Sitting at the recording of his program about God, I was unimpressed to hear him ask, “Do you remember a prayer in your life that was answered?”
Questions like this indicate a very limited attitude to prayer.
Yes, there is petitionary prayer, but there is much more to the prayer experience than this.
There are –
Prayers of praise, which celebrate the greatness of God, the wonder of creation, the miracle of life.
Prayers of thanksgiving, which express our appreciation of God’s bounties, the gifts of life, beauty, nature, the human mind, Divine and human love.
Prayers of penitence, in which, conscious of our failings, we seek to correct ourselves and return to God.
Prayers of faith, like Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd”) or Psalm 12 (“I lift up my eyes to the hills”).
Are such prayers heard?
Rav Kook said, “By prayer, we lift ourselves to a world of perfection”.
By turning our thoughts to high ideals and great truths, we become inspired and encouraged and, as Heschel puts it, we expand the presence of God in the world.
What about petitionary prayer? Jewish tradition tells us to avoid:
Selfish prayer which begs God for special consideration or personal favours. The rabbis ask, “How can one ask God for blessings which he doesnot want others to have?”
Useless prayer which hopes that a fact will not be a fact: in the rabbinic example, this is where a man prays when his wife is already pregnant that God will make it a boy.
Vulgarised prayer in which an athlete prays to win or a student to pass an examination; one should rather ask to do justice to his or her abilities, whatever the result.
Immoral prayer that intensifies hatreds or asks for something to befall another person. Judah the Pious said, “In time of war, the prayer should not be for victory for one side over the other, but that the Holy One, blessed be He, may influence the hearts of all of them to make peace.”
Sometimes the answer to a petitionary prayer is “no”.
Bachya used to say to God, “You know what is for my good. If I recite my wants, it is not to remind You of them, but that I may understand how great is my dependence upon You. If then I ask for things that make not for my well-being, it is because I am ignorant; Your choice is better than mine, and I submit myself to Your decree and Your direction”.
Whatever we pray, we must never leave it all to God. He will help us to find the solutions, but to think that we can stand by and let God do all the work is to abdicate the human dignity He has implanted within us.
Pray then, that we and God in partnership may be fruitful and effective and that between us we may fill each day with blessing and success.