have to use a Siddur for prayer. Why must they recite the prayers written by others, they ask. I offer them the opportunity in my class to write their own prayer. I have been doing this exercise for close to 20 years, and never has a student written a prayer longer than 90 seconds. The average prayer was around 30 seconds. As if 30 seconds can really sum up everything you would want to say to God, never mind only spending 30 seconds in the divine presence.
The set prayers composed for us in the Siddur serve not only to fill the space we have with God but also to communicate to us the ideas and thoughts we should be having when standing before Him. Left to our own devices, if we are healthy we may not think of others in need of healing; and if we are satiated, we may neglect to mention the hungry. The Siddur reminds us not just of the things we want, but of the things we should want. Perhaps most importantly, it gives us a reason to connect with God during our busy lives.
It reminds me of the six-year-old boy I once was, who couldn’t wait to come home, sit before God and tell Him about my day. It reminds me of the Torah scroll that I still have and still treasure. It now sits in a box in my closet but really resides forever in my heart.■
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.