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The Nuts and Bolts of Prayer

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

The primary purpose of prayer is to get close to God.

We are commanded to serve God every day, as the Torah states, "Serve God your Lord, and He will bless your bread and your water" (Exodus 23:25). Just as bread and water are daily necessities, so is the service of God.

Although one serves God in many ways, the main way an individual serves God is in worship, where he can commune with God with his every thought and emotion. Regarding this the Torah states, "Love God your Lord and serve Him with all your heart and soul" (Deut. 11:13).

We are therefore commanded to worship God every day, and this commandment applies to men and women alike. However, neither the number of prayers, nor their time, nor their form, is prescribed by the Torah.

Worship can take many forms as long as it provides a strong communion between man and God. It can consist of praising God, of asking Him to fulfill our basic needs, or of thanking Him for past good.

Jewish tradition teaches that we should praise God before asking Him to satisfy our needs, just as one engages in pleasant conversation with a friend before discussing business. King Solomon therefore said, "Hearken to the song and to the prayer which Your servant prays before You today" (1-Kings 8:28). Likewise, we are taught to thank God for past good after asking for our needs, just as a servant thanks his master after receiving his portion.

Ask God for small things before asking for greater ones.

It is proper to ask God for small things before asking for greater ones. Even if a person feels he has everything he needs, he must always pray to God for the future.

There is a particular obligation to pray in time of trouble, as the Torah states, "When… an enemy attacks you in your land you shall sound the alarm" (Numbers 10:9). For this reason it was legislated that the community fast and pray whenever calamity threatens…

Reasons for Prayer

We pray, not to remind God of our needs, but to remind ourselves of our dependence upon Him. We are therefore commanded to pray to God for everything, though it is understood that He knows our deepest thoughts and needs, since the very act of praying heightens a person's awareness of God and His providence, and thus makes one worthy of the good that God wants to give. It was for this reason that prayer was the way of the Patriarchs, as well as of all the great men and women of Israel, from the earliest times.

Although all the commandments benefit a person in this world and the next, prayer is the universal remedy that helps for all things. It helps to cure the sick, as we find, "I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears. Behold I will heal you" (2-Kings 20:5). Similarly, prayer can help for children, for rain, for victory in war, and even to save from imminent death.

Prayer helps for Jew and non-Jew alike, as King Solomon said, "There may also be strangers, not from Your people Israel, who come from faraway lands for the sake of Your name. For they hear of Your great Name, Your mighty hand and outstretched arm, and they come and pray toward this Temple. And You shall hearken from heaven, the place of Your abode, and You shall do all that the stranger calls You to do" (1-Kings 8:41-43).

Prayer can bring a person to the highest levels of spiritual perfection.

Prayer can also bring a person to the highest levels of spiritual perfection and Godly gifts. It is the way of the tzaddikim, and the path by which they achieved greatness.

Prayer is the primary way that one seeks God, as the Psalmist said, "Praise God, all you who seek Him" (Psalms 22:37). Prayer that issues from the depths of the human heart calls God forth from the depths of His concealment, as the Psalmist said, "From the depths I call You, O God" (Psalms 130:1).

It is therefore through prayer that we literally bind ourselves to God, as it is written, "Cleave to Him and serve Him with all your heart and soul" (Joshua 22:5). In true prayer, we bare our souls before God, as it is written, "poured out my soul before God" (1-Samuel 1:15).

Drawing Closer

Since God is inherently perfect, no person can do anything for Him. Serving God therefore involves fulfilling the purpose for which He created us. Since this purpose is to come close to Him, anything that brings man closer to God is considered His service. Therefore, since prayer causes one to acknowledge one's dependence upon God, and thereby brings one close to Him, it is the primary service of God. Prayer is the service of the heart. Without sincere intent it is like a body without a soul and like a shell without fruit.

Prayer is considered the service of God similar to the sacrifices of the Holy Temple. The Psalmist thus said, "Let my prayer be set forth as incense before You, the lifting of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Psalms 141:2). Just as a sacrifice unites the spiritual and material, by making a lowly animal the object of serving God, so does prayer unite the spiritual and material, by making the request of our material needs a service of God. It is for this reason that, when it is impossible to bring sacrifices, prayer can be offered in their stead, as the prophet exclaimed, "We will offer the words of our lips instead of calves" (Hosea 14:3).

Thus, formal prayers were ordained in place of the regular daily sacrifices performed in the Temple in Jerusalem -- which themselves were accompanied by prayer and song. Moreover, the prayer of a sincere heart is better than any sacrifice, as the Psalmist exclaimed, "I will praise the name of God with a song, I will exalt Him with thanksgiving, and it shall please God more than the offering of an ox" (Psalms 69:31-32).

Physical World

Since the object of prayer is to ask God to make changes in the physical world, it serves to enhance His relationship to the world and thereby unify the spiritual and material planes. This is the meaning of the teaching that prayer must rise up and penetrate all the spiritual worlds in order to cause God's goodness to flow down and unify and nourish them. Each prayer can set up chains of events that involve the creation of many spiritual worlds, and even similar prayers will have different effects because of the different circumstances under which they are uttered.

Prayers of mortal humans takes preference over those of even the highest celestial beings.

It is for this reason that prayer is so important before God, and is said to stand in the highest spiritual realms. It is also for this reason that the prayers and praises of mortal humans takes preference over those of even the highest celestial beings…

Even if God desires our good, prayer is still necessary, since all good is granted for it. Thus, for example, even if God were to decree that a particular farmer should enjoy a good season, he would have to plow and plant in order to harvest a good crop. Similarly, the effort that a person puts into praying is often prerequisite to realizing whatever good God has decreed.

By praying, we acknowledge our utter dependence upon God. We can then come closer to Him and remove all the barriers that might have prevented us from receiving the good He wishes to bestow upon us. Evil, on the other hand, is the greatest barrier between man and God, and is actually the result of man's separation from God. Evil thus prevents us from receiving the good that God wishes to bestow. Prayer is the most efficacious means at our disposal to remove evil and alleviate its effects.

From "The Handbook of Jewish Thought" (Vol. 2, Maznaim Publishing. Reprinted with permission.

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