How to Pray Well
How does a person pray well? I understand the Hebrew of the prayers pretty well, but I can’t really get myself excited about saying them. Are there any good ideas for helping a person pray with emotion? I’m especially bothered that I feel God knows already what I need – better than I do – and if so what’s the purpose going through the motions of telling Him?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for your important question. The truth is, even though prayer can be inspirational, it does take effort too. On the one hand, there should be nothing more exciting than having a private audience with God, where we can open up to Him and tell Him our innermost thoughts. On the other, it does take some effort to understand just what prayer is all about and to build up our concentration to really connect with God in prayer. On a daily basis, prayer requires much focus, as well as catching ourselves that we aren’t just mouthing the words thoughtlessly.
One of the most important means of praying well is by envisioning what you are praying for. For example, if a person is praying to find a job, he should take some time to imagine how wonderful his life would be if he had that job he is looking for. Rather than this getting him down how lacking his life is now, it should serve as an incentive. He knows it is entirely in God’s hands to get him there, and now he truly wants it and turns to God to provide it.
The above is not just a good inducement to heartfelt prayer. It actually gets to the heart of what prayer is all about. Prayer is not simply a matter of asking God for what we want. It is picturing whom we want to become. And this requires understanding who we are, what our needs are, and what our goals in life should be – and of turning to God to help us achieve them. Clearly defining our proper life goals is the first step towards achieving them.
The first step towards proper prayer is deciding what to ask for. To do so, we need to better understand ourselves – who are we really and what should our focus in life truly be? We all have many dreams and fantasies in life. When we prepare ourselves to stand before God, we must first introspect – what are our worthy dreams and goals in life? What should we bring up before God? Should we pray that our ball team win or that we bench press 250 pounds – or that we become better spouses and parents? And likewise, what is realistic for us – that we win Academy Awards, Emmy Awards, Tony Awards, Grammy Awards, etc. – or that we successfully support our families and contribute to society?
The Hebrew word for prayer is “hitpallel” – which is a reflexive verb literally meaning to pray to oneself. In prayer we do not only pray to God. We equally look inside ourselves – deciding what our true needs and goals are. We must ask ourselves what we want in life and why. Do we want X because it is truly our soul’s need, or because someone else has it? Is this something we can really stand before God and say this is a need? Or is it just a vain fantasy, something either not appropriate or not realistic for us? God wants us to pray to Him not because He needs to be reminded what our needs are, but so that we can understand this ourselves. Prayer is an exercise in coming closer to ourselves as much as to God.
At the end of Jacob’s life, Joseph brings his sons Ephraim and Manasseh for blessings. Jacob exclaims to Joseph “I did not even imagine seeing your face, and behold, God has also shown me your offspring (Genesis 48:11). The word Jacob uses for “imagine” is “filalti” – of the same root as the word hitpallel. Prayer is thus not only asking God for something. It is imagining becoming whom I’d like to become. Prayer is envisioning myself becoming a greater person – and asking God for the Divine assistance to help me get there.
May God answer all our prayers for the good!