Monday, December 6, 2010

I feel stupid when I pray

[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.


  1. This is powerful, and lovely... and, like a good steering mechanism, gives me a feeling of participating in my direction. Thank you.

    THIS is one of my favorite statements: "Which is one reason why talking during prayer irks me; it evicts Gd from prayer." B'diuk.

  2. I hate when people tell me that prayers are answered. Or should I say, don't tell me that a lack of change means that Hashem said no.

    It just doesn't sit well with me. It is too easy a way out.

  3. "whatever gets you through the night"(of spiritual and physical exile)
    Joel Rich

  4. Ever ask your parents for something? Was the answer always an immediate yes? Sometimes that yes was immediate, sometimes it was a maybe, sometimes it was a "later" or maybe "much later," sometimes it was a definite no.Sometimes it was an "I'll think about it and let you know." Why should God our Father be different? Our job as His children is to ask--how He will answer and when is up to Him. It is we who believe in instant gratification, not God.

    Like that old saw about the man who prayed to God "Please God give me patience, only give it to me now!"

  5. Ruti-
    Thank you very much! Glad it resonates.

    Jack, ProfK-
    My problem with the "'No' is also an answer" approach is that there are many ways to say No, and a benign, loving parent finds positive ways to say No.


  6. And sometimes those positive ways are possible and sometimes they aren't or they don't do the trick. You can tell a young child gently who wants to cook something on a stove that they aren't old enough to do so. But when the hand is near that hot stove gentleness may get you nowhere, so you grab away the hand or yell "NO!" loudly and firmly. And if the child, despite your teaching and telling, touches that hot stove behind your back or when your attention is elsewhere? They unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it)learn about why it's a no on their own.

  7. I don't think of davening as a conversation with Hashem. How can one converse with an entity so absolutely apart from our consciousness? I have come to the conclusion that I must try to reach an altered state of consciousness in order to try to reach that part of the divine that is within me. Perhaps this is not avodat Hashem but avodat atzmi (or ego as you put it). On the other hand Hashem is part of us,He breathed in us the breath of life, He was a partner in our conception. From this introspection I try to better understand the relation of my part of the divine within the unity of the divine of the universe. Only then can I try to approach the unknowable with my requests and desires.