Tradition today: The art of prayer

What is prayer, and what is its purpose? Hassidism has taught that prayer is like making love to God.

Torah Revolution (photo credit: Courtesy)
Torah Revolution
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What is prayer, and what is its purpose? Hassidism has taught that prayer is like making love to God.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg said it was “a bridge to God.” Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel said it was an “act which makes the heart audible to God.”
There are two kinds of prayer – spontaneous and prescribed.
The first occurs any time we feel the need or the desire to pray – times of trouble, times of joy, times of need, times of thankfulness, times when we need guidance. It comes spontaneously, in our own words. Prescribed prayer is the daily routine that Jewish tradition has created, with the specific prayers that have come down through the centuries.
Someone once asked Rabbi Louis Finkelstein if he was able to achieve true meaning in his prayer three times every day. He replied that he did not, yet sometimes he did, and then only because he made prayer part of his regular routine. Without that, he would never achieve true prayer.
The point of prescribed prayer, according to Heschel, is to arouse in us a feeling of awe, a feeling of awareness, a feeling of appreciation. The soul that does not sense the presence of what he called “the Ineffable” in the world is numb, even dead.
All of us are overwhelmed by the countless tasks that confront us in daily life. We are caught up in routine, in work, in household chores, in running here and there, even in simply having a good time. Although we often exercise our bodies, when do we pause to exercise the soul? When do we pause to ask ourselves the questions that really matter: Who and what am I? What purpose do I serve? What can I do better than I am doing now? What really counts in my life? What is it that God wants of me? Unless we stop ourselves and make a conscious effort to find these moments away from our routine, we will never lift ourselves above the mundane.
The Sages fancifully taught that our three Patriarchs originated the three daily prayers. Abraham was the first to pray in the morning. He did so after his dialogue with God concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – thanking God for the safety of his family there, Lot and his wife and children. Isaac was the first to pray in the afternoon, going out into the field to meditate as he awaited the arrival of his bride, Rebekah.
Jacob originated the evening prayer, praying when he was lonely and afraid, fleeing from his brother Esau (Brachot 26b).
Abraham was praying in thankfulness. Jacob was seeking strength for his struggles. Isaac was simply meditating on life, finding peace and meaning in his existence and perhaps contemplating the prospect of marriage and family. Each of us has moments like these. We seek strength, we are grateful for the good things that have happened, we seek to find a moment of peace, of meaning and significance.
Still, the purest prayer is not one in which we ask for our needs – though that is permissible and very human – but the prayer in which we ask that God’s will should become our will.
It is said of Abraham Lincoln that someone once told him that he prayed God was on “our side in this war.” Lincoln replied that he prayed they were on God’s side.
The words of a prayer, the words written in the siddur, are the text. But there is a subtext as well, and that is the feeling one brings to the words. Often the subtext is more important than the text. The text is the springboard for prayer, not the boundary of it. A wordless tune, a niggun, even a sigh, can be as meaningful as the most beautiful prayer.
Prof. Ernst Simon, a saintly man, once said, “Prayer is one of man’s greatest but also most difficult arts.” It is worth the time and effort it takes for each of us to master that art and thereby raise our lives to a new level of meaning.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).