WHAT IS JEWISH PRAYER?

The first thing we have to understand about prayer is that in Judaism there is no such thing.

The word “prayer” is derived from a Latin word that means “to beg.” And begging is definitely not what the Jewish understanding of prayer—known as tefillah in Hebrew—is all about. Tefillah is its own unique experience.

Prayer as begging is problematic because it suggests some heretical ideas about God. For one, it implies that God changes His mind: “First, God thought this and wanted that, but we pleaded so much, we convinced Him to change His mind.” God doesn’t change His mind. As it is says in the First Book of Samuel, “He is not a man that He should reverse Himself,”1 and as it says in the Book of Malachi, “I, God, change not.”2

Prayer as begging implies a lack of trust in God. According to Judaism, whatever happens to us comes from God with love and is always in our best interest.

Prayer as begging gives God a bad name. It suggests that He is holding out on us. When we pray for a sick aunt, for example, and she still does not recover, we step up our efforts by getting more people to pray for her. If she continues to be sick, we often organize a gathering at the local synagogue. And if she still does not recover, we send e-mails to everyone we know to get others to pray for her. What are we doing? Are we trying to storm the heavens to force God’s hand?  

Tefillah, however, does not involve any of these heretical problems because it is not about changing God’s mind or trying to force His hand. The Hebrew verb form “to pray,” l’hitpallel, is reflexive—that is, it is a verb that reflects back to the doer— implying that when we pray we are doing something to ourselves. In fact this is exactly right. In tefillah, we are not trying to change God — we are trying to change ourselves. In tefillah, we talk to God so that we will change. And if we change, then God’s love and blessings can penetrate our lives and affect all manner of other changes.

The purpose of tefillah is not to communicate information to God. He already knows what we think and feel. And He always lovingly gives us all that we need. Tefillah is about creating intimacy with God and experiencing a closer connection with Him. And the closer we feel to God, the more we change. The same happens when we confide our personal problems to compassionate friends, family members or counselors. Our goal is not to change them, but to verbalize our concerns in order to gain insight and clarity, so that we can change ourselves. Even if we are simply repeating what we said the day before, our outpouring to a kindred soul creates connection, and we are changed by virtue of the sharing.

Speaking to God heightens our faith in Him and deepens our awareness of His loving presence. “I believe because I spoke,” states the Book of Psalms.3 A closer connection with God influences us and transforms us, and as a result of that transformation, many things are possible that earlier were not.

Intimacy through Communication 

There are two basic ways of communicating—the male way and the female way.

In You Just Don’t Understand, Dr. Deborah Tannen explains that when men speak, it is generally for the purpose of communicating information. Therefore, if they don’t have any information to communicate, they don’t speak. Women, however, speak even when they have no information to impart because they innately sense that speaking creates connection and intimacy.

As a male I can relate to this distinction. When I come home after a full day of teaching, I am generally quiet. But my wife doesn’t understand this. She asks me, “You speak all day, and with me you have nothing to share?” I tell her, “But you’ve heard all my classes. When I develop some new material, I’ll try it out on you first.” Of course, my wife is not asking me for a Torah lecture. She wants me to connect with her through conversation.

Women communicate to create intimacy. For women the content of a conversation is not the only reason for speaking. One can imagine a man listening to a discussion between two women on a bus and hearing what sounds to him like small-talk. To a man, a casual conversation between women doesn’t seem substantive. But for the women, it is very meaningful and may even be transformational because they are connecting and intensifying their relationship.

When it comes to communication with God, women definitely have something over men. In fact, we learn many of the laws of tefillah from Chana, a woman who successfully prayed to conceive a child, who then became the prophet Shmuel.

Now I must stress that tefillah is not casual smalltalk with God. Tefillah is very rich in content. However, the value of the content is for our sake not for God’s. We are the ones who need to hear and be transformed by what we are saying to God.  We are the ones who need to intensify our awareness of our loving relationship to God who is everpresent.

Exercising Will and Imagination 

But there is even more to tefillah. To understand the deeper significance of Jewish prayer, we need to examine the way in which its Hebrew root—pallel—is used in the Torah.

It first appears in the story of Yaakov and his son Yosef. When Yaakov was nearing his death, Yosef asked his father to bless his two children. Yaakov responded, “I never pilalti that I would see your face again, but God has allowed me also to see the face of your children.”4 From this verse we can generally understand the word pilalti to mean “I never hoped…” or “I never dreamed…” or “I never imagined…”

The great 11th century Torah commentator Rashi reads Yaakov’s words as saying, “I never filled my heart to think the thoughts …” Based on this interpretation, l’hitpallel (“to pray”) actually means to actively and intentionally fill our hearts to think the thought, dream the dream and envision what we want to see happen in our life and in the world. L’hitpallel is an exercise of will, imagination and vision. Through tefillah, we are trying to align our will and vision with God’s will and vision. In fact, the cantor or leader of communal prayer is called in Hebrew a chazzan, a word which is derived from the word chazon literally meaning “vision.” His job is to lead us in a communal exercise whose goal is to channel God’s will and vision, and in so doing, receive His blessings rather then shut them out of our lives.

God is constantly showering us with abundant blessings. Our problem is that we block them out through our poor attitudes and misdeeds. Like a cloud that blocks sunlight from warming our faces, we block God’s blessings from penetrating our lives. For example, God is constantly sending us healing and health. When we pray, we acknowledge this hidden truth and actively fill our hearts with visions and longings for health. Through increased awareness of God’s bountiful presence and overflowing benevolence we become receptive to His blessings for wellness and allow them to pour into our lives.

Therefore, when we finish our tefillah, we must ask ourselves not whether God heard our tefillah, but whether we heard it ourselves. Did it impact and change us? Do we feel closer to God? Are we more aware and receptive to His loving presence and abundant blessings in our lives? For this reason, Jewish law requires that we must hear the words of prayer. Even though the Amidah is referred to as the “silent” prayer, it is not really silent. We are supposed to enunciate the words in a quiet whisper, audible only to ourselves.   

 

Creating Our World through Tefillah

Tefillah is really a faith-building exercise. When we pray properly, we actually alter our own subjective world which is made up of our beliefs.

The other day I was watching my son play with his new set of toy policemen. He was sitting on the rug, making all kinds of noises as he maneuvered the policemen to close in on the bad guys. He was totally absorbed in his world of make-believe. Watching him, it dawned on me that we all live in a world of make-believe because the world as we experience it is actually made of our beliefs.

Our beliefs about ourselves, about the world and about God determine our experiences. If we believe that the world is an accident, we will experience life as an accident. If we believe that the world is operated under the guidance of God, then we will experience that guidance. If we believe that God loves us, then we will feel His love no matter what happens. Thus, through tefillah, we reinforce beliefs that empower us to become receptive to God’s blessings and allow them to enter our lives.

The prophet Chabakkuk taught that a holy person “lives in his faith.”5 In other words, faith is a holy person’s orientation to life.

Our faith creates the perceptual world in which we live. We don’t create our own reality—the Torah teaches that God is reality—but we do create our perception of reality, which is our perception of God. Ultimately, how we perceive God determines the world in which we live.

The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the famed composer of many Jewish melodies, was once speaking with a woman who was extremely annoyed because her son, age of 33, was becoming religiously involved. “I don’t believe in God!” the woman declared forcefully.

She undoubtedly expected the Rabbi to persuade her or lecture her about the evidence for God’s existence.

Instead, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “So don’t.”

She was shocked. “How can you say that? You are a Rabbi!”

“If you want to live in a Godless world,” he said, “then go ahead.”

This same message also applies to us. If we do not believe in God, then we will not experience God in our life. However, the more we acknowledge God and  affirm our belief—increasing our awareness of His truth through what we think, say and do—the more we will experience God’s loving presence in our world.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at how the Amidah empowers us to change ourselves and fill our world with the blessings of God’s abundant presence.