Mayanot on Prayer #1: I Pray Therefore I Am
The commandment to prayer bequeaths to man the sense of his own significance that enables him to perform all the other commandments with dedication.
The Talmud informs us that one of the three pillars on which the world stands is the pillar of prayer (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:2). In the sphere of Torah values the continued existence of the universe depends on the uninterrupted supply of Jewish prayer.
And yet, despite the importance of prayer in the pantheon of Torah values, it is a difficult commandment to relate to philosophically.
Will God grant me something just because I pray for it? If it is something I require in the context of my service to Him, won't He give it to me anyway? If, on the other hand, the object of my desire is harmful to me, will God let me have it anyway? Why not simply place my trust in God to provide me with the things I require, rather than pray to Him to grant me things that may very well harm me? After all, He knows better than I the things that I must have to fulfill my life-tasks successfully.
Why would God be interested in listening to me recite the identical prayer three times daily?
These philosophical difficulties are compounded when you consider that prayer is a commandment. Why would God be interested in listening to me recite the identical prayer three times daily? Doesn't it seem a bit distasteful for God to command me to ask Him for things and to sing His praises? Anyone who feels that he or she needs God's help will presumably turn to Him on his own initiative, without the need of being commanded to do so, and the person who doesn't feel in need of Divine assistance is bound to resent being commanded to ask for it.
Apart from these difficult questions, even if we accept daily prayer as a necessary part of our lives, how do we combat the natural human tendency to boredom that accompanies every repetitive activity? Why force everyone to recite the same standard text? Wouldn't it be much more effective to allow everyone to express his prayers in his own words?
We hope to deal with all these issues in the course of a series of articles on the subject of prayer. Let us begin at what I consider to be the beginning.
THE COMMANDMENT TO PRAY
Let us analyze the effect that praying on a regular basis under command is likely to have on the worldview of the person who engages in this activity.
The vast majority of mankind engages in some form of prayer. Most human beings relate to prayer as a voluntary act, undertaken in times of need to secure some deeply needed benefit from the Almighty. Others pray to simply communicate with God or to thank Him for His blessings. Some relate to prayer as a daily obligation. Nevertheless, there is something quite about Jewish prayer.
Maimonides presents the mitzvah to pray as follows:
"A person should plead in prayer daily, and say the praises of the Holy One, the source of all Blessings, and subsequently request his needs; the things that he presently requires in the form of a plea, and finally, offer praise and thanks to God for all the good that He has already given, each person according to his ability.
-- Maimonides, Laws of Prayer, Ch.1, 2
There are three parts to Jewish prayer: saying the praises of God, requesting one's needs, and thanking God for his blessings. Nevertheless, the stress is clear -- the essence of the mitzvah to pray is to plead. The plea is introduced by singing the praises of God and followed by offering thanks, but the heart of the commandment is in the midsection -- presenting your needs to God in the form of a plea.
God does not command us to simply keep in daily touch with Him or to reaffirm our faith. He commands us to plead for His help whether we feel we need it or not.
God does not command us to simply keep in daily touch with Him or to reaffirm our faith. He commands us to plead for His help whether we feel we need it or not. We are commanded to request the things we require from God daily, even when we feel confident that we have the ability to actualize our desires through our own efforts and ingenuity. Why?
FACING THE COSMOS
When man regards the Universe, he tends to be overwhelmed. It is so vast, so intricately complex, and so beautifully perfect. Billions of stars, trillions of atoms, unimaginable distances, incalculable forces, yet such a harmonious whole! Measured against the cosmos, what a tiny, insignificant speck of dust is the individual consciousness! And yet, according to the Torah, man is important, even supremely important. He has duties and responsibilities that were imposed on him by the Creator of all this immensity.
In order to be able to take himself and his responsibilities seriously, man must be able to relate to himself as a being of significance. He must be able to raise his head proudly and face the immensity of the cosmos with a feeling of self-confidence. Indeed, such self-confidence is a crucial element in the self-image of any human being who intends to follow the Torah ideal and make the service of God a central part of his life. We can highlight the problem with the help of a simple metaphor.
A sailor is assigned to an aircraft carrier that has a complement of 5000 in its crew. He is expected to carry out his duties with dedication, courage, and self-sacrifice. Yet, as he is only one among 5000, he knows in advance that however well he performs, his efforts will not make much difference to the global success or failure of the mission that his vessel was assigned. The relative insignificance of his contribution makes it extremely difficult for our sailor to develop a feeling of dedication towards his mission.
It is likely that he will resolve to survive his stint on the carrier as painlessly as possible, concentrating more on how he can benefit from the experience than focus on what he can contribute. After all, if he were to dedicate himself fully to his assignment, the cost to his own comfort would be highly significant. Dedication requires concentration, self-denial and involves the loss of enjoyment opportunities.
He will likely conclude, "Forget dedication and self-sacrifice. They cost me a lot without substantially benefiting anyone else. If I concentrate on my own welfare and only contribute enough to get by without landing in trouble, I will benefit in terms of my own comfort at little or no cost to others. There are 5000 men here besides myself, and the carrier will run smoothly regardless of what I do."
Under the circumstances, such an attitude is logical and perhaps even morally defensible. Of course, if the entire crew reasoned this way, the carrier would quite likely sink, but this thought is too abstract to assist our individual sailor burdened by his feelings of insignificance to step out of his lethargy and do his duty. The same principle fails to bring 50 percent of the electorate to the polls at election time.
What is true for our sailor applies infinitely more to the individual consciousness facing the cosmos. How could the acts or knowledge of one individual human possibly make the slightest impact on the vastness of the Universe? The individual has to serve God? What for? Who needs him? Surely he is better off trying just to look out for himself than attempting to make his minuscule contribution to such an immense enterprise as the cosmos.
THE BURDEN OF INSIGNIFICANCE
As long as man perceives himself as lacking in significance, it is rational for him to subscribe to the philosophy "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you will die."
But as servants of God, Jews are commanded to lead a life that is the very antithesis of this philosophy. We are instructed to lead a life of self-denial and service, of dedication to a higher ideal. True, we are promised great rewards in the future in return for our efforts, but nevertheless, in the meantime, we must obey all sorts of commandments in the here and now.
Jewish tradition informs us that we have commandments that regulate our thoughts, our speech, and our actions. To succeed in the pursuit of a life dedicated to Divine service we must be able to appreciate the great importance of even our most private thoughts, even when these are measured against the immensity of the cosmos. In short we must have a psychological tool with which we can reduce the Universe to a more manageable size.
PRAYER AS A PSYCHOLOGICAL TOOL
The act of praying under command is precisely such a tool. When we pray, we declare that it is God who created the Universe, it is He who keeps it functioning, and it is He who manages and shapes it according to His wishes. He totally owns it. The Universe in all its vastness and splendor is still no more than a creation.
The Universe may indeed be vast and overwhelmingly perfect, but in the eyes of God, man is sufficiently significant to be singled out among all His other creatures.
Man is also a creation, but with a distinction. The Creator of All singled the human being out personally, and gave him commandments. More specifically, He gave man the commandment to pray. God said to man, "You are so precious to me, that I must hear your voice. I want to hear from you personally about your aspirations and desires. The entire universe is Mine, but I am so interested in you and in the things you need today and everyday that I will gladly drop everything else and listen to the recital of the litany of your desires."
The Universe may indeed be vast and overwhelmingly perfect, but in the eyes of God, its Creator, man is sufficiently significant to be singled out among all His other creatures. In the eyes of God, the value of human consciousness equals and even surpasses the value of all other natural phenomena. A tiny bit of soul is apparently of greater significance to the Almighty than infinite amounts of mindless body.
The angels may declare, "Who is man that you should remember him, place your glory upon the Heavens" (Psalms 8), but it is man's voice that God desires to hear. It is to his puny praise and pathetic shopping list of desires that God, the Creator of All, elects to listen to daily. This is why prayer, the "service of the heart," is at the very heart of all the commandments. For it is this commandment, more than any other, that bequeaths to man that sense of his own significance that enables him to perform all the other commandments with dedication.
Rabbi Chaim of Voloz'hin, the student of the well known Gaon of Vilna, begins his great work Nefesh Hachaim by exploring the idea that man was created b'tzelem Elohim, in God's image. Because God is incorporeal and has no physical image, Rabbi Chaim interprets the notion of God's image as indicating that man shares some of God's attributes; specifically the attributes that are implied by the Divine name Elohim.
The heart of the universe beats with the pulse of the name Elohim.
The name Elohim is the name with which God created the universe; it is the only Divine name to appear in Genesis 1, and it is employed no less than 32 times, the numerical value of the Hebrew word "lev," which means "heart." The heart of the universe beats with the pulse of the name Elohim. If man is called a tzelem Elohim, this must mean that he shares in some of the attributes of God, the creator. In a sense, He is God's colleague in creation.
Viewed from this perspective it makes sense to regard prayer as the collaboration between partners engaged in the joint enterprise of continuous creation. The power to create is God's, but the commandment to pray informs us that He wants to consult with His partner in creation about the manner in which the creative force should be invested.
We are commanded to pray because our input into creation is important. If we accept that man is the 'living image of God,' it follows that prayer is indeed fundamental to our essential humanity. If you do not offer your input concerning how the world ought to be reshaped, daily, you fail to actualize your potential as a tzelem Elohim.
This thesis of Rabbi Chaim provides the first glimpse of light to the solution of our philosophical problems with prayer. God 'needs' our prayers because we are the tzelem Elohim. His policy decision to appoint us His partner in creation ties His hands, as it were. As partners, we have the right to be consulted before any decision is taken to reshape the world. In commanding us to pray and present our requests, even if it is in the form of a 'plea,' God is living up to His obligation to consult with His partner in creation.
The individual human consciousness is indeed an insignificant spec in the vastness of the cosmos. A human being is only significant as a being created in the image of God. A human being who fails to actualize this aspect of his or her being voluntarily surrenders his very essence. To be is to pray.
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