Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Does Prayer Matter?

The second topic mentioned for discussion is bakashos in tefillah

I think a great place to start when looking at prayer is the works of the Rav, zt"l, especially the recently published Worship Of The Heart.  In it he explains the concept of prayer, its universal access and how to achieve avodah shebalev
To follow up on the previous post, given that I endorse a semi-deterministic position when it comes to hashgacha pratis I think it's fair to ask if I think prayer is effective.  The answer, as is common, is "that depends".
There are three types of prayer to consider.  The first is prayer that praises the Creator for His greatness, His gifts to us, His guidance of the universe and so on.  This type of prayer was set down for us by the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah because, as Chazal note, if we were to try and accurately praise God for His greatness we would be at a loss for words.  We simply cannot say enough praises about Him to fully describe His essence and falling short of that full description would be insulting to Him.  Therefore we are limited to what the early sages and last prophets ordained as appropriate and acceptable to Him.
The second type is that of showing gratitude.  Similar to the first category, most of them are set out for us although there is room for informal, spontaneous "thank God!" exclamations in this category.  Again, we have much to guide us from the earliest sages and last prophets in terms of where to focus our attention and how to properly express gratitude for His endless gifts to us.  So far, so good.
The third category is that of requests and like the second category there is both a formal and informal approach.  We have well known requests in our daily prayers both for our needs, our nation's needs and those of the world at large.  This category, however, lends itself to the most individualism.  This is where the sick prayer for healing with an intensity that those who are healthy do not.  This is where the lonely, the heartbroken or just the child wanting a new bicycle approach God with specific requests for help.  Not surprisingly, this is the category that leads to the most disappointment.
As mentioned, I endorse a semi-deterministic position.  God has, is and will see all that has, is and will occur.  He knows how the novel ends, as it were.  For Him there are no surprises.  We, trapped in the linear flow of the river of time, must accept the idea of a past we cannot return to, a present that is always slipping past and a future we cannot know until it becomes the present.  From our limited position we see ourselves as choosing and perceive that those choices determine our futures.  However, if the whole plan is already in existence from God's viewing point, is there really a point to individual request-based prayer?  Simply put, if the grand scheme calls for that child not to get a new bicycle for some reason, is his prayer useless or even a cruel joke?
In response to that I would like to reframe the question: is it appropriate to pray for the bicycle in the first place?
Near the end of Berachos we are told a statement of Hillel's.  He notes that if he enters his city and hears the sound of frantic shouting he is certain that it is not coming from his house.  Taken superficially the story seems to lend a sense of arrogance to him.  He's so sure nothing could go wrong at home that would cause distress?
I have heard it explained differently though.  Hillel's faith in God, and that of his family, was so strong that no matter what happened there was immediate acceptance that the events in question, great or terrible, were an expression of His will.  The house could catch on fire, someone could plummet to serious injury, and the response would be "That's what God wants, no point in screaming because He is perfect and therefore this is for the best".  
It's understandable that most of us are not on that level.  I certainly am not, nebich.  This does not change that such a level is something we should aspire towards.  As part of that process we therefore have to reconsider how we approach God with our requests.  After all, to think that God is going to upend history for someone, no matter how much pain or desperation they're in, smacks of hubris.
The child wants a bicycle.  The sick person wants healing.  The grieving wife wants her missing husband to come home.  To turn to God and request a fulfilment of the heart's request is certainly understandable but if the negative event, as painful as it is, is part of the overall plan towards the greater good of Creation, should it be negated?  Again simply put, if the sick person's healing comes at a future cost of dozens of lives from a serious of events set in motion by his convalescence, should be still be seeking out his recovery?
Bakashos in prayer should therefore be of a different type.  In the spirit of Hillel, we should still seek out God when we are needy, emotional or desperate but the theme of our prayer to Him should be "Do what's best, I trust You on that, but please let me see the reason this is happening so I can understand Your ways better."  Such a prayer would, instead of causing disappointment, lead to a greater sense of faith in God and remind us that we all are part of the greater community in Creation.

1 comment:

Mr. Cohen said...

Over the past 18 years I have studied the subject of Jewish prayer and I learned many things.

One of the most important lessons I learned is that our sins reduce the effectiveness of our prayers.

Even though ALL sins reduce the effectiveness of our prayers, some sins seem to be especially harmful, according to the writings of the great Rabbis.

The first category of sins that are especially likely to harm the effectiveness of our prayers is sins-of-speech, including: Lashone Hara and Motzi Shem Ra [spreading gossip or rumors, or listening to them], speaking or listening to Nibul Peh [obscene or dirty language], talking in shul [especially during prayer times], Onaat Debarim [remarks that cause emotional pain, even if only for one second], and the other categories of sins involving words, which are surprisingly numerous.

Other sins that are especially likely to harm the effectiveness of our prayers include: stealing or theft, bloodshed, neglecting Torah study, and all kinds of sexual sins, even the lesser sexual sins.

I hope that this helps my fellow Jews to avoid committing sins that reduce the effectiveness of our prayers.
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Tehillim / Psalms, chapter 129, verse 5:
“Let them be ashamed and turned backward,
all haters of Zion.”