Can Prayer Fail Us?

English A week has passed since the horrors of the murders of Mumbai unfolded, and this tragedy has, as tragedies often do, aroused introspection. We ask many questions on many levels. There are political questions, why in Mumbai? and why were Anglo-Saxons and Jews particularly targeted?; there are organizational questions regarding the readiness and effectiveness of the Indian security forces; questions of how do react to the atrocities on the individual, organizational (how should Jewish organizations adapt their security model, should we trun our communal homes into secure, but uninvitng fortresses?) and political levels; and there are questions of faith, too.

There is of course the perennial question of “why?!” Why has G”d allowed such a tragedy to happen? Why did little Moshe and Dov Ber Holtzberg become orphans? Why was a couple dedicating their lives to Torah and lovingkindness have to die so young and so brutally?

We cannot conclusively answer this question. G”d’s ways are unknowable. Though we may make some sensible remarks. According to the rationalist approach of Maimonides, this kind of evil flows forth from mankind’s freedom of choice. The terrorists were ordinary people, endowed with all that makes us human. They had the choice to sanctify themselves through good deeds and honest lives, instead they defaced the spark of Holiness which is the Image of G”dliness with which every human being was created. They weren’t animals, they chose to become beasts, very much like the active and passive supporters of Nazi Germany chose to allow and perpetrate evil on an unprecedented scale, in their time. In that sense, the possibility of evil is the natural consequence of our cherished freedom of choice and conscience – and we are ultimately responsible for our actions.

What, however, happened to our prayers? Throughout the world, people recited Tehillim, included the Holtzbergs and other hostages, both Jewish and gentile, in their sincere prayers, they shed tears out of love and concern for members of our extended national family, they prayed with great intensity, and yet, the victims were brutally murdered. Whatever happened to our prayers? Were they lost? Is G”d, chas veshalom, not listening, on vacation, as a woman claimed in Simon Wiesenthal’s book the Sunflower (quoted in my sermon entitled Dor haMidbar: The Singular Generation)?

While G”d emphatically does not go on vacation – a theologically absurd notion – the answer here, too, is ultimately shrouded in mystery. Just like the question of evil, this question, too, can be explored and partial answers given, which will help us deal with the issue, though ultimately, G”d’s ways are beyond our comprehension. In the words of the prophet Yesha’yahu (55:8): כִּי לֹא מַחְשְׁבֹותַי מַחְשְׁבֹותֵיכֶם וְלֹא דַרְכֵיכֶם דְּרָכָי – “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways.”

The perceived failure of our prayers on behalf of the Mumbai victims stems from the understanding that prayer is about asking for what we want – and getting it. Theologically, however, such an understanding of prayer is difficult. After all, as Avraham stresses, when pleading on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah (Bereishit 18:25), G”d is שֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ – the Supreme Judge, Whose ways are all just. And here lies the conundrum of prayer: if someone is deserving of Divine Blessing, shouldn’t he get it without asking, and if someone is not deserving of a particular blessing, why should asking and beseeching G”d help him one iota? G”d is not like man who would be influenced by mere compliments! Why should prayer work?

Another fallacy that leads us to feel as if our prayer on behalf of the Mumbai victims were not heard, is that we expect prayer to almost necessarily lead to immediately visible change. This, as I would like to demonstrate, is false, and stems from a failure to truly Jewishly understand prayer.

A Matter of Merit

First things first, why should prayer work? As my friend Rabbi Micha Berger (blog) argues:

As RYBS [Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik –af] himself notes, as does Rav Hirsch, lehit-pallel is in the reflective; something we do to ourselves. Teaching ourselves to turn to Hashem, and what things ought to be our priorities. Our primary tefillah was therefore organized by Anshei Keneses haGdolah in the sunset of the prophetic period, as a means of impressing us with the art of dialogue with the A-lmighty.

[Note: I presented a similar idea back in early 2007, at the end of a sermon entitled Dor haMidbar: The Singular Generation.]

Praying is not about being like the bashful child sweetly asking an undeserved favor from his parent, but is a most serious matter; it is about engaging in a most personal way in the service of G”d. The Talmud calls it עבודה שבלב, service of the heart and stresses that it is our heartful expression of our love of G”d:

דתניא (דברים יא) לאהבה את ה’ אלהיכם ולעבדו בכל לבבכם איזו היא עבודה שהיא בלב הוי אומר זו תפלה

As we were taught in a beraita: [scripture teaches we are] to love HaShem, our G”d-Almighty with all our hearts (Devarim 11:13) – which is the service that is performed in the heart? That is prayer! (Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 2a)

Shefa – Abundance for the World

Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, in his Nefesh haChayim, goes one step further and stresses that ideally, we should not pray for anything specific, but rather for bringing general blessing to the world – Shefa. Prayer, consisting largely of Berakhot, is about subjugating oneself to G”d and become his servant. Berakhah ברכה, stresses Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, comes of berekh ברך, the knee, which we bend, as we prostrate ourselves before G”d. By bending (the knee) before G”d.

Clearly, prayer is an act of worship and earns the petitioner merit. It is a transformative, cathartic experience, and after engaging in an intense act of prayer, the petitioner emerges a changed man – or woman. While his previous self might not have been deserving of Divine favor, the new self has just become more deserving.

Clearly, prayer is first and foremost an intense act of self transformation. Indeed, if our prayers fail to arouse us, if they fail to elevate our souls, perhaps we have muted and even deadened our words of prayer, robbing them of their effect, by not preparing ourselves to change. This is a challenge we can meet: by mentally preparing for prayer, by deciding that we want to change through our prayers, we can rise to the challenge and become aroused by them.

Let us now turn our attention to the second issue. I wrote that a fallacy that leads us to feel as if our prayer on behalf of the Mumbai victims were not heard, is that we expect prayer to almost necessarily lead to immediately visible change. We pray with the expectation that something particular should happen, because we pray for some particular, well defined things.

But is prayer primarily really about praying for particular, well defined things? Some would say so, and our duty and long standing tradition to intensify our prayers בעת צרה, at times of distress, supports such a conception of prayer. The tractate Ta’anit we quoted above, is full of halakhot regarding special fast and prayer days decreed in response to looming tragedy.

However, Rabbi Chayim Volozhin remarkably claims that prayer is mostly not about bringing about particular effects, but rather about bringing undiscriminate blessing to the world, or at least to a larger geographic area. When we engage in prayer, we effectively join our Creator in sustaining the world, by bringing abundant goodness to the world. This is supported by the continuation of the above quote from the Talmud, Ta’anit:

… וכתיב בתריה (דברים יא) ונתתי מטר ארצכם בעתו יורה ומלקוש

… and right afterwards is written [in Scripture (Devarim 11)]: that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil.

Particular prayer is – according to Rav Chaim – inferior to undiscriminate prayer. In the words of my friend Rabbi Berger (in a different post):

The mishnah warns, “Al tehi ke’avadim hameshamshim es harav al menas leqabeil peras – Do not be like those servants who serve their master for the sake of getting rewarded.” In my humble opinion, this it true of prayer no less than any other mitzvah. Praying in order to get something misses the point.

In fact, even the classical examples of particular prayers, such as those discussed in Tractate Ta’anit, for rain or against looming agression, were likely partly outcome oriented, but also part transformative experiences meant to arouse the petitioners to do teshuvah, in other words, to deal with the underlying issues. These prayers were indeed mostly about becoming more of a servant of G”d.

If so, were we wrong whenever we prayed for the sake of someone in particular, such as for the Mumbai hostages? G”d forbid – we merely might have misunderstood what we were doing. Praying for someone else is an expression of Ahavat Yisrael, in the case of Jews, and of recognizing the Divinely minted form of every human being, both Jew and gentile. This, too, is a transformative experience, and brings merit both to the one who engages in such prayer, and to the one who – despite him- or herself – inspires us to pray. Furthermore, even when we pray for undifferentiated blessing, abundance, the results are not undifferentiated – it might just benefit the intended subject of our prayers.

Our prayers do have an effect – it’s just that we don’t always know where and when. It is only regarding such illustrious, exceptional personalities, like Choni haMe’agel, that there is an expectation that their prayer will bring about immediate, noticeable change. Choni haMe’agel was appointed to lead the petitionary prayers for rain, during a particularly devastating drought. He drew a circle in the sand and swore he wouldn’t leave it until his prayers would be answered. Within a reasonable delay the rain started falling in such abundance, that he was asked to pray for cessation of the torrential rains (ֵMishnah Ta’anit 3:4). As for us, we may at any given time be granted the great merit of seeing our prayers become realized before our eyes, but this won’t always be the case.

However, while praying for particular outcomes may be inferior to simple, undifferentiated subjugation to the Creator, nonetheless, it does have another important advantage, namely, it helps us lesser mortals concentrate and dedicate ourselves to our prayers. Hence, we should preferably engage in both kinds of prayers. Indeed, Rabbi El’azar says: “Whoever turns his prayer into a habitual recitation, his prayer is not effective” (Talmud Bavli Berakhot 28b). Not everyone can sustain his prayer with only undifferentiated petition.

Measuring the Prayer Coeficient

That prayer may be realized in a beneficial way that is very different from what we intended, raises an interesting issue. There have been several studies about the effectiveness of prayer in healing the sick. For example, the following studies found a positive correlation between prayer and recovery:

  • A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote, Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit
  • Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomised controlled trial
  • The following studies found either no effect or an insignificant effect:

  • A Randomized Trial of the Effects of Remote Intercessory Prayer: Interactions with Personal Beliefs on Problem-Specific Outcomes and Functional Status
  • Intercessory prayer and cardiovascular disease progression in a coronary care unit population: a randomized controlled trial.
  • The remote prayer delusion: clinical trials that attempt to detect supernatural intervention are as futile as they are unethical
  • [Note: I am indebted to Noam Stadlan on the Avodah Mailing List for these five references.]

    These studies were conducted even in double blind trials, where the patient did not know whether he or she was being prayed for, did not even know an experiment was being conducted, did not even know those who prayed for him or her. Should we as Jews expect such trials to shed light of the effectiveness of prayer?

    Our prayers matter, and have significant impact. However, as explained above, the results do not always unfold before our eyes. That alone suffices to make studies of the effectiveness of prayer futile; we won’t know how to properly define the scope of the studies, unless the people praying all share Choni haMe’agel’s greatness. However, there are potentially actual halakhic problems with conducting such experiments, and these also involves measures that would render effective prayer ineffective. First of all, we are prohibited from trying G”d, as per the verse “Ye shall not try the HaShem your G”d-Almighty (Devarim 6:16), which, as the Talmud Ta’anit 9a teaches, prohibits making one’s observance contingent upon the fulfilment of certain wishes. All the more so that it would prohibit “measuring” G”d’s response.

    Furthermore, such studies are counter productive, as the Talmud teaches (Ibid. 8b), “Rabbi Yitz’haq says: blessing is only found in that, which is hidden from the eye.” G”d does not “go on vacation,” nor does he cease to hear our prayers, however, we do live in the era of הסתר פנים – “the hiding of the Countenance” – G”d is manifest in the world, but does so in a way that leaves man the freedom to deny His existance – He leaves traces, evidence, but no proof.

    Does Prayer Fail Us

    Prayer is a mysterious, powerful force, one that elevates us and arouses our sould, one that shines light unto the dark recesses of our spirits. We utilize this powerful force to submit to the service of our Creator and to bring abundance to the world. We also pray for specific outcomes, which we – at times – may merit to see in fulfillment, though at other times, our insignificance prevents us from seeing our prayers come to fruition. Nonetheless, as I once heard from, I believe, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam זצ”ל, the Bobover Rebbe, all our prayers are preciously guarded, none of them is lost. Prayer does not fail us. If a prayer is not answered now, it will nonetheless bring blessing in the future. In the words of the High Holiday liturgy, in the Pizmon of the Shelosh Essrei Midot:

    יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ שׁוֹמֵעַ קוֹל בְּכִיוֹת
    שֶׁתָּשִׂים דִּמְעוֹתֵינוּ בְּנֹאדְךָ לִהְיוֹת
    וְתַצִּילֵנוּ מִכָּל גְּזֵרוֹת אַכְזָרִיּוֹת
    כִּי לְךָ לְבַד עֵינֵינוּ תְלוּיוֹת

    May it be Thy will, who hears the sound of cries
    That Thou shalt put our tears, in your flask to be
    And that Thou shalt save us, from cruel decrees
    For to Thou alone, our eyes turn

    May we be saved from the violent threats, and may the world evolve into what we pray for in the ‘amida of the High Holidays: וכל הרשעה כולה כי תעביר ממשלת זדון מן הארץ – that evil will disappear like smoke, for G”d will remove malignant governments from the earth. (Let’s not make a mistake, there are malignant governments, and some of them are co-responsible for the cancer of terrorism) May this day come speedily, amen.

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