It can happen at any time of the day. Head lowered, we whisper a short prayer to G‑d. In times of suffering and pain, or even when experiencing a temporary predicament, we turn to our Creator and request His assistance. This is prayer in its most quintessential form. The Torah instructs us to reach out to G‑d when experiencing hardship; the precise wording is immaterial—what’s important only is that this communiqué emanate from the heart. Read talking with G-d.
On a very basic level, prayer expresses our belief in G‑d. Our recognition that we are dependent on His beneficence, and that, as the one who controls all, it is within His ability to extricate us from our hardship. And as such, in a time of need—no matter how trivial the need may seem—we turn to the one whom we know can help The Torah refers to prayer as “the service of the heart,” an act suffused with love and reverence. Prayer is about a child approaching his loving parent. In fact, the medieval sage Maimonides writes that “prayer without concentration is akin to a lifeless body.” Read is prayer an obligation or inspiration
Chabad philosophy, however, based on the teachings of Kabbalah, expounds upon the idea of prayer as more than just a vehicle for presenting our needs before G‑d. It is actually our primary means of connecting our consciousness to the divine, an island in time when our souls are unleashed, free to soar to heavenly heights. Such prayer leaves an indelible refining impact on the entire day. Much of Chabad literature is devoted to discussing the nature and power of prayer, meditations for before and during prayer, and the critical importance of investing one’s soul in this daily service of the heart.
The question of the purpose of prayer in Judaism is a very broad one, and in some sense is unanswerable. After all, in Judaism, unlike some other religions, the main way this question has been addressed is through halachic (legal) requirements rather than as a philosophical or theological statement. Judaism has always been much tighter in terms of defining its practices than its ideology, and that is a value that has kept us together. In that sense, one might say that there are as many purposes for prayer within Judaism as there are Jews, if not more!
Having made that disclaimer, though, I can certainly say that a broad swath of Jewry understands prayer (despite its complexity) as a response to God’s presence in our world. Some Jews understand prayer as a simple and direct attempt at “conversing” with God. Others see prayer as our obligation to God, and thus its purpose would be fulfilling that obligation out of a sense of love and duty.
Still others understand “the purpose” of prayer to be much more centered on the person doing the praying rather than on the One to whom the prayer is directed. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the famous 20th century theologian and scion of the Apt Hassidim, spoke of prayer as an opening up of the soul, of standing revealed and naked (as it were) in the presence of God who can plumb the intimate recesses of our hearts. It is a laying bare of one’s innermost essence, and thus requires both great humility and boldness.
In that sense, prayer is the most difficult pursuit anyone can undertake, but also the most crucial if one is to become gloriously and fully human. Containing a spark of divinity, our souls yearn to grow to the greatest level of profundity and candor we can attain.How fortunate is anyone who can live even moments of their life robed in the dignity and brilliance such an achievement grants! Like an actor rehearsing for the role of a lifetime, we rehearse the scripted lines over and over, trying desperately to connect with the emotional reality that helps those words ring true. We learn the words until they become second nature to us, then spend the rest of our days reaching for the truths they convey. Yet the character we prepare to inhabit is none other than ourselves; the life we portray is our own.
The purpose of prayer is thus to become most truly and sincerely ourselves, in the best possible way. It is the greatest challenge we face in life.
Prayer has the potential to be a multi-dimensional experience, which is to say there are many possible purposes to prayer. Here are some responses.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z’l wrote that “worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.” Prayer can change our point of view; in prayer language itself changes from the way we use it on the street. We are able to see the world differently.
The Talmud defines prayer as “the service of the heart”, reminding us that it is our personal conversation with the Holy One of Creation. Words of praise and longing, love and fear, thanksgiving and devotion are all appropriate. Indeed, the Hasidic master, Rav Nachman of Bratslav, counseled his followers to spend an hour a day in hitbodedut, solitary conversation with God in whatever language they found most comfortable.
When the Psalmist (35:10) wrote, “All my bones shall say: O Lord, who is like you,” he reminded us that prayer should involve one’s entire being. It is not a matter of merely reciting words printed on the page of a siddur, prayerbook, but of linking oneself with the Source of Life. For some the overriding goal of prayer is devekut, a joining of one’s being with God. One of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schacter Shlomi, taught that the meaning of the Yiddish word, daven, often translated as prayer, is to align oneself with the rhythm of the universe.
While prayer may be individual or communal, I find that the two settings are quite different. At its best, communal prayer transports me beyond my own limitations, buoyed by the collective energy, to glimpse God out there. At its best, personal prayer allows an introspection that reveals God within. It is important to acknowledge that prayer “at its best” is a rare experience.
Services can be easy – follow along with the congregation as they proceed through the prayerbook. Prayer is difficult, which may be why the Amidah, the standing individual prayer that forms the center of the daily service, opens with the words, “O Lord, open up my lips that my mouth shall proclaim your praises.” If we are to express the yearning of the heart, to see the world through new eyes, to commit our whole being to this conversation with God, we may need help. So these words remind us that we are engaged in a dialogue. If we are bold enough to let God open our lips, perhaps we can give voice to the words we really need to say.
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