If we were to ask ourselves what are we actually doing when we pray, we would probably answer that we are talking to G-d. But the notion of “communicating” with G-d is not so easily understood. Human beings communicate with each other because we do not know what the other is thinking. We share our thoughts and concerns with others because otherwise they would have no way of knowing what is on our mind. But with G-d, whatever we are thinking, he already knows. What, then, is the purpose of communicating with Him?
Furthermore, on a more fundamental level, prayer is often about asking for our needs. But given that G-d already knows what we need – and presumably has already decided whether we are going to get it or not – what is the point of asking?
Another question, which relates to this, is the seeming contradiction inherent in the mitzvah of prayer. Prayer is called avodah, “service of G-d.” In the second paragraph of the Shema it says ule’ovdo bechol levavchem “and you shall serve Him with all your heart.” The Gemara (Ta’anit, 2a) comments on this verse, Eizohi avodah shebalev, “What is the service of the heart?” And the Gemara answers, Zu tefilla, “That is prayer.”
The term avodah is used elsewhere as well, in Pirkei Avot (1:2): “The world stands on three things: [the learning of] Torah; avodah, the service of G-d [through the sacrifices offered in the Temple], and prayer; and gemilut chassadim, acts of kindness.
Why is prayer called avodah, “service”? How do we serve G-d in prayer? When we pray, we ask for our own needs; in fact, personal requests comprise most of our prayers. How is this “service of G-d?” It seems to be more a service to ourselves than a service to G-d.
Lastly why, of all the mitzvot, is prayer called avodah? Surely all the mitzvot are about serving G-d in one way or another. What is unique about prayer – and its predecessor, the sacrifices in the Temple – that it specifically is called avodah?
The ultimate service of G-d
The Maharal of Prague, one of our greatest philosophers of all times, offers a unique perspective on prayer, which answers all of the above questions. He explains as follows: When we talk about serving someone, the implication is that they have a need which we help fulfil. For example, servants working in a king’s palace serve the king’s needs – be it preparing his food, hitching his carriage, or looking after the castle. But when we talk about serving G-d – the King of all Kings – what need of His could we possibly fulfil? He has no needs; He is perfect and complete. He does not need our service. There is nothing we can offer Him that He cannot do for himself. So what does it mean to “serve” G-d?
The Maharal explains that service of G-d is not about what we can do for Him, but what He does for us, namely, that He gives us the privilege to serve Him, which in turn gives us the opportunity to transform and uplift ourselves. G-d put us on this earth to maximize the potential of our neshama, and one of the most powerful ways of achieving this is through the act of prayer. To really serve G-d, says the Maharal, means to declare that He is Master of the universe and owns everything in it; He owns us, our whole lives are dependent on Him and we owe everything to Him. Anything we do to declare that, in words or in actions, is the service of G-d. And so it was with the sacrifices brought in the Temple (which we no longer have because it was destroyed, but which will resume once the Temple is rebuilt with the coming of Mashiach, please G-d speedily in our days). The offerings symbolized that everything we own really belongs to G-d.
Acknowledging that everything comes from G-d
The root of the word avodah, explains the Maharal, is the same as the root of the word eved, which means a servant. The term eved is a particular type of servant; it’s the most extreme form of employment within Torah law.
According to Torah law, as the Mishnah discusses, one can employ someone as a kablan an independent contractor. A kablan is given a job to do, and does it independently; the employer does not own his time. Or, one can hire a po’el – a regular employee, someone whose time the employer owns. With an eved, however, the master owns the eved’s commercial rights. The institution of eved does not exist nowadays, but in Torah law it is the maximum level of ownership of another’s rights. When we talk about avodah in the context of serving G-d, it means G-d owns this entire world and everything in it.
The offerings brought in the Temple were symbolic of the fact that everything belongs to Hashem, including our own lives. This is why the main part of the sacrificial service was to put the blood of the animal on the altar; the blood represents the neshama – our very soul – as though the person were sacrificing himself to G-d, acknowledging that Hashem owns everything. We often think we are independent in this world; but in truth, everything – from the air that we breathe to our bodies, to whatever we own – belongs to Hashem. And for that we owe our allegiance to Him; He is the one and only Master of the universe.
Like the sacrifices of yesteryear, says the Maharal, prayer is a declaration that everything we have comes from Hashem. This is how he explains the fact that much of our prayers is comprised of asking for our needs. This may seem like a contradiction: Are we serving Hashem or are we serving ourselves by asking for what we need?
Firstly, says the Maharal, when we ask for things we should not ask for them for our own sake; rather, we must ask for what we need in order to serve Hashem better. Secondly, and even more importantly, by asking Hashem for what we need we thereby acknowledge that He is the Master of the universe, and the only One Who can give us what we need. When we ask Hashem for health, we are acknowledging that our health is in His hands; when we ask Him for parnassa, livelihood, we acknowledge that our livelihood is in His hands; when we ask Him for redemption from life’s travails and problems, we are acknowledging that it’s all in His hands and only He can save us. Prayer is the greatest, most eloquent proclamation of our belief that G-d is Master of the universe.
This is why the offerings in the Temple, and the mitzvah of prayer, are both called avodah – from the word eved; both demonstrate our complete dependence on Hashem. The mitzvah to pray is about increasing our awareness of the fact that we are dependent on G-d; this, in turn, brings us closer to Him.
Prayer is not simply about asking for what we need; rather, it is a process whereby we transform ourselves through recognising that everything comes from Hashem. By recognising this basic truth we become better, more elevated beings; and then G-d might reconsider His decrees and grant us things which perhaps beforehand we did not deserve but now we do. That answers our earlier question, of what the purpose of prayer is if everything has already been determined. Prayer is a process of personal transformation, and therefore has the power to effect positive change.
Our daily prayers bring us to a greater consciousness of G-d
The special moments of prayer, experienced on a daily basis, bring us closer to G-d through the recognition that everything we have comes from Him. This touches on one of the fundamental teachings of Judaism, namely, that what we do or how we speak about something brings about an internal change. This is why prayer has to be verbalised; it cannot just remain in the realm of thought. We must direct the way we view the world and the way we behave, and that is done through actions and words, not merely thoughts. When we pray, it’s not enough to think about how everything comes from Hashem. We must articulate our prayers from the siddur, every day; we must articulate what we need from Hashem, and thus attest to the fact that we are dependent on Him.
This dependency on G-d actually brings us closer to Him. It is not a dependency on a being who is far away and ignores us, but a dependency on Hashem who loves us and is close to us, who knows all of our needs and provides them for us. Our needs bring us closer to G-d, through the physical action of articulating our prayers. Prayer, like the sacrifices in Temple times, concretises our feelings so that they are not just in the realm of abstract, philosophical thought. Through prayer we take the abstract, philosophical concept of dependency on G-d and make it a real, tangible part of our daily lives, thus bringing us close to G-d.