There is an interesting debate, which dates back to the Middle Ages, regarding the mitzvah of prayer. The Rambam, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, says that there is a mitzvah to pray every day and that this is one of the 613 commandments, as we discussed last week. But the Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, disagrees and says the commandment to pray is only during times of trouble and not on a regular basis. As we know, nowadays we have regular daily prayers in morning, afternoon and evening – Shacharit, Minchah and Maariv – which have been structured by our Sages and prophets. Nevertheless, according to the Ramban the fundamental biblical commandment to pray is only in times of trouble.
How do we understand this?
Prayer is an expression of faith in G-d
An answer to this question can be found in the responsa of Rav Moshe Feinstein, who was asked about Jewish children participating in prayers held at public schools. In discussing the topic of school prayer, Rav Feinstein says that prayer is indeed a universal obligation for all human beings; as it says, Ki beity beit tefilla yikareh lechol ha’amim, G-d’s Temple will one day be called “a house of prayer for all the nations.” And yet, as we know, the seven Noahide laws which G-d gave to all of humanity do not include the mitzvah to pray. How do we reconcile this apparent discrepancy?
Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that prayer is actually part of the mitzvah to believe in G-d, which is one of the Naohide mitzvot. Praying to G-d in times of trouble is an expression of faith. Faith in G-d means believing that everything that happens in this world can only come about through G-d’s blessing. If we are in trouble and need help – whether it is health for a loved one or for ourselves, livelihood to support our family, or whatever it may be – and we do not pray, that indicates that we lack faith in G-d. Judaism obligates us to do everything within our power in the natural world – be it in seeking medical assistance, employment, or any other necessary means; but ultimately, we must realise that anything we do within the framework of the natural world only achieves its outcomes because G-d wills it thus.
For example, if someone is sick, G-d forbid, we do not seek the advice of a good doctor and also pray, just to “cover all our bases.” Rather, when we pray, it must be with a consciousness that in order for the doctor to be successful, he or she needs G-d’s blessing. This is what real faith in G-d means: recognising that nothing can happen without Him. Thus, according to Rav Moshe Feinstein the commandment to pray in times of trouble is actually part of the fundamental commandment to believe in G-d.
The very first prayer in the history of humankind was Adam’s prayer for rain. According to the Gemara, although G-d created grass, trees and all vegetation, nothing grew until Man prayed for rain. The rain had not come because G-d was waiting for humanity to pray. Once Man was created, he saw that everything was dry and so he turned to G-d and asked for rain and the rains came. Thus, Man’s first prayer was in a situation of despair.
Later on, our Forefathers and -mothers also prayed to G-d out of despair. They struggled with infertility, because G-d “desires the prayers of the righteous.” Another classic example of prayer in the Chumash is Moshe’s prayer for Miriam when she got sick, El na refa na la, “G-d please heal her.” Looking at each of these occasions, it is clear that they were said in moments of distress. This is a very important dimension of prayer – to pray to G-d out of distress.
This is evident in the structure of the amidah prayer. We have nineteen blessings in total (there were originally eighteen as codified by the Men of the Great Assembly, and an additional blessing was added later on). The first three are in praise of G-d and the last three are about thanksgiving, totalling six. The remaining thirteen are requests. Thus, the requests are more than the blessings of praise and thanks combined. This quantitative difference tells us a lot about the nature of prayer.
Going back to our opening question, is the Biblical commandment to pray a daily mitzvah or is it applicable only in times of trouble? Of course, as we have learned, there is a rabbinic commandment to pray and our Sages gave us the structure of prayer, and we are required to pray three times every day; the point in this discussion, however, is to better understand the nature of prayer.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik has an interesting analysis of this centuries-old debate, and explains as follows: Perhaps the crux of the debate is not whether prayer is a daily mitzvah or a mitzvah only in times of trouble. It could be that the Rambam and Ramban both agree that prayer is only obligatory in times of trouble, and the crux of the debate is really whether our daily lives constitute “times of trouble.” In other words, the Rambam says from a Torah point of view there is an obligation to pray every day while the Ramban says the obligation is only in times of trouble, and Rav Soloveitchik explains that they could both agree that prayer is obligatory in times of trouble, it is just that the Rambam holds that every day of our lives constitutes “times of trouble.”
How do we understand this concept?
The distress of life’s vulnerability
One way of understanding this concept is that “times of trouble” refers to the vulnerability inherent in our daily lives. For example, we say in our daily prayers, Refa’einu v’neirafey, “Heal us, G-d, and we shall be healed.” We can understand why a person who is sick, G-d forbid, or has a loved one who is seriously ill, says to G-d, “heal us.” Equally, we can understand why it is phrased in the plural – like most of our prayers – because we are not only praying for ourselves or those closest to us but for all people who need healing.
But there is a deeper aspect to this prayer. Even when we are well, we say to G-d “heal us” because we know how fragile our health can be. We may feel healthy today, but we know things can change tomorrow; we may have parnassa, livelihood, yet we say to G-d Barech aleinu, “bless us with sustenance,” because we know our livelihood can be taken away at any moment; we ask G-d for knowledge and understanding – choneinu me’it’cha chochmah bina va’da’at – even if we are intelligent, because we know we can, G-d forbid, lose our faculties.
Thus, in a certain sense, every day is a calling out to G-d from despair. If we truly understand the vulnerability and fragilty of the human condition and that everything is in Hashem’s hands and not ours, then every day we will feel the need to turn to Him in prayer.
Prayer is the antidote to our existential crisis
Rav Soloveitchik presents another dimension to understanding what it means to pray daily out of a distress, and gives us a penetrating insight into the human psyche. He explains that the daily distress we feel is not solely because of a particular situation which may compel us to ask Hashem to alleviate the actual pain or discomfort of the moment, or because the good things we may lose; rather, there is something fundamental about the human condition which causes distress to a thinking person.
Rav Soloveitchik says that thinking deeply about the human condition can lead to cynicism and even boredom because it seems purposeless and meaningless. We start off as children, we grow up, and have children who in turn grow up and go through the same cycle; the parents and grandparents leave this world and the children then take over. We are going in circles; what are we achieving? As the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 4: 29) says: “Against your will you were born and against your will you die.” People come into and go out of the world all the time – to what end? Thus, to a thinking person, human life can sometimes seem futile and empty. This is what Rav Soloveitchik calls an existential crisis, where a person questions his or her existence and purpose.
How, then, do we find value and meaning in our lives?
The way to find meaning is through making a connection with G-d. When we connect with G-d and feel a bond with Him, when we stand in prayer before the King of all Kings, we realise that we are indeed important and our lives are meaningful because He gives our lives direction and purpose through His mitzvot. Prayer is a calling out from the depths of despair of the human condition and finding comfort in our closeness to G-d. This is alluded to in the words of the psalm (130:1): mima’amakim keraticha Hashem, “from the depths I called out to You, Hashem.” Every day, in a sense, is a moment of distress – not just the distress of facing a challenge of health, livelihood or whatever it may be, or the distress of life’s vulnerability, but a much deeper distress which compels us to call out to G-d every single day, to reaffirm who we are. The process of prayer reaffirms our value in G-d’s eyes and the purpose of our lives. We are in this world to do mitzvot which we will take with us to the next world, and thus there is a purpose and eternal value to our lives and what we do, and G-d is interested in us. When we engage with G-d in prayer, we have a sense of connection and wholeness, which allows us to escape from this existential crisis.
Of course, now that the Sages and the prophets have enacted the structure of our prayers, we pray every day. But going back to the roots of the obligation and the philosophy behind it gives us a better understanding of what prayer is all about.