Sunday, March 05, 2006

Why do we pray?

We believe that in the beginning, before Creation, God willed the world into existence from nothing – yesh meayin. I say “willed” because to us humans, to will is the precursor of an action. As God does not act, action being something a physical being does, will is the least physical term we can use in describing an event that we perceive as the consequence of an action. That being the case when we use the term “will” as regards to God we are really describing a resulting product. Applying this to Creation, it means that God set in motion a sequence of cause and effect that from our perspective has brought the world to the present moment and continues onward to eternity. From God’s perspective, for whom time is irrelevant, all the past, present and future has always been there. In spite of that we have freedom of choice and we can chose to do good or bad. We also believe that our actions have consequences, and depending on the choice we make, rewarded and punished. I can accept the concept that there is no contradiction in these two ideas -God’s omniscience and our freedom of choice, as mentioned earlier, God is different. But how am I as man, knowing this, supposed to relate to God? Obviously when I pray to Him, I am not asking Him to change anything because that would be asking Him to be imperfect. So what exactly is prayer?

Rambam presents two separate types of prayer. One is part of Avodah -service to God (Sefer Hamitzvos Asseh #5) – the other is part of Teshuvah – repentance (Asseh #59 and Hilchos Taanis 1:1-3). The first type of prayer is part of the process of contemplation and study we engage in throughout our life, searching for God and trying to understand Him and follow in His steps – Veholachto Bidrochov. (Much more about that in future posts). “Good” and “bad” deeds are judged by how close a person has come to follow in God’s steps. Reward and Punishment are direct results of these same deeds. If we chose to do the correct thing we are the instrument to bring about the “good” result that God willed at Creation and the wrong choice brings about the “bad” result willed then. When we chose the wrong action, Teshuvah – repentance is the only possibility. That is the second type of prayer which is a step in the process of repentance. We meditate about the actions that brought about the “bad” and eventually change our ways. (Our early Rabbis wrote the prayers we say today and they fit both types of prayers.)

We can start to see why the Rabbis were so full of wonderment at the concept of repentance – how does it change the outcome. But it works just like freedom of choice which we have in spite of God’s knowledge. I will try to get a better grip on this in the future but to put it simplistically – we operate from our perspective taking God’s perspective into account only as a philosophical issue not a practical one. Na’aseh veNishma - we do, expecting to understand what we do as we proceed.


  1. Jewish tradition is of the opinion that each soul enters this world with a mission, many of us to work out certain unresolved problems from our last birth (yes, Judaism has long had a central concept of reincarnation! ). The Sanskrit word karma refers to these challenges has entered the English language. One’s karma also includes new difficulties that arise during this lifetime.

    Every challenge that we encounter in life is due to karma. As we grow and work out the karma, certain challenges disappear. So, for instance, a theoretical person with no karma — a totally righteous tsaddik — would always get whatever s/he needs whenever s/he needs it. As one of my teachers put it, “When a tsaddik reaches into his pocket he always pulls out correct change.”

    Therefore, all of life's ups and downs start to make sense. Challenges are opportunities work out my karma. If I succeed in letting-go of whatever I was clinging to and generating that karma, the challenge goes away. In other words, I do not change the unchanging Infinite; I change myself and this new reality of my self “allows” the Infinite to treat me according to a different set of rules.

    For example, imagine a person who lost her job and can't find another. Perhaps her karma to work out at that moment is her emotional attachment to employment. When she meditates, attaches her mind and heart to the Infinite, pours out her heart and finally detaches herself from “needing” a job, she has now changed her karma. There is no longer any karmic need for her to be without work and she will now find work. It’s a simplified example, but essentially true; the hard part is to take that real step of growth and it may take her days or weeks of meditation to succeed. But over time, with much practice, one should be able to succeed after just a few meditation sessions — and most people do.

    In a nutshell, the Amida is a Jewish approach to “how to get your prayers answered.”
    Now, most people are aware of a distinction between the person they are now and the person they have the potential to be. We constantly strive for this ideal, and usually fall short. Why do we fail? Usually because we lack clarity on the ideal itself. Most of us lack the wisdom to visualize a true ideal.

    (excerpted from The Art of Amazement, Ch. 8)

  2. >Jewish tradition is of the opinion that each soul enters this world with a mission, many of us to work out certain unresolved problems from our last birth (yes, Judaism has long had a central concept of reincarnation! ).

    Please provide source other than the later kabbalistic writings. I do not believe that concept is found in Tenach, gemara and most mainstream geonic literature. It first appeared in the school of Ramban. I believe that it is a dangerous doctrine that was not meant to be spread around. See Ramabn's care to be cryptic when he talks about the "Sod haibur".

  3. I get bad karma reading Rabbi Seinfeld's understanding of Jewish tradition.