By Shimshon Dov Pincus
New York, 2013
Reviewed by Gil Student
Aficionados of all kinds agree that the more you understand something, the more you appreciate it. The ability to distinguish between works of art or bottles of wine allows you to recognize their varying attributes and the hard work that went into making them. In an English translation of one of the books he wrote personally, Rav Shimshon Pincus teaches readers to appreciate the nuances of prayer with the same depth and distinction they would apply to other, unrelated areas. We learn to pray when we are young. As we mature, our understanding and abilities should grow likewise. This requires study and concentrated practice.
The question of prayer has challenged philosophers throughout the ages. If God knows what we want and what we deserve, why does He need us to pray? Many answers have been given. Rav Pincus follows the approach of Ramchal (Derech Hashem 4:5:1) that God established a system of providence in the world that follows formal procedures. The world is programmed to work as follows: in order for a person to receive the help that he merits, he must pray. Rav Pincus expands on this idea. “Hashem runs the world in such a way that it is as if He doesn’t ‘see’ what is not shown to Him and doesn’t ‘know’ what is not brought to His attention.” When we pray for something specific, we open the gates of Heaven for Divine blessing to descend. Similarly, when we praise God for a specific trait, He exercises that trait for us. This enables us to grow closer to God by connecting to Him with prayer for all of our needs.
Effective prayer begins with preparation. If we do not progress in our learning as we mature, our education is lacking. Similarly, if we do not progress in our praying ability, we suffer from deficient training. In order to grow in prayer, we have to devote time to learning how to pray—what the words mean, how to prepare properly before prayer and how to effectively utilize the different forms of prayer.
Rav Pincus describes in detail thirteen types of prayer listed by the Sages (thirteen, despite the book’s subtitle of ten). He carefully distinguishes between each type of prayer, offering insight into when and how each form can be used by the reader. Most of us intuitively use many of these forms, but do not realize what we are doing. By fully understanding the different tools of prayer, we can more effectively wield them in our own efforts.
When I reorder the thirteen types of prayer, I see three main groupings. Four forms of prayer consist of what we usually connect to the concept of prayer: Rinah (singing), Keri’ah (calling to), Pilul (prayer) and Amidah (standing). We praise God and encounter Him in joy, even when we are suffering. Eichah, the saddest book in Tanach, teaches us to call out to God in joyous song during times of trouble: “Arise, sing in the night, at the beginning of the watches” (2:19). When one smiles to Heaven, Heaven responds likewise. We pray to God with knowledge that He hears us. In times of trouble, we experience legitimate fear and yet we nevertheless trust in God. Prayer involves drawing close to God, standing in nullification and service to the Holy One, and listening to God’s response. Sometimes we find ourselves unable to concentrate on our prayers. Rav Pincus explains that prayer is a two-way conversation; our inability to connect may be God refusing to speak with us for specific reasons. “We may want to be with Hashem and talk to Him. But if He doesn’t want it, and leaves the ‘meeting place,’ we will be totally unable to achieve kavanah and focus our thought . . . No amount of trying will help if Hashem from His side does not want to be with us.”
Four types of prayer speak to the emergency: Bitzur (calling out in distress), Shav’ah (hysterical outcry), Tze’akah (wordless scream), Ne’akah (groaning). Our troubles bring us closer to God. We may be too proud to ask for help, but eventually even the proudest person forgets his pride when the pain and distress become unbearable. When we suffer, we call out to God in prayer. When we feel pain acutely, we cry out uncontrollably. The wordless scream emerges from an intensity that transcends words, a response to danger with a spontaneous scream for help. Groaning is not a prayer at all, but a natural reaction to pain that we can channel to prayer. Rav Pincus writes that “the wise person will work on making this a habit. Every time a painful thing happens to him, or he hears about someone who fell ill, or a tragedy that occurred, or some sad news, causing his heart to shiver and a sigh to leave his lips—he should immediately direct this feeling Above, as prayer and pleading.”
Five forms of prayer reflect urgent appeals: Pegi’ah (relentlessly entreating), Nipul (throwing oneself down), Tachanunim (begging for grace), Chilui (making an appeal) and Itur (beseeching repeatedly). If we find that our prayers have not been answered, we persistently continue to say prayer after prayer, chapter after chapter of Tehillim. “A person stands and pleads before Hashem with clear awareness that Hashem is never tired of him and never rejects him.” However, despite our urgent need, we must pray with humility, asking in a general way that God’s will be done. Acknowledging that ultimately only He can help, we should beg for undeserved Divine gifts, appealing to God’s mercy with our prayers.
This brief summary cannot convey the depth and inspirational analysis within the descriptions of different prayer forms. Rav Pincus’ study encourages preparation and targeted prayer, providing the right tool for every need.
Rav Pincus concludes with a key element for successful prayer. We need to feel God’s pain. He is with us in our troubles, suffering as we suffer, so to speak. We have the ability to speak to God, to address Him in the first person. We turn in prayer to God, face to face, and beseech Him to heal His own pain by helping us. This less selfish attitude turns our prayers into worship of God because they are for God’s sake. This ability to help God, to invoke the rules of Creation for God’s sake, is the awesome privilege and responsibility of prayer.
Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and runs Torahmusings.com. He is a member of the Jewish Action Editorial Board.