[Post I'm looking at now: Modern Uberdox on his kids' chutzpah]
Well, I don’t actually feel stupid when I pray – but I understand why someone would. I understand why someone would feel foolish, impotent, and superstitious for throwing his words heavenward in pursuit of reward, ritual satisfaction or salvation.
This past week the world watched a horrific forest fire in the Carmel Forest outside Haifa in Israel, a devastating catastrophe that cost forty lives of rescuers, burned many more, and made who knows how many people homeless – right in the middle of a Jewish holiday that celebrates fire, with prayers and songs commemorating flames that, miraculously, would not be extinguished. And beyond that bitter irony, the fire came on the heels of a day of international fasting and prayer for rain due to the water shortage Israel is experiencing.
Worse than unanswered prayers are prayers thrown back in our faces. If prayer is intercession, an attempt to persuade Gd to act in a certain way, then how could we not feel stupid when we pray? How could we not feel like whatever deity is out there is not moved by our words, however meaningful and important our goals?
I know that some explain prayer as self-assessment (the classic agrammatical homiletic on להתפלל), or an attempt to build up our merit so that we will be worthy of Divine response to our needs. Rav Chaim of Volozhin has his own deep take in Nefesh haChaim. Accepted and understood, and I made some of those points here. Some of those approaches may help explain why prayer does not necessarily lead to results.
Here's another approach, though. We might look at prayer as a steering wheel pointing us toward Gd, and our lives as the cars being driven in that direction. The steering wheel itself has no value, and the car is useless - and dangerous - without the steering wheel.
My car could go in any direction. Certainly, I spend much of my time in activities which could be termed mitzvot. I learn, I teach, I try to help other people, and I try to educate my children; that's pretty much my day. But what's my motivation, what makes me do these things? Could be ego. Could be the pursuit of financial reward; I get paid, of course. Could be a feeling of satisfaction. What makes these activities into mitzvos?
It's tefilah (prayer), the steering wheel pointing me toward Gd.
Davening (praying), turning to Gd and pledging my service, coming to Gd with my requests, making Gd the center of the things I do, is what identifies the behaviors of my day as mitzvot. Without sincere prayer, these could be self-serving behaviors. With sincere prayer, they are Divine-serving activities. (Which is one reason why talking during prayer irks me; it evicts Gd from prayer. But that's a topic for another time. See my sidebar link here.)
So I can't look to prayer to bring me results. If anything will yield me results - and we have no guarantees in that area, either - it will be the things I do with my non-prayer time.
Note: I am certainly not linking the fire to anyone's actions or inaction, casting blame on people who prayed but didn't perform mitzvot, or anything remotely like that.
All I'm doing is suggesting that prayer isn't really meant to get results, on its own. Prayer is only powerful when it has a car to steer.