What does it mean to pray? (Edited Transcript)
In 2001, a study conducted at Duke University Medical Center on a group of 150 cardiac patients uncovered some extraordinary findings. The patients, all of whom were receiving post-operative therapy treatment, were split into two subgroups – one subgroup had people praying for their wellbeing, the other subgroup didn’t. The findings showed the subgroup that was prayed for had significantly better treatment outcomes than those who received the treatment alone.
Most notably, the study was double-blind – neither the researchers, nor those being prayed for, knew about the prayers. And it wasn’t a once-off either. A comparable double-blind study, conducted at San Francisco General Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit, demonstrated very similar results.
Prayer is a powerful force in our lives and in the world. This week’s parsha calls on us to serve G-d “with all your heart” (Devarim 11:13). The Gemara (Ta’anit 2a) explains this “service of the heart” to be referring to prayer.
The Rambam (Laws of Prayer, chapter 1) derives from here the requirement to pray every day. He explains how, originally, this mitzvah was fulfilled informally and at one’s own discretion. There were no set times of the day to pray, and no formalised prayer service. It was completely spontaneous, provided it happened at least once in the day.
But, in the wake of the Babylonian exile, and the great social and spiritual upheaval that came with it, the sages of that time realised the importance of formalising and giving structure to prayer. And so it was that one of the great institutions of Jewish history, “the Men of the Great Assembly”, which included many great prophets and sages, composed the words of the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer to be recited three times a day – morning, afternoon and evening (shacharit, mincha and maariv). We recite their words in this structure to this day.
The Amidah encompasses the three components that make up the minimum definition of Jewish prayer – praise, petition and thanks. In the opening three blessings, we offer praise of our Creator. In the next 13 blessings, we articulate our needs and ask G-d to fulfil them. And the final three blessings are words of thanks and acknowledgement to G-d.
But what does “service of the heart” really mean? Where does that come in?
At its essence, prayer is about cultivating an emotional connection – a real relationship – with G-d. If done right, prayer can be a direct encounter with the Divine. The Rambam says that having kavanah – deep intention, awareness and devotion – is vital. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik explains that kavanah is a basic awareness that we are in the presence of G-d when we pray; that we aren’t just mouthing the words and going through the motions, but are having a private audience with the Creator of the universe. This state of mind can put us into a very powerful emotional state – and this is what “service of the heart” is all about.
Our role model for how to pray, says the Gemara (Brachot 31a), is Chana, one of the greatest women in Jewish history. The Tanach relates how Chana, the mother of Samuel the Prophet, was unable to fall pregnant, and came to the Temple to pray. The verse describes her prayer as follows: “And Chana was speaking from her heart. Only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard.” (Samuel 1:1-13)
On this, the Gemara says: “How many important laws can be learnt from these verses relating to Chana. ‘Chana was speaking from her heart’. From here [we learn] that one who prays must direct his heart [towards G-d]. ‘Her lips moved.’ From here [we learn] that one who prays must pronounce [the words] with his lips. ‘But her voice was not heard.’ From here [we learn] that it is wrong to raise one’s voice during one’s prayers.”
When we pray, we need to articulate the words, but we do so in a whisper, so that only we can hear what we are saying. The Amidah is known as the “Silent Prayer”. It brings a profound sense of silence and tranquillity into our lives; a few precious moments each day to meditate on and reinforce our spiritual connection to G-d, and to reflect on who we are. We do so in G-d’s presence and connect with Him through our reflection. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the origin of the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, is lehitpallel, which means to self-reflect. The silence of prayer allows us to do exactly that in the presence of G-d.
There’s also an intimacy in whispering. When we whisper to someone, it is an intimate moment. Likewise, when we whisper our prayers to G-d, we feel close and connected to Him. We feel His love for us and we express our love for Him, and that transforms our whole relationship with the Torah, with ourselves and the rest of creation.
Whispering is also an indication of G-d’s closeness to us during these intimate moments. And the fact that we have this private audience with G-d is not something to take for granted. Consider how difficult, or even impossible, it is to have a private conversation with someone in high office or a venerated public figure. And yet, through prayer, we have privileged access to the King of all kings, the Creator of the universe. And we have it whenever we want!
Friends – during these deep, intimate, emotional moments, we praise G-d and give thanks to Him, but most importantly, we make ourselves vulnerable to Him. The heart and soul of prayer is articulating our needs, what we are lacking, where we are falling short. In fact, requests make up 13 of the 19 blessings in the Amidah. The Maharal says that through prayer, we make the declaration that we are completely dependent on G-d for our needs. He explains that this is why prayer is called “service”. We are G-d’s servants in the sense that our welfare is entirely in His hands. And during prayer, we turn to Him for help and support, with the faith that whatever the outcome, it is ultimately for our good, and a pure expression of His love.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (OC 2:24) says turning to G-d in times of need and distress is the ultimate expression of faith in Him. It’s a recognition that nothing in this world can happen without G-d’s blessing; that whatever effort we put in, the result is entirely dependent on G-d’s will. When we pray for the recovery of someone who is sick, or for the success of a new business venture, we do so mindful of the fact that the doctors and the medicines, the business models and strategic planning, are merely the instruments through which G-d works. Our entire existence is in the hands of the One who loves us and wants only what’s best for us.
Prayer is a deep emotional and spiritual experience. It’s the entire basis of our relationship with G-d. This is why our sages guide us and implore us not to treat prayer as a burdensome duty, as something to be discharged. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says: “Do not make your prayer fixed, rather mercy and supplication before G-d.” (2:13) Because we pray three times a day and it’s a set formula from a set prayer book, we can start seeing it as something perfunctory, something we do because we feel obliged to. But the Mishna is telling us that prayer needs to be real and raw and heartfelt, and not just something we do as a matter of course. It has to be a service of the heart.
Passionate prayer – true service of the heart – brings us close to our Creator. It nourishes us spiritually and emotionally. It has the power to inspire and invigorate every aspect of our lives. It can the world.