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Why Do We Pray?

Why Do We Pray?


Immanuel Shalev

CEO

Frantically flipping pages and mumbling words — for many this experience is familiar in our daily prayers. Our days are busy, difficult, and tiring. As a result, our prayers lose priority and, slowly, meaning. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s another way to think about prayer in our modern lives that is rich with meaning and inspiration. Join us as we explore the themes and rituals of prayer in our holy texts and rabbinic teachings and discover how they relate to our lives today — and never think about your daily prayer the same way again.

For more on prayer, see:

Jewish Prayer page

Can We Change God’s Mind With Our Prayers?

Moshe's Benevolent Chutzpah

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Transcript

Prayer is boring. There, I said it. You know what I mean, though, right? Early in the morning, frantically flipping pages, mumbling words as quickly as we can. After all, we need to hurry, or we're going to hit morning traffic and the long lines for donuts. I know, it sounds awful, but it's not too far off from how many of us experience prayer.

And I think there are a few reasons we have problems with prayer.

Why Do We Need To Pray Everyday?

For one, we have a problem with the way we think about prayer. We approach it as another ritual, another mitzvah to check off the to-do list, before we can move onto the other things we wanna do. "The problem isn't that people don't want to daven, it's that they want to have davened." (If you like that line, don't give me credit – rumor is, Rav Soloveitchik said it.) By default, this mentality sets us up for an experience that's – let's just say – less than inspiring.

And, another reason we feel disconnected from prayer, is because, deep down, do we really believe that it even works? I suspect we don't really think that prayer can do anything, can really change God's mind. Because, why would the infinite, all-knowing Being respond to my requests? After all, He's the Creator! He doesn't need me!

So, let's explore these questions together, and see if we can learn a bit more about prayer, and how it can be meaningful.

Does Prayer Even Work?

Let's start by focusing on that last question – does prayer even work? So, some people take a more "rational" approach to prayer. They say that it's not about asking God for things, or changing God's mind, that's impossible. Really, prayer is about changing ourselves. When we pray, we meditate on God's greatness and remind ourselves of the things that are important to Him – like justice, peace, healing the sick, and building a righteous society. The primary goal of prayer is for us to remember what God desires, and to instill those values more deeply in our hearts.

But, there's a problem with this explanation. Namely, ahem, the Torah. Because guess what? In the Torah, people pray for things, and God answers. Like, when Rivka is barren. She and her husband, Yitzchak, pray to God and, lo and behold, she conceives twins. How did this happen? Did Yitzchak and Rivka change themselves? Did they enroll in a week-long couple's retreat, or read the seven habits of highly effective parents? No! The Torah says they prayed, and God answered them.

So in our quest to figure out how to relate to prayer more meaningfully, we have a little ray of hope: prayer really does seem to matter to God. It's not just some kind of psychological yoga. Prayer works!

But how exactly? Why would our prayers be important to God?

Why Would Our Prayers Be Important To An Almighty God?

I think our path to finding an answer goes through the most famous example of prayer changing God's mind, the episode of the Golden Calf. In that story, God was bent on destroying the Children of Israel, but Moshe prayed and changed God's mind. How did Moshe do that? Well, let's take a look – and I think we'll find a whole new way of thinking about prayer.

The Israelites build a Golden Calf, and God decides that He's had enough. He says to Moshe, לֶךְ־רֵ֕ד כִּ֚י שִׁחֵ֣ת עַמְּךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶעֱלֵ֖יתָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם – "Go down the mountain Moshe. Your people – the ones you took out of Egypt – have been totally corrupted. Now, that's a little weird. What does He mean, Moshe's people? Didn't God take them out of Egypt? And, God continues – הַנִּ֣יחָה לִּ֔י – "Leave Me alone, so I can unleash My wrath and wipe them all out. I'll start over again with you."

Moshe responds: לָמָ֤ה יְהוָה֙ יֶחֱרֶ֤ה אַפְּךָ֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔ךָ. "Come on, God! Why are You so mad?" Pause right there – this seems like the silliest thing he could say right now! Why is God mad?! Look at what happened! Just a few weeks ago, God revealed Himself at Sinai, and said, "I am your God, don't worship any idols." And in a matter of weeks, the people are literally dancing around an idol at the bottom of the mountain! Is Moshe so out of touch? What kind of argument is this?

So maybe Moshe realizes this argument is a dud, because he tries another angle. He reminds God how He took them out of Egypt with miracles and wonders, and then adds, "anyway, God, what would the Egyptians say if You destroy them? It really wouldn't look so good." These arguments are also strange. God knows He took them out with miracles – that's why He's so upset! And then the argument about it looking bad in front of the Egyptians – is Moshe trying to guilt trip God into forgiving them? Does he think God is worried about His PR? None of this sounds too convincing!

So Moshe tries one more: "זְכֹ֡ר לְאַבְרָהָם֩ לְיִצְחָ֨ק וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל עֲבָדֶ֗יךָ – Remember Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov – אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֣עְתָּ לָהֶם֮ בָּךְ֒. You promised them that their descendants would become a great nation. You can't destroy the people, God. You would have lied to our forefathers."

After this, finally, God agrees; He won't destroy the nation after all. So what happened here? Did Moshe misfire the first few times, until he found the right argument to convince God, to get Him to change His mind? He just needed to remind God about His promise? It's hard to imagine that God forgot about it, but then smacked His metaphorical forehead, and said "Ah! Moshe, you're right, what was I thinking? Of course I can't destroy them."

Is It Important "How" We Pray To God?

It's really not so clear to us why this prayer worked. But I think we find a clue, if we look more closely at the moment when God agreed not to destroy the people. The Torah says, וַיִּנָּ֖חֶם יְהוָ֑ה עַל־הָ֣רָעָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֶּ֖ר לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת לְעַמּֽוֹ – God changed His mind, about the punishment He wanted to give… to His people. Look at that word… לְעַמּֽוֹ. Remember how this whole thing began? God said לֶךְ־רֵ֕ד כִּ֚י שִׁחֵ֣ת עַמְּךָ֔ – Your people have messed up, Moshe. The people you took out of Egypt. Now, they are עַמּֽוֹ, they're God's people, once again. This is what Moshe's prayer achieved. In fact, every part of his prayer, even those lines that seemed to make no sense, were all a plea for God to reclaim ownership over His people. They aren't four separate arguments, it's one long argument. Let's look at it once again, more carefully.

Moshe started off by saying, לָמָ֤ה יֶחֱרֶ֤ה אַפְּךָ֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔ךָ. It seemed so absurd for Moshe to ask, "Why are you so angry?" But that's not what he's saying. Look at the word he uses – עַמֶּ֔ךָ – Your people. He's putting the ball back in God's court, by gently, subtly, reminding him. "You said they're my nation? They're Yours, God. No matter how angry they make You, You can't just get rid of Your people!"

And Moshe continues. He reminds God that He took His people out of Egypt, "בְּכֹ֥חַ גָּד֖וֹל וּבְיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה – with great miracles and wonders! You overturned heaven and earth for their sake! The whole world witnessed this act of unbound love, between you and your people."

Then he moves to the Egyptians: "You know what Egypt will think if You destroy the Israelites? They'll say, see, even God's own people couldn't stand a chance! No one can last in a relationship with this angry, destructive God." Moshe pleads, again, let go of Your anger, God. You can't do this, לְעַמֶּֽךָ – to Your people."

And as the final push, Moshe goes all the way back to the beginning of God's love affair with His people. "Remember Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov? You promised that their descendants would become a great nation. God, the children You were talking about, are down there. They might not be as righteous as their ancestors, but they are the fulfillment of Your promise. You can't get rid of them, You can't just walk out on your people."

And it worked. God changed His mind. וַיִּנָּ֖חֶם יְהוָ֑ה עַל־הָ֣רָעָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֶּ֖ר לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת לְעַמּֽוֹ – He abandoned His plans of destruction – לְעַמּֽוֹ – For the sake of His people.

Why Should We Pray, If God Knows Everything?

That's what made the difference. Moshe didn't tell God something He didn't know. He didn't convince God of anything. That's not what prayer is. And Moshe didn't pray by working on himself and changing himself such that he deserved for Israel to be saved, prayer doesn't work like that either. His prayer was all about relationship: reminding God that the people had strayed from their end of the relationship but that they wanted back in – and that God should want back in too. His prayer tapped into God's unbreakable love for His people, and God responded in kind, by returning to that loving relationship.

That's what prayer is. It's a natural and organic conversation that emerges from our relationship with God. As a part of that relationship, we sometimes make requests, we sometimes get answered. Other times we express thanks and remind ourselves not to take that relationship for granted.

But Moses was a long time ago, what about us today? Is that relationship with God still accessible to us? Does God still care about our prayers? I want to take a look at one more source with you that says, yes, God does want our prayers. Because that core relationship that Moshe touched with his prayer, isn't something that once existed for a certain period of time or for select prophets. It's at the heart of what all prayer is really about, and it's a dynamic that's built into the very fabric of Creation.

Take a look at the Talmud in Chulin page 60b. The rabbis discuss a strange inconsistency in the Torah's description of creation. The first chapter of Genesis says that all plant life was created on day 3 of Creation, and that Adam and Eve were created on day 6. But in the second chapter, in another description of creation, we're told that when Adam was created there was not yet any grass on the ground or bushes in the fields. The verse goes on to say that it hadn't rained yet either, because Adam wasn't around to work the land.

The Rabbis raise an eyebrow at this. First of all, we know from chapter 1 that the the plants were all created way before Adam. Where did they go in chapter 2? And, what's this strange bit about there not being any rain without Adam? What does one have to do with the other?

So the Rabbis say something incredible to resolve this. They say that the plants were created back on day 3, but they weren't visible yet. They were waiting, just beneath the surface, for what? For someone to come along, and pray for rain. Which is exactly what happened, once Adam was created. He prayed, God brought the rainfall, and the world burst into life. The Rabbis say, we learn from here, that God desires prayer.

You see, when Adam first arrived on the scene, all of the pieces of Creation were in place, ready to go. But they were stuck, held in suspended animation, waiting for something to bring them to life. The Rabbis are saying that for Creation to be truly alive, it needs prayer. Not the rote, ritualistic kind of prayer; but prayer that's part of an active, caring relationship between the world and its Creator. This is what Adam brought to the world. His prayer bridged the gap between Heaven and Earth, between the rain above and the seeds below.

The Importance Of Prayer Every Day

According to this vision of prayer, the world itself is nothing other than a backdrop for this incredible relationship to take place. The reason God listens to prayer, is because woven into the very fabric of Creation, is God's desire to be in relationship with people, even with us, even today – and prayer is the way we engage in that relationship.

This is the mentality we need to bring to prayer. Yes, we go through the motions – stand up, sit down, turn to page 52, whisper, say it loud – but we can't confuse the choreography for the dance. Before you step into prayer, take a moment to check in. Ask yourself, what's really on my mind and in my heart today? What do I need to talk to God about, right now? Make your prayer about your life and your concerns, and connect – not only to the ritual of prayer, but to what you are praying for, and Whom you are praying to. Because from Adam, to Moshe, to each one of us, the essence of prayer remains the same: It's about leaning into our relationship with God, bearing our hearts in an intimate dialogue, and living in an authentic, dynamic relationship with our Creator.

I hope you enjoyed this video. If you want to learn more about tefillah in depth, click the links below to see more Aleph Beta videos on prayer. You might have a hard time leaving once you get there, but you won't be sorry that you did! Thanks!

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