The Power of Jewish Prayer

imageThis article originally appeared in the fall 2009 issue of Jewish Action.

Prayer is the deepest instinct of the Jewish soul. What is notable about most of the prayers recorded in Tanach is their directness and simplicity. The Sages said, “Ein sichah ela tefillah” (Berachot 26b). Today we would translate this as, “Conversation is a form of prayer.” They might equally have said, “Prayer is a form of conversation.” For that is what the men and women of Tanach do. They speak to God as if to a friend. Abraham knows he is “mere dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27), yet he mounts a momentous challenge to Heaven on behalf of justice. Nothing is more moving in Jewish spirituality than this, the ability of humans to speak to God from the heart, in total sincerity and intimacy. Maimonides saw this as a command, Nachmanides as a privilege; either way, prayer breaks through the otherwise unfathomable distance between infinity and finitude, rescuing us from meaninglessness and despair.

Yet prayer has become difficult for contemporary Jews. Wherever I travel throughout the Jewish world people tell me they have difficulty praying. They find the synagogue service alienating. Many of the prayers no longer speak to them. They are not sure what they are doing when they pray, or why. Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik also noted this in his day. In one sense, this is a perennial problem with which the Sages wrestled: how to avoid prayer becoming keva, a burdensome routine. But in another, it has to do with specific elements of the prevailing culture in the West. It is hard to pray if your world is circumscribed by the self, as, in a consumer society it is. It is hard to place your problems on the shoulders of God if you believe that to every human problem there is a technological-scientific solution. Amidst the sometimes overwhelming pressures of everyday life, it is not easy to create the silence in the soul where prayer begins.

That is why, some years ago, I produced a translation of and commentary to the siddur, of which the new Koren Siddur is the American counterpart. I feel deeply privileged to have worked on this together with the Orthodox Union, one of the key institutions of American Jewish life. A new siddur is not the only thing we need to do to revive tefillah. In Britain, chazzanim and choirs have worked on new liturgical music to create a new aesthetic of prayer, and there is more to be done. But individually and collectively, tefillah is at the heart of a living relationship with God, itself central to a life flooded with the light of the Shechinah.

The following extracts are taken from the Introduction to the new Koren Siddur.

Prayer is the language of the soul in conversation with God. It is the most intimate gesture of the religious life, and the most transformative. The very fact that we can pray testifies to the deepest elements of Jewish faith: that the universe did not come into existence accidentally, nor are our lives destined to be bereft of meaning. The universe exists, and we exist, because someone—the One God, Author of all—brought us into existence with love. It is this belief more than any other that redeems life from solitude and fate from tragedy.

In prayer we speak to a presence vaster than the unfathomable universe, yet closer to us than we are to ourselves: the God beyond, who is also the Voice within. Though language must fail when we try to describe a Being beyond all parameters of speech, language is all we have, and it is enough. For God who made the world with creative words, and who revealed His will through holy words, listens to our prayerful words. Language is the bridge joining us to Infinity.

Judah Halevi, the great eleventh-century poet, said that prayer is to the soul what food is to the body. Without prayer, something within us atrophies and dies. It is possible to have a life without prayer, just as it is possible to have a life without music, or love, or laughter, but it is a diminished thing, missing whole dimensions of experience. We need space within the soul to express our joy in being, our wonder at the universe, our hopes, our fears, our failures, our aspirations—bringing our deepest thoughts as offerings to the One who listens, and listening, in turn, to the One who calls. Those who pray breathe a more expansive air: “In the prison of his days/Teach the free man how to praise” (W.H. Auden).

From Universal to Particular
In general, sequences of Jewish prayer move from the universal to the particular. Grace after Meals, for example, begins with a blessing thanking God “who in His goodness feeds the whole world.” The second blessing moves to particularities: Israel, liberation from slavery, “the covenant You sealed in our flesh,” Torah and the commandments. We thank God “for the land [of Israel] and the food.” The third is more narrowly focused still. It is about the holy city, Jerusalem.

The same pattern exists in the two blessings before the Shema in the morning and evening service. The first is about the universe (“who gives light to the earth,” “who creates day and night”), and the second is about Torah, the specific bond of love between God and the Jewish people. Look and you will find many other examples in the siddur. (The one exception is Aleinu, whose first paragraph is about Jewish particularity and whose second is a universal hope.)

We are not the same after we have stood in the Divine presence as we were before. We have been transformed.

This movement from universal to particular is distinctively Jewish. Western culture, under the influence of Plato, has tended to move in the opposite direction, from the concrete instance to the general rule, valuing universals above particularities. Judaism is the great counter-Platonic narrative in Western civilization.

Moving from the universal to the particular, the prayer book mirrors the structure of the Torah itself. Genesis begins, in its first eleven chapters, with a description of the universal condition of humankind. Only in its twelfth chapter is there a call to an individual, Abraham, to leave his land, family and father’s house and lead a life of righteousness through which “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

There are universals of human behavior: we call them the Noahide Laws. But we worship God in and through the particularity of our history, language and heritage. The highest love is not abstract but concrete. Those who truly love, cherish what makes the beloved different, unique, irreplaceable: that is the theme of the greatest of all books of religious love, The Song of Songs. That, we believe, is how God loves us.

Prayer requires intense concentration, and this takes time. It is impossible to move directly from the stresses and preoccupations of everyday life into the presence of eternity. Nor should prayer end abruptly. It must be internalized if it is to leave its trace within us as we move back into our worldly pursuits. Maimonides writes that because prayer needs mental focus, “One should therefore sit awhile before beginning his prayers, so as to concentrate his mind. He should then pray in gentle tones, beseechingly, and not regard the service as a burden that he is carrying and which he will cast off before proceeding on his way. He should thus sit awhile after concluding the prayers, and only then leave. The ancient saints used to pause and meditate one hour before prayer and one hour after prayer, and spend an hour in prayer itself” (Laws of Prayer 4:16).

Jacob’s Ladder
Prayer is a journey that has been described in many ways. According to the mystics, it is a journey through the four levels of being—Action, Formation, Creation and Emanation. Rabbi Jacob Emden worked out an elaborate scheme in which the prayers represent a movement from the outer courtyards to the Holy of the Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem. According to everyone, the stages of prayer constitute an ascent and descent, reaching their highest level in the middle, in the Shema and Amida.

The metaphor that, to me, captures the spirit of prayer more than any other is Jacob’s dream in which, alone at night, fleeing danger and far from home, he saw a ladder stretching from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending. He woke and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate to heaven” (Gen. 28: 10-17).

Our Sages said that “this place” was Jerusalem. That is midrashic truth. But there is another meaning, the plain one, no less transfiguring. The verb the Torah uses, vayifga, means “to happen upon, as if by chance.” “This place” was any place. Any place, any time, even the dark of a lonely night, can be a place and time for prayer. If we have the strength to dream and then, awakening, refuse to let go of the dream, then here, now, where I stand, can be the gate to heaven.

Prayer is a ladder and we are the angels. If there is one theme sounded throughout the prayers, it is creation–revelation–redemption, or ascent–summit–descent. In the Verses of Praise, we climb from earth to heaven by meditating on creation. Like a Turner or Monet landscape, the psalms let us see the universe bathed in light, but this light is not the light of beauty but of holiness, the light the Sages say God made on the first day and “hid for the righteous in the life to come.” Through some of the most magnificent poetry ever written, we see the world as God’s masterpiece, suffused with His radiance, until we reach a crescendo in Psalm 150 with its thirteen-fold repetition of “Praise” in a mere thirty-seven words.

By the time we reach Barekhu and the blessings of the Shema we have neared the summit. Now we are in heaven with the angels. We have reached revelation. The Divine Presence is close, almost tangible. We speak of love in one of the most hauntingly beautiful of blessings, “Great love” with its striking phrase: “Our Father, merciful Father, the Merciful, have mercy on us.” Now comes the great declaration of faith at the heart of prayer, the Shema with its passionate profession of the unity of God and the highest of all expressions of love, “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” Ending with a reference to the exodus, the Shema gives way to the Emet blessing with its emphasis on redemption, the exodus and the division of the sea. Then comes the Amida, the supreme height of prayer. Three traditions fuse at this point: the silent Amida said by individuals, reminding us of prophetic prayer; the Leader’s repetition representing priestly worship and prayer as sacrifice; and then the Kedusha, prayer as mystical experience.

From here, prayer begins its descent. First comes Tahanun in which we speak privately and intimately to the King. At this point, with a mixture of anguish and plea, we speak not of God’s love for Israel but of Israel’s defiant love of God: “Yet despite all this we did not forget You; please do not forget us.” There is a direct reference back to the Shema: “Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel, and let not Israel perish who declare: Shema Yisrael.”

Then comes Ashrei and the subsequent passages, similar to the Verses of Praise but this time with redemption, not creation, as their theme. The key verse is “A redeemer will come to Zion.” The section closes with a prayer that we may become agents of redemption as we reengage with the world (“May it be Your will . . . that we keep Your laws in this world”). We are now back on earth, the service complete except for Aleinu, Kaddish and the psalm of the day. We are ready to reenter life and its challenges.

What has prayer achieved? If we have truly prayed, we now know that the world did not materialize by chance. A single, guiding Will, directed its apparent randomness. We know too that this Will did not end there, but remains intimately involved with the universe, which He renews daily, and with humanity, over whose destinies He presides. We have climbed the high ladder and seen, if only dimly, how small some of our worries are. Our emotional landscape has been expanded. We have given voice to a whole range of emotions: thanks, praise, love, awe, guilt, repentance, remembrance, hope. As we leave the synagogue for the world outside, we now know that we are not alone; that God is with us; that we need not fear failure, for God forgives; that our hopes are not vain; that we are here for a purpose and there is work to do.

Prayer is the act of turning ourselves into a vehicle for the Divine.

We are not the same after we have stood in the Divine presence as we were before. We have been transformed. We see the world in a different light. Perhaps we radiate a different light. We have spoken to and listened to God. We have aligned ourselves with the moral energies of the universe. We have become, in Lurianic terminology, vessels for God’s blessing. We are changed by prayer.

Is Prayer Answered?
Is prayer answered? If God is changeless, how can we change Him by what we say? Even discounting this, why do we need to articulate our requests? Surely God, who sees the heart, knows our wishes even before we do, without our having to put them into words. What we wish to happen is either right or wrong in the eyes of God. If it is right, God will bring it about even if we do not pray. If it is wrong, God will not bring it about even if we do. So why pray?

The classic Jewish answer is simple but profound. Without a vessel to contain a blessing, there can be no blessing. If we have no receptacle to catch the rain, the rain may fall, but we will have none to drink. If we have no radio receiver, the sound-waves will flow, but we will be unable to convert them into sound. God’s blessings flow continuously, but unless we make ourselves into a vessel for them, they will flow elsewhere. Prayer is the act of turning ourselves into a vehicle for the Divine.

Speaking from personal experience, and from many encounters with people for whom prayer was a lifeline, I know that our prayers are answered: not always in the way we expected, not always as quickly as we hoped, but prayer is never in vain. Sometimes the answer is, “No.” If granting a request would do us or others harm, God will not grant it. But “No” is also an answer, and when God decides that something I have prayed for should not come to pass, then I pray for the wisdom to understand why. That too is part of spiritual growth: to accept graciously what we cannot or should not change. Nor is prayer a substitute for human effort: to the contrary, prayer is one of the most powerful sources of energy for human effort. God gives us the strength to achieve what we need to achieve, and to do what we were placed on earth to do.

Prayer changes the world because it changes us. At its height, it is a profoundly transformative experience. If we have truly prayed, we come in the course of time to know that the world was made, and we were made, for a purpose; that God, though immeasurably vast, is also intensely close; that “though my father and mother may reject me, God will gather me in”; that God is with us in our efforts, and that we do not labor in vain. We know, too, that we are part of the community of faith, and with us are four thousand years of history and the prayers and hopes of those who came before us. However far we feel from God, He is there behind us, and all we have to do is turn to face Him. Faith is born and lives in prayer, and faith is the antidote to fear: “The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?”

It makes a difference to be brushed by the wings of eternity. Regular thrice-daily prayer works on us in ways not immediately apparent. As the sea smoothes the stone, as the repeated hammer-blows of the sculptor shape the marble, so prayer—cyclical, tracking the rhythms of time itself—gradually wears away the jagged edges of our character, turning it into a work of devotional art. We begin to see the beauty of the created world. We locate ourselves as part of the story of our people. Slowly, we come to think less of the “I,” more of the “We”; less of what we lack than of what we have; less of what we need from the world, more of what the world needs from us. Prayer is less about getting what we want than about learning what to want. Our priorities change; we become less angular; we learn the deep happiness that comes from learning to give praise and thanks. The world we build tomorrow is born in the prayers we say today.

When, at the end of his vision, Jacob opened his eyes, he said with a sense of awe: “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.” That is what prayer does. It opens our eyes to the wonder of the world. It opens our ears to the still, small voice of God. It opens our hearts to those who need our help. God exists where we pray. As Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk said: “God lives where we let Him in.” And in that dialogue between the human soul and the Soul of the universe a momentous yet gentle strength is born.

Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks is chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth.

The Orthodox Union extends its warmest congratulations to Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks on his elevation to the peerage. He will take his seat in the House of Lords in October.

The Koren Siddur is available from the OU at or by calling 212.613.8385, or at your local Judaica store.

This article was featured in the Fall 2009 issue of Jewish Action.
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