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How Prayer Works

by Rabbi Zev Leff

The Maharal [of Prague] explains that the four-letter Name of G-d, Havayah, connotes mercy, for it describes G-d as transcending time ó He was, is, and always will be. What appears to be harsh and tragic is a result of our inability to see the total picture. In an eternal perspective, all is really for the good, as the Sages say, "All that emanates from Heaven is for good" (Talmud - Berachos 60b).

In view of this foundation of belief, it is difficult to understand the function of prayer as a remedy for a tragic situation. For example, how can one pray to be healed from an illness that one sincerely believes has been ordained by G-d and is really for his eternal welfare? Is it not comparable to one who needs a painful operation to preserve his life, and foolishly begs the surgeon to spare him the pain and not perform the operation?

We can answer this seeming enigma by expanding our analogy of the surgeon and patient. Upon examining a patient, the doctor concludes that based on his present condition, a painful operation is necessary in order to preserve his life. However, if the patient will exercise and strengthen himself, the operation will not be necessary, and the same result could be achieved by taking various medicines. If the patientís condition changes, the operation is no longer needed and hence is no longer considered to be good for the patient.

Similarly, an illness may be Heaven-prescribed to produce some benefit mandated by the present spiritual condition of the person. However, if that spiritual condition changes, that same effect can be achieved without the illness. prayer, as well as Torah and mitzvot, can affect oneís spiritual condition and hence change what is necessary and beneficial regarding oneís ultimate welfare. Put another way, prayer does not change G-dís mind, but rather it changes manís condition. Hence the word líhispallel, to pray, is a reflexive verb, which connotes causing an effect on oneself.

This concept, however, requires further elucidation. If the effect of prayer is dependent on the impact it has on oneís own condition, how can prayers for another person be effective?

First, all Jews are interrelated components of one spiritual entity. A change in any one of the components ultimately affects all the components. When my son was six years old, he had an infected finger for which the doctor prescribed antibiotic capsules. He hated taking pills and complained about the need to take capsules by mouth. "Itís not my mouth or stomach thatís infected," he argued, "just my finger. So put the capsule on my finger. What is it going to help to swallow it?"

Obviously, the entire body is a single system, and a change anywhere can affect the whole system. The digestive and circulatory systems transport the antibiotic to the area where it is needed. Similarly, a change in any part of the body of the Jewish people affects all parts of that body. Even the prayers of one person can positively affect the situation of another.

Second, G-dís justice is so complete and comprehensive that every decree is calculated to affect only those who deserve and need that effect, and to the precise degree necessary. When one person is stricken ill, the indirect effect it has on the one who prays for that individual, whether because he is troubled that a fellow Jew is ill or because of the time and bother he expends on the prayer, is precisely calculated to serve the present condition of that individual. If he changes that condition by prayer, then the adverse effect that has been generated by the otherís illness is no longer necessary or prescribed. Hence, a change will have to be effected in the patient to accommodate and rectify the indirect effect on the one who is praying.

In this context, we never refer to misfortune as bad, but rather as bitter. Everything is ultimately for good, but sometimes that good is by necessity deemed by G-d to be achieved through bitter means.

Reprinted with permission from



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