Many people turn away from prayer because they realize that it can rarely produce concrete results. Therefore, it is important to understand what prayer can do and what it cannot accomplish. For me, this is the scope of prayer:
1. One should not pray for the impossible. Nature will not respond just because we pray with reverence. Our rabbinic sages already knew that “to cry over the past is to utter a vain prayer” (Ber. 9: 3). They even give a few examples: for instance, a person whose wife is pregnant should not say, “May it be Your will that my wife should have a boy” (idem). Such a prayer is “vain,” they add, because the sex of the child was already determined at the time of conception, and no prayer, however sincere and heartfelt, will change it. Similarly, they taught that if a person, coming home from a journey, hears crises of distress in his town, he should not say, “(God) grant that this not be in my house,” for this, too, is a vain prayer (idem), here for two reasons: a) if the problem is in his house, it is too late for this type of prayer; b) then, the prayer implies that the distress should be in someone else’s house; and that is unethical.
2. Prayer alone does not modify the course of nature. It can, however, affect the worshiping individuals. It can give them a new insight; it can deepen their understanding of how the world operates; and both can prepare them to face the world with courage and clarity of mind.
3. We often worry about the acceptance of our prayers when we should be more concerned about our ability the express them with a certain sense of realism. Mordecai Kaplan once wrote: “Religious prayer is the utterance of those thoughts that imply either the actual awareness of God, or the desire to attain such awareness” (The Meaning of God, 1962, 33). The key word here is “utterance.” High expectations can lead to disappointment. By expressing our hopes and aspirations properly and within reason, we can take the first step towards their realization. Every prayer becomes a program of action, motivating us to work towards its fulfillment.
4. We must remember that the main goal of public worship is to strengthen the bonds that unite the community engaged in prayer. When we get together for worship, even though some of us may not be in the mood, we are still given the opportunity to identify with the hopes, aspirations and goals of the congregation. By joining the worshiping community, we strengthen the group as we strengthen ourselves.
5. We have come a long way from the ancient days when worship in the ancient Near East meant taking care of the individual needs of the gods. The challenge today is not only to ground the prayers in an acceptable rationale but also to formulate them in such an equivocal language that they will reflect the different theologies of the praying individuals, and thus unite us in our endeavors to create a society in which everyone has the maximum opportunity for self-realization. Regrettably, we are not there yet.
Rabbi Dr. Rifat Sonsino
PS. For more and other details on prayer, see my 6 Jewish Spiritual Paths (Woodstock, VM: Jewish Lights), 2002, 72-92.