“Prayer,” says Milton Steinberg, “is the bridge between man and God. With the intellect one figures out that God is and also something of what He must be. In intuition one experiences Him. In revelation one receives testimony concerning Him.
“In the good life one charts a course by His light. In ritual one celebrates Him. But only in prayer does one establish a soul to soul interchange with Him.”
In the past it used to be easier. In those days Jews were a people of prayer, on close terms with God. But now it is all much harder. There is a high degree of prayer failure.
To some extent it is due to the shattering experience of the Holocaust; many a Jew still says, “God, I do not want to speak to You!”
(Though if the Holocaust has made prayer harder, the State of Israel has made it easier, for it is evidence that the Almighty does keep His word.)
Some of the problems of reaching God are, however, due not to theology but to breakdowns in the mechanics of prayer… the archaic terminology, for instance, though it must be said that old-fashioned language has a unique dignity and mystique.
Then, a person is not always in the mood. One cannot instantly switch channels from the raucous rat-race to the quiet contemplative mood of genuine prayer, but it certainly helps to follow the ancient pietists who sat and meditated for an hour before they prayed.
Houses of worship are not always good for prayer. Martin Buber tells of two friends who meet and one asks the other, “Why do I not see you in synagogue any more?”
The friend answers, “Every Shabbat morning I wake early with the intention of going to the synagogue. I get up and dress and I leave in good time.
“But when I get outside and see the beauty of the world God has given us, the sky and the trees and the singing birds, I begin to think of how good the Almighty is. And by the time I wake up from this meditation, it is already too late to go to the synagogue. But sometimes, when I don’t think of God, I do come to shule!”
Perhaps we put too much faith in prayer. We are depressed, dejected, despondent, and we expect God to provide the instant cure.
But Judaism says, En som’chin al ha-nes – “do not rely on miracles”. God will help you find the solution yourself, often by enabling you to see things in better perspective and to face life with faith in your own ability to win through.
Because prayer is, above all, a poetic experience, it needs training in poetic appreciation. It requires, in Heschel’s words, a sense of amazed, wondering awe.
It needs the ability to celebrate the privilege of being alive. It focuses on our limitation, and on our potential. It refines and uplifts our inner selves. It unites us with our source and destiny.
Prayer is so important that if it did not exist, we would have to invent it.