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Jewish World Review
Man's role -- and goal -- in prayer is often misunderstood
Rabbi Berel Wein
In less than 750-words, an internationally acclaimed scholar explains the original monotheistic religion's teachings and expectations
Prayer, in its most formal sense, comprises an important part of daily Jewish life and ritual. Daily morning, afternoon and evening services are the staple rhythm of activities in every synagogue and home throughout the Jewish world. There are many dimensions of prayer in Jewish tradition and thought. And perhaps no subject has been explained and scrutinized as closely in the writings of the great Jewish scholars of the ages as has been prayer.
Prayer in Judaism is at one and the same time composed of rigid formality and set legal (Halachic) rules, and the necessity for personal emotion, devotion and intent. Reconciling these two apparently contradictory motives is and always has been a daunting task for the individual Jew who prays regularly.
On one hand it can become purely a matter of rote and habit, something that one does, so to speak, in a mental and emotional state of stupor and absentmindedness. On the other hand there are times when one experiences intense emotional feeling and this is especially true when one offers particular personal requests before one's Creator.
And the necessity for devotion and meaning in prayer is present at all times during prayer, even in the most formal and regular circumstances. So I think that we can all agree that achieving meaningful and spiritually satisfying prayer on a regular basis is a most challenging and taxing goal.
This being the case, in this current season when meaningful prayer occupies our minds and hearts we are often perplexed by the nature and results of prayer itself.
Basically, the idea of prayer in Jewish life is made up of two components. One is the concept of praise, wonder and awe that comprises our relationship with the Almighty. It is an acknowledgement of our faith in a universe created ex nihilo by an omniscient and omnipotent Supreme Being. Prayer in Judaism is a daily recommitment to the essential belief in a universal and active G0D.
The second element of prayer is our request from Heaven of earthly blessings and personal wishes. Though even these prayers are formed in decided and formal language and terms, the requests are decidedly personal. There even exists latitude for more personal and individual formulations of wishes for health, family, prosperity and the like. There are also requests for the national salvation of Israel and for a hoped for betterment of the human condition generally, and for the betterment of all humankind.
Part of the sophistication and elegance involved in the formulation of traditional Jewish prayer over the millennia has been the ability to blend these two differing purposes into one almost seamless whole. Prayer was therefore meant to be a serious exercise in thought, life-analysis, and faith. It was also always meant to be emotional, meaningful, soulful and exalted. It never really was intended to be easy on the mind and the clock nor was it necessarily supposed to be entertaining or "cool." In order to achieve this precarious balance the rules of Halacha were formulated to govern prayer. Deviating from these rules engenders a loss of prayer's essential balance and a forfeiture of its necessary holy aura.
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But what are we to think when our prayers and requests seemingly go unanswered? It is painful in the extreme to the human psyche to be ignored or rebuffed. And yet we never have any guarantee that our particular prayers and requests will evoke a response from Heaven, which will be discernible to us. In fact all of us feel at certain moments of our lives that our prayers have gone unanswered.
There are those that say that "no" being ignored and unanswered is also an answer. But that is really an answer that only again begs the question. It is obvious that we should not deal with prayer as an application to Heaven that must immediately be acted upon. The rhythm of Heaven is not that of our earth and prayers that seemingly went unanswered for centuries suddenly and unexpectedly receive response and fulfillment.
Thus prayer, though intended many times by the person praying to be seen as short-term and immediate, in reality is always long-term and can affect generations currently yet unborn. Prayer as a consequence becomes part of the inscrutable nature of all things governed by Heaven and Divine Will. It is our task and obligation to pray and request, to praise and to renew our faith in our Creator. Heaven will deal with our prayer in Its own perfect and beneficial judgment.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is a historian, author and international lecturer.
© 2013, Rabbi Berel Wein