Praying Out of Habit
Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )
Shemos, 14:10-11: "Pharaoh approached; the Children of Israel raised their eyes and behold - Egypt was journeying after them, and they were very frightened; the Children of Israel cried out to HaShem. They said to Moses, 'were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the desert'?!"
Rashi, 14:10, sv. And they cried out: They grasped the craft of their fathers; With regards to Abraham it says 'to the place where he stood there'; with regards to Isaac it says, 'to speak in the field'; with regards to Jacob, it says, 'and he met in that place'.
The Torah tells us that when the Jewish people beheld the fearsome sight of the Egyptian army approaching, they cried out to God. Rashi explains that they cried out in the tradition of the Patriarchs, which would seem to be a praiseworthy deed in that they learnt from their great forefathers the power of prayer. However, in the very next verse we are told that they complained to Moshe that he brought them to die in the desert. This indicates that they were not acting on a high level at all. This begs the question of how could on verse seemingly demonstrate their great righteousness in prayer, and the very next verse highlight their iniquity?! (1)
The Maharal answers by interpreting Rashi's explanation that they grasped the craft of their forefathers, in an alternative way from the simple understanding. He writes that Rashi does not mean to praise the Jewish people for following in the ways of the Patriarchs by praying. They were not praying in sincere supplication to God in the way that tzaddikim prayed. Rather, Rashi is telling us that they prayed because that was what their ancestors did; in other words, they prayed out of habit. Thus, when the Torah tells us that they cried out to God it is not saying that they attained any high level. Accordingly, it is easy to understand how in the very next verse we are told that they acted in a blameworthy manner.(2)
The Maharal's answer reveals a quite disquieting truth about prayer. It is all too easy to run through the set texts of prayer out of habit - whilst regrettable, it is at least understandable that reading through the same identical prayer hundreds of times can lead one to sometimes pray out of rote. Since these are set texts that the person praying did not choose to say himself, it is likely that his prayer can descend into habit if he does not appreciate the meaning of what he is saying.(3)
However, the Maharal is referring to a different type of prayer; that is the prayer of turning to God in times of need - this constitutes the times in our prayers when people add their own prayers in their own words, in addition to prayers at any time in the day when a person is in need. We learn from the Maharal that even these kinds of prayers can be affected by habit. This means that a person can pray in times of need just because that is what he was brought up to do and there is no internal depth to his words. Moreover, this can be the case when a person adds the same individual prayers to his shemoneh esrei on a constant basis. How can one address this flaw? One approach is obviously to study works that elaborate on the importance of prayer as a way of connecting to go. A second way is that a person not pray the same set personal prayers every prayer. For example, with regards to praying for one's children, one Rav suggested praying each day for a different child, so that his prayers don't become stale.
We have seen the pervasiveness of the flaw of praying out of habit, even in times of genuine need; the first step in improving in this area is to contemplate how to improve - with that genuine desire God will surely help us achieve our goal.
1. See Sichos Mussar, Maamer 2, 'The Light and Darkness in Man' for one approach to this question.
2. Gur Aryeh, Shemos, 14:10.
3. Needless to say this area needs constant effort at improvement, through reading works that discuss the general meaning of prayer, and the specific meaning of the set prayers.