Prayer is a daily obligation of every Jew, and therefore can become a most difficult endeavor. The dangers of insincere, lackadaisical or rote prayer are known to all – it was known in the time of the Talmud as well – and the struggle to maintain one’s sharpness or enthusiasm in prayer is constant. Too many people typically perceive prayer as a last resort, as something you do when all else has failed, as something you do when you want or need something – the province of the weak and the desperate. But that is only one – and a very narrow dimension – of prayer.
Hundreds gathered at the Kotel in August for a prayer rally in support of Gilad Schalit, the captured Israeli soldier held by Hamas in defiance of international law and on the occasion of his 23rd birthday. There really is only one happy ending to his saga that I pray for daily: that he be rescued alive and all his captors killed. There is no other happy ending possible. Interviewed at the Kotel, Noam Schalit, father of Gilad, was quoted as saying: “We are not optimistic. If we were optimistic, we would not have come to pray.”
I certainly have no intention of criticizing him, whose pain is intense and unimaginable. He was speaking off the cuff, and under great stress, and might have been misquoted. And I mention his statement only because it reveals an approach to prayer that many of us might share – prayer as the last resort, as asking for things, as making requests – and nothing more. It literally reflects the English word “prayer,” meaning “beg,” and was the type of prayer that the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh beseeched Moshe after several of the plagues: “Beseech G-d for me.” And immediately after Moshe did so, Pharaoh reverted to his hard-heartedness.
Making requests of G-d is a type of prayer and perfectly appropriate – but not what we would call tefila. And if requests (or demands) of G-d are the sum and substance of our worship, then such an experience can easily leave us desiccated and disappointed, frustrated and flustered, bigheaded and bored with the entire process. It is not always about us.
I was chatting recently with a high school administrator about the well known difficulties of tefila among high school youth. They are bored and bewildered by the whole experience, and every school labors to find the right mechanism to inspire their students. He deduced that too many people pray – even come to synagogue – for two bad reasons: coercion and guilt. Some are forced to (as in high school, or in the case of adults who want to be part of a community or social group for which one price of admission is weekly attendance at synagogue). Others feel guilty not doing it. He related to me that when he was 20 years old, he was learning in shul before Mincha on Yom Kippur when an older man walked up to him, expressing surprise that he was learning just for the sake of learning – and said that he is in shul for only one reason – and this was on Yom Kippur day (!): if he weren’t, his father would be spinning in his grave. Guilt.
Too many people come to synagogue with those motivations, and it is typically reflected in their level of interest and behavior, and the quality of their davening – and perceived quite easily by their children. But that’s what happens when tefila becomes only asking for things, a laundry list of requests from G-d as Santa Claus. No wonder teens find it hard to daven – how much do they have to ask for (we give them almost everything), and how much of our daily tefila really involves these supplications? Perhaps 5 minutes out of 30, not much at all.
Rav Kook wrote that true tefila emerges from a thirst for G-d – itself a rare sensation today – and must be directed at Him in totality, and not to a particular attribute like His compassion. Rav Kook characterized tefila as “service of G-d with one’s emotions,” contrasting it with Torah study that is “service of G-d with one’s intellect.” That is not to say that the intellect plays no role in tefila; it is to say that prayer and Torah study are two different experiences. I note parenthetically that both the ArtScroll siddur, and the new Rabbi Sacks siddur are fine works (each with its own passionate advocates), with many fascinating insights about tefila. Both are filled with ideas, but both are missing something – the heart, the experience of standing before the King of Kings, and the sense of awe and reverence that should engender. But that cannot come from a siddur – that has to come from us.
Those siddurim tell us what to contemplate, but not what to experience. They cannot convey the prayer that Rav Kook described as the “revelation of the depth of the soul,” and the spontaneous outpouring of the real person. The real person, as Rav Kook saw it, is primarily expressed through the emotions, not the intellect. The proof is that we don’t always obey the intellect – but we always know how we feel. (Of course, ideally, our emotions are shaped by our intellectual attainments.) That is the part of the human personality that is accessed during prayer, and that is why we – who often live purposely superficial existences – can find prayer difficult and exasperating.
Pharaoh of old knew only begging, until the very end when he asked Moshe to bless him – in the language of tefila and not the language of begging. Until then, Pharaoh’s heart hardened after each time he sought Moshe’s intercession – because the beggar is never satisfied. There are always new requests that have to be granted. Prayer as begging will always be inherently unsatisfying, always leave us wanting more – more things, not more tefila. Requests are a part of tefila, but not an essential part.
What makes tefila difficult is what makes it so sublime. It is not the quota of words we say or even our mouths that utter them – but rather the expression of what is inside us – our thoughts, our feelings, the framework and mindset with which we stand before G-d. Such prayer requires patience, practice and effort – but such prayer can be a joy, an inspiration, and an example for us and to mankind as to the way to properly relate to and serve the Creator.