Sunday, October 01, 2006

Some thoughts on prayer

I am reading Worship of the Heart by Rav Y. B. Soloveitchik Z”L and one idea resonates with me sharply. I always struggled with the meaning of petitionary prayer, where we ask God to change, heal or protect us from all kinds of bad things. I understand the idea of Avodah Shebalev where we are required to spend time daily contemplating and serving God. As the Rav puts it, Avodah Shebalev is a constant requirement (Kiyum Hamitzvah) where Tefilah is one of many ways (Ma’aseh Hamitzvah) of actualizing it. However I never understood how my praying helps in any way. Will I change God’s mind? Make Him have pity? Is God changeable, malleable or can He be manipulated God forbid? On a simpler level doesn’t He know what I need before I tell Him?

The Rav notes that the Amidah is composed of three distinct parts in a fixed order; Praise, Petition and Thanksgiving. My take on it is that first one sets the tone, the background against which the drama of our daily life and needs are laid out. When one contemplates how the Avot dealt with their daily life, setting a goal of building a nation that searches for God, when one apprehends the greatness of creation and the Creator, His limitless ability and boundless grace in maintaining physical existence, His transcendence, our daily needs take on a different perspective. The personal ills as well as the communal ones, though painful to the sufferer, may be constructive from a global perspective. The life lost in the latest conflict in Eretz Israel, tragic as it is, may be necessary and constructive for the long-term survival of the nation. The seemingly tragic outcome of that war may be a stepping-stone to long-term advantages to our people. The cancer that is killing this person is also part of the system of cellular mutations that guarantees the longevity of humankind. When one removes the self from the equation, the personal tragedy may no longer be so devastating. That introspection in itself is a step towards healing. Of course self-criticism and reflection on our actions trying to see what role we played in the development of this problem has to come first. That is why the first petition is for intellectual development, followed by a reminder to repent and then forgiveness if one’s action were the cause. Only after that can we start addressing the particular petitions and place them into their proper perspective. Placing them in the proper perspective is the first step to healing.

Thanksgiving in a sense is also an admission and declaration. Now that we have presented our personal needs in the context of the whole of existence, we declare that we realize that we are dependent on God and His will. We also thank Him for having given us our intellect that is able to perceive and interpret our insignificant state in the larger context of God and His creations. We have the ability to attach ourselves to the Almighty and partake in His creation to the extent of our capabilities.

Our prayer does not change God or the issue we are addressing in our petition. It changes our perspective and thereby changes our perception of the problem, the sickness, the disaster or just the daily challenges we are facing. That change in us is the first step in the healing process.

Gmar Chatima Tova to all.


  1. "However I never understood how my praying helps in any way. Will I change God’s mind? Make Him have pity? Is God changeable, malleable or can He be manipulated God forbid? On a simpler level doesn’t He know what I need before I tell Him?"

    I don't really understand your question regarding G-d being unchangeable. Surely once the person prays, he has now changed. The act of prayer has refined him, or brought him closer to G-d and he is now deserving of different treatment. Another way of looking at it is that prayer creates a relationship. As the relationship deepens, he may be deserving of another level of Devine help.

  2. >The act of prayer has refined him, or brought him closer to G-d and he is now deserving of different treatment

    You make a good point however there are two problems with that, first we know that nothing changes in the physical realm. A person, who knows inside that he is a Tzaddik, gets an incurable cancer at an early age, remains incurable. Second theologically we say " ani hashem lo shaniti" God does not change , He does not get angry nor does He reconcile. Thus we are left with only one thing that it ONLY changes the person. It puts him in a different state of mind and perspective. We can see it as Teshuvah in thought. In the case that the bad results from his own actions, Tefilah would be Teshuvah in deed. In other words it will make him reflect and change his future actions so that he does not repeat it. The damage done if irreparable stays the same but the person's take on it changes.

    But ultimately you are right it is the person's realtionship to God that changes not God's to the person. God's help "Eizer Eloki", to my mind is something that is out there for all of us to take rather than receive or be given.(See Rashi on the last Passuk in Parshat Naso on Midaber - What applies to prophecy applies more so elsewhere - see also Sforno ad locum for a deeper understanding of that Rashi).

  3. "we know that nothing changes in the physical realm."

    We DO? How could you ever prove that? Are you saying that G-d is so great that He is limited from having involvement in this world?

    You seem to have moved from the argument about G-d's non changing to G-d's non being able to change things in this world. So you haven’t at all explained what was wrong with my answer to your question.

    I've been following your comments on the GH blog, and on your own blog for a while, and I still don't get exactly what your version of Yiddishkeit is actually about and what perceived shortcomings in the traditional version you are trying to address.

  4. david guttmann10/03/2006 9:31 AM

    >and what perceived shortcomings in the traditional version you are trying to address.

    I am not addressing problems in the traditional version because I believe I present the traditional version. The version that is popular is a distortion of the way the Rishonim understood things. I picked on Rambam because he is the most comprehensive while Ramban Rashba are not that far away in most areas. For some reason major distortions have crept in over time and are the basis for GH and other skeptics questions. Most have to do with lack of Yediah. See Rambam in Shemona Perakim chapter 8 why we cannot accept that HKBH changes anything. We believe He can - Techyat Hametim the case in point - but we also believe He does not, and certainly not in reaction to man's actions, because that would mean that he is not omniscient. Ramban agrees with that to a point though he is less strict on it. You can read my article on miracles in the last issue of Hakirah for a comprehensive discussion.

    You seem to be knowledgeable and thoughtful so it behhoves to go back to the Rishonim before you read the Torah of the acaharonim especially post Arizal. It is only in light of the Rishonim, which was the stepping stone, the these later ones start to make sense.

  5. Thsi is , of course, exactly the problem with philosophical explanation of paryer. They do pretty well on prains and thanksgiving but not well at all on peritionary prayer. In fact, since the time fo Plotinus, the philosophers also prayed but with prayers that contained mostly praise and no petitions. The Rambam's own answer in MN is that the prayer changes us so that we understand G-d's greatness and our dependence on Him and now as better indiviudals we are more deserving to receive the overflow of shefa. This is his standrd answer on these kinds of issues, see beginning of Hil. Taanis.

    There is a good wider discussion of the overall issue with relevant passages in various authors on this topic in Seth Kaddish book (Kadish, Seth. Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer.
    Jason Aronson. 1997. Hardcover. 640 pages. ISBN 0-765759-52-7.