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The Essence of Prayer

by Rabbi Nosson Scherman

Prayer is not a shopping list of requests. Primarily, it is an introspective process, a clarifying, refining process of discovering what one is, what he should become, and how to achieve the transformation. Indeed, the commandment to pray is expressed by the Torah as a "service of the heart," not of the mouth.

Its Hebrew name 'tefillah' gives us a further insight into the Torah's concept of prayer. The root of tefillah is palal, to judge, to differentiate, to clarify, to decide. Life is full of confusing situations in which we must choose a course. We must sort out evidence from rumor, valid options from wild speculations, fact from fancy...

Indeed, the word p'lilim (from palal) is used for a court of law (Exodus 21:22), and what is the function of a court if not to sift evidence and make a decision? An extension of palal is the root peleh, meaning a clear, recognizable differentiation between two things...

When we understand the components of prayer, we can better understand its efficacy. People always question the need for prayer -- does not God know our requirements without our reminding Him? Of course He does, He knows them better than we do. If prayer were intended only to inform God of our desires and deficiencies, it would be unnecessary. Its purpose is to raise the level of the supplicants by helping us to develop true perceptions of life, so that we can become worthy of His blessing.

God created the universe in order to shower benefits upon His creatures. His kindness is constant; man need do no more than make himself worthy. Man is likened to a fertile field. Because God provides nutrients, rain, dew, wind and sunshine, the field can produce bumper crops -- but only if it is properly plowed, sown and cared for. If man does his share he will prosper; if not he will I harvest weeds and brush, and wonder why God failed to bless him (Kuzari).

The language and thoughts of our prayers refine and elevate us if we recite them with the requisite concentration and insight. To the extent that we improve ourselves with prayer, we became capable of absorbing God's blessing. Exactly what that blessing will be depends on each person's mission as assigned by God. One man's task may be to act as God's treasurer, to amass wealth and distribute it for worthy causes or to set an example of how to become uncorrupted by riches. Another's mission may call for modest or reduced circumstances. God gave great wealth to Meyer Amshel Rothschild and grinding poverty to Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli. Each in his own way was a great figure, blessed by God and giving of blessing to God. We may assume that each recited the prayer for prosperity in Shemoneh Esrei with proper intent, and the prayer of each was answered. Meyer Amshel became rich because his mission required him to be the banker of emperors and the patron of paupers, and Zusha remained poor because his mission required him to subsist on a crust of bread and bowl of beans, and sincerely say that he never experienced a bad day in his life!

* * *

We have established that the word tefillah implies the function of decision-making and differentiating, but exactly what does this mean in the context of prayer -- when man prays, what is he to decide and clarify?

...Modern society has learned that people 'burn themselves out' if they never withdraw to relax and regain perspective and inner strength. The executive who insists on working six or seven days and 70-to-80 hours a week would be more effective if he took occasional vacations to refresh his mind and body. Armies have devised expensive and elaborate ways to rotate their front line troops, giving them 'rest and rehabilitation' so that they can be better fighters when they return to the fray. What makes us think we can fight the moral war demanded by God without removing ourselves from the trenches every now and then to regain our perspective on the purpose and strategy of the battle?

...As the Chofetz Chaim used to say, "Our duty is to try; whether we succeed is up to God." His meaning was simple. Presidents, executives, and athletic coaches win few laurels for losing, no matter how well they fought the good fight. History gives an occasional gold watch to a loser, but its statuary memorializes winners. Not so God. Honestly earned subsistence has a higher place in His ledger than generous distributions of larcenous gains. He cares less about the size and power of an institution than how it was built...

* * *

Maimonides teaches that all of creation was worthwhile even for the sake of one righteous person (Introduction to Mishnah). It is instructive that Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgment and anniversary of creation, is not the day when heaven and earth were created, but six days later, the day Adam and Eve were brought to life. All the universe, with its almost infinite space, stars, and beings were preparatory to the real creation -- that of the intelligent human beings who alone could infuse meaning and fulfillment into the cosmos.

Every Jew is at the center of his own universe, consisting of the constellation of people and resources that depends on him. Family, neighbors, friends, colleagues, the condition of a neighborhood, the cleanliness of a sidewalk -- there is hardly a person alive who doesn't make a difference in the lives of many others and who, in turn, does not depend on many others. Some people are important to millions, some to only a handful. Both as individuals and as part of our respective groups, we are charged with 'blessing' God by causing His sovereignty to be perceived and recognized.

Perhaps not many private persons measure up well enough to pass God's scrutiny on their own, but as a part of a collective group, everyone can be important if he contributes his own share to the well-being of the whole. Therefore, man is judged both as an individual and as part of his group. As the Talmud expresses it, even though people walk before the Heavenly Court single-file, like sheep squeezing through a narrow gateway, they are "all marked collectively with a single stripe" (Rosh Hashanah 18a). When a man is judged worthy, he can save his private 'universe' with him because he requires it; when he is found unworthy as a solitary individual, he can still hope for God's mercy as a needed cog in a larger universe...

Does modern man have less need to pray because he has gained so much control over his environment? No, just the opposite. It is because man has become so powerful that he can -- and does -- lose sight of the fact that he is strong because God has made him so, and that he is no less dependent on the One Above than were his humblest ancestors, scratching at rocky soil with a wooden plow.

Prayer is God's gift to help us mine nuggets of truth so that we can understand ourselves and our role. When we do so, we make ourselves capable of perceiving His Presence and, by so doing, allow Him to carry out his desire to bless man. In its loftiest sense, prayer is the collective nourishment of the universe, the 'food' that binds God's Presence -- the soul of creation -- with the body of material existence...

Reprinted with permission from



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