Many years ago, when I was a student in England, I visited Israel and did some private touring with a fellow participant in my Jerusalem summer program. Those were easier, more innocent days, and we hitchhiked across the country with aplomb, taking in its vistas from our lofty perch beside whichever truck driver had stopped for us that day. Now the where, when and why of what I am about to describe are hazy. But the emotion, recollected decades later, is as crystal-clear as if it had happened yesterday. TWILIGHT was rapidly turning to darkness when we jumped down to earth, bidding our friendly driver goodbye. We were somewhere in the North, and our plan was to make our way to a youth hostel in the area. As we cut across some open countryside, I became aware of a growing disquiet. Everything around us was silent; nothing stirred. There was no artificial light to relieve the blackness, and no moon; only, when I looked up, a boundless immensity of glittering stars. That was when I knew a moment of pure, primeval terror. Reason and logic fled; the presence of my companion counted for nothing. I was alone, confronting a vastness that knew me not, and cared about me less. Lilliputian? Compared to that distant, cold grandeur, I felt like a speck that might disintegrate at any time. Then the moment passed, and we continued on our way. IT'S HARD to avoid the thought that modern Western man, his impressive accumulation of knowledge and knowhow notwithstanding, is really not much more than a speck when compared to the works of that master engineer and architect whose overwhelming power we recognize, or half-recognize; or recognize, paradoxically, by protesting too much that it, and he, don't exist. Many of us deal with the issue by simply refraining from the comparison, which frees us nicely to strike a pose of omnipotence and behave like the lords of creation. But that works only for a time. Sooner or later some unstoppable phenomenon - like an earthquake, or a tsunami, or this week's towering wildfires in southeastern Australia that razed entire towns - comes along to expose our vulnerability and cut our pretensions down to size. As hundreds, even thousands of people at a time have the life crushed out of them like so many ants mashed under a giant boot, the obvious limits to human capability prompt the conclusion that in the larger scheme of things, speck-ness is both man's essence and his fate. BUT here's a compelling thing: We know that the sum totality of a human being - even when measured against that awesome entity whose existence we may or may not espouse - is far greater than a mere dot on the landscape. We know it in the gut, with solid conviction. Fair enough. But how is it demonstrated? Via prayer. There is none like thee among the gods, O Lord; Neither any works like unto thy works... All nations whom thou hast made shall... glorify thy name. For thou... doest wondrous things: Thou art God alone. - Psalm 86 WHAT exactly prayer is - and whom one is praying to - depends on who you're asking. The late, great Janis Joplin famously mocked the childish "gimme" appeal to a divine dispenser of material goodies sitting in a heavenly emporium. Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends... Oh Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town?... I'm counting on you, Lord, please don't let me down. But not even Joplin's purposely immature, laundry-list approach can mask what prayer most crucially is: a channel "manned" at one end by the human communicator and, at the other, by the communicatee - none other than the ineffable "I am that I am" (Exodus 3:14), the contemplation of whose boundless domain scared the life out of my youthful self all those years ago. Parody aside, Joplin was correct: Prayer may legitimately comprise requests, often poignant ones that well up from the recesses of the heart; and they can be songs of praise surpassing the finest poetry. Then again, prayers mumbled by rote and without much thought don't, perhaps, merit an "A" grade. But none of that is the issue here. Nor is the nature of prayer - public or private, vocal or silent, preset or spontaneous. Nor its location - in houses of worship, private spaces or any other places. The point is simple, and emphatically this: Prayer allows the ineffable to become available. Man, excruciatingly human as he is, has a hotline to heaven. Which prompts the question: Why should heaven bother listening? THERE is an explanation in Genesis 1:27, and it is repeated for emphasis: "God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him." It therefore appears - quite incredibly, when you come to think about it - that we small and interesting but rather flawed earthly creatures are, in a very real way, the echo, the image, the pale likeness of an entity so sublime and majestic that it doesn't even have a name. In other words, we have a magnificent relative - and, as family members, we have the right, perhaps even the obligation, to check in from time to time. Occasionally the line may be bad - we are, after all, trying to bridge a considerable distance. The line may even appear broken. But we can leave a message. Essentially, not totally unlike the stretching that goes on during a physical workout, via prayer we reach out and up, soul and spirit on tiptoe. And all the time we know very well that we can never touch, never even faintly glimpse, what we are straining toward. Yet, again, that isn't the point. In the exercise lies its reward. IT'S such a pity, therefore, that millions of sophisticated Westerners, sitting confidently (most of the time) amid their greater or lesser achievements, see the notion of there being anyone "up there" to talk to as archaic, outdated, irrelevant, and frankly embarrassing. It also undermines their perceived position atop the pyramid of existence. And about those earthquakes and other disasters that wreak such havoc, well, these things happen.... Post-religious Westerners have yet to understand the paradox: that, yes, man is rather limited. But by associating himself via prayer with the most sublime majesty, he claims, and retains, a portion of that majesty for himself. Thus do the small become tall. PRAYER is found in many forms, and does not belong exclusively to the "religious." Take the farmer on a Hashomer Hatza'ir kibbutz who was seen kicking his motionless tractor in frustration and crying, "In God's name - start!" Who was he summoning up, if not a greater power than himself? A pious woman once told me that she thought anyone who had the courage to get out of bed in the morning was a religious person. If that person then throws open the window, takes in a lungful of air and marvels at the beauty of the spring blossom on a nearby tree, isn't that a prayer? It's possible that the whole thing is chiefly a matter of recognizing that there is a line of communication - and that prayer, however you define it, is what keeps the line open.