Rosh Hashanah: Does God even listen to our prayers? - opinion

I have two responses to this quandary that grant me enough peace of mind to keep on praying, despite the absence of a voice from beyond.

 SAYING ‘SELIHOT’ in Meron: The Siddur and Mahzor are filled with numerous references to God’s attentiveness. (photo credit: FLASH90)
SAYING ‘SELIHOT’ in Meron: The Siddur and Mahzor are filled with numerous references to God’s attentiveness.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

When all is said and done, there is really only one essential question: Does God hear us when we pray; is He aware of our devotion and our dilemmas?

We are now in the midst of an intense 40-day rendezvous with the Almighty – from the first of Elul through Yom Kippur – and are immersed in prayer and petition to decide our fate. We began with daily (or nightly) slihot sessions; in just a few days we’ll enter Rosh Hashanah; and then we will graduate into the “all-nighter, all day-er” climax – the Day of Atonement. 

So we ought to ponder, do our prayers have power? If God does not hear us, what is the point of all these prayers? And if He does indeed hear – as I assume most of us believe – why does He not answer? Why am I left to wrestle with His silence and my own indecision?

We know that the Siddur and the Mahzor are filled with numerous references to God’s attentiveness: “He is close to all those who call out;” “He is a shome’ah tefila,” a hearer of prayers. And we know that the Torah readings of the High Holy Days contain many examples of prayers being affirmatively answered – Sara and Chana will be blessed with children at an advanced age, Jonah will emerge from the whale unscathed, and the idolatrous city of Nineveh will repent and be spared from destruction. And, of course, we appreciate the symbolic message of the shofar – that the sound that enters here, emerges there.

But is there any proof to all this? Any way to demonstrate unequivocally that there is an all-seeing, all-hearing perfect Being above us who is the repository of every utterance we mortals make? How can I assert with perfect certainty that my “petek” of a petition will absolutely end up in the throne room of the Almighty, where it will be read carefully by the King of kings – and not some underling angel, no offense meant – and that I will get back a personal reply, not some form letter with God’s name scribbled by a celestial signature machine?

 DOES GOD exist, and if so,  how does He interface with the universe?  (credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash) DOES GOD exist, and if so, how does He interface with the universe? (credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash)

I truly wish that I had a definitive, verifiable, conclusive answer to these cataclysmic questions but, alas, I do not. However, I do have two responses to this quandary that grant me enough peace of mind to keep on praying, despite the absence of a voice from beyond.

How to still have faith in God

THE FIRST is that prayer is really a verbal form of emunah, faith. There once was a time when God did indeed speak to people in direct or semi-direct communication, either via dreams or visions or a bat kol, a heavenly voice. And there were authentic prophets, too – more than a million of them! – who were constant conduits to God’s messages. 

But those days are long gone. We don’t hear divine voices anymore (if you do, then I’d be very careful sharing that). No, the belief that someone is listening to our prayers is now strictly a matter of faith, like our belief in miracles or the coming of the Messiah. Our prayers assume that God exists, that He takes notice of all things, cares mightily about His subjects and is prepared to intervene in world events when necessary in order to move history along. 

Simply said, our prayers today are acts of faith, neither logic nor culture; they are a verbal affirmation of our trust in God’s reality. And trust is the core of any meaningful relationship.

That is why, I suggest, we crown our prayers with the response of amen, the root word of emunah. In effect, we are testifying that we neither have, nor need, empirical proof for the prayer just uttered, naming God as the arbiter of history, the granter of wisdom and the fashioner of the universe. Rather, we have faith that He is all these things, and much more.

The story is told of the little girl standing on the seashore waving a flag. A passerby stops and asks her to whom she is waving the flag. “Do you see that ship way out in the ocean?” she says proudly. “That’s who I’m waving at!” The fellow smiles and replies, “Surely that ship can’t see you; it’s far too distant.” But the girl firmly insists, “Oh, no, not only does the ship see me, but it’s going to come very close to shore, and the captain will even wave back at me.” 

“This I have to see!” says the visitor. And to his amazement, the ship does indeed come closer and closer, until both see the captain emerge on the deck and wave back. 

“How did you know he would do that?!” says the incredulous non-believer. “How could you be so sure?” The girl shoots back her own puzzled look. “Don’t you know?” she says simply. “The captain is my father!”

ANOTHER FUNDAMENTAL aspect of prayer is that it assists us in defining exactly who we are and what our function is in this world, while at the same time defining God

The word for “prayer,” tefila, has two dimensions. First, it is reflexive and means “to judge oneself.” Each time we initiate a dialogue with the Creator, we simultaneously internalize the words we say in a process of self-examination and self-evaluation. Even as we bare our souls to God, but we strip away our own self-illusions, tearing down the facade that surrounds our ego and revealing to us exactly who and what we are. 

Thus when we recite the ubiquitous “Al Chet” prayer, we not only catalog and confess our sins to God, we also – perhaps more importantly – remind ourselves of where we have gone wrong, a vital step in the process of self-correction that is the essence of teshuva, repentance. We are speaking to God, certainly, but we are also addressing ourselves at the very same time.

Moreover, the root word of tefila connects to the word tafel, “subordinate.” While we are certainly God’s ultimate biological creation, we are nonetheless secondary to God’s awesome power. The fact that we utter a prayer at all indicates our admission that there is something bigger than us out there, that we are not totally self-reliant; that we cannot make it alone in this challenging world of ours. We need God for a thousand different things – all at the same time.

The moment we say refa’aynu – “heal us,” God – we acknowledge that science and medicine will only take us so far. When we recite Kiddush, we assert that we would not be the free and glorious nation we are today had God not changed the course of world events and liberated us from Egyptian slavery. The very word “Jew,” from the root hoda’a, “thanks,” connotes gratitude to God for each and every facet of our existence.

Prayer is much more than a selfish request for comfort, reward or even forgiveness. It is an expression of our very nature, what makes us special; and it is what binds us to God. The moment we open our mouths to pray, long before we anticipate any response from above, we have already made a grand statement about who we are and what we believe. 

The answer to our prayers, crucial as they may be, may pale in comparison to the act of prayer itself. 

And if we fail to receive an answer? Then our inner faith system keeps us from becoming despondent or distressed; for we believe in God, even when He is silent. ■

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]