Does Prayer Really Work?
Josh recently lost his job in the economic downturn. He had no idea where he would get the money to pay his mortgage and bills. As his meager savings were quickly being depleted, he prayed with all his heart that he would get a job. He finally found what seemed to be the perfect job and, after applying, was granted an interview. As the day of the interview grew closer, Josh prayed very hard that he would get this job. At the interview, Josh’s potential employers seemed very impressed with his credentials. It looked as though his prayers would be answered.
Two days later, an email arrived from the company and Josh opened it with excitement. It read, “Although we were very impressed with you, someone else was more impressive. Sorry, your services are not needed at this time. Thank you for thinking of us.” Josh could not help but wonder, “Was there a point in all my prayers?”
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Toldos, the Torah recounts how Yitzchak (Isaac) and Rivka (Rebecca) prayed for a child after being married for twenty years without children. There is an oft-cited quote of our Sages that says that G-d desires the prayers of the righteous and that is why He made Yitzchak and Rivka wait so long to have children. What does this mean? Does G-d really want people to suffer just so that they will pray to Him? Why does He need their prayers?
We all know that Hashem is just and kind. Very, very kind. Everything He does is calculated down to the finest detail. Everyone gets exactly what they deserve and no less. If so, how can you hope to accomplish anything with prayer? Do you think you will change G-d’s mind, as if He will get so fed up with your persistent nagging that He will finally give in?
Many people think of prayer as a vending machine: you put in a few requests at the top and whatever you asked for comes out at the bottom. And just as with a vending machine, where if you put in a dollar and no soda comes out, you conclude that the machine is broken and move on to the next one, so too with prayer. If you pray enough times with no result, you conclude that prayer doesn’t work.
The Chovos HaLevavos (Duties of the Heart, a classic work on personal growth by Rabbeinu Bachya) has a completely different approach to prayer, as explained by Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt’l, in his preface to his commentary on the Siddur (prayerbook), called Praise, My Soul. His general principle is that prayer is a means to self-betterment. Our prayers are structured in such a way as to increase our recognition of Hashem’s greatness and make us aware of how insignificant and powerless we are compared to Him. We come before Hashem and say, “I know You are the only One with the ability to give me this and therefore I am turning to You.” Through constant prayer, we achieve a greater level of reliance on Hashem and build a better relationship with Him.
Says Rabbi Eliyohu Lopian, zt’l (1872-1970), this is the key to understanding how prayer is effective. We become better people through our prayers, as we explained, and therefore are deserving of more good. We are not convincing G-d to change His mind; rather, we are changing ourselves, thereby deserving to have our prayers granted.
And that is why G-d desires the prayers of the righteous. By withholding something from them, He is giving them the opportunity to elevate themselves and become better people through their prayers. It is truly for their benefit.
So Josh should not be left feeling that his prayers were pointless, because the purpose of prayer is not to “get stuff.” It is to make ourselves into better people with a deeper, stronger connection to Hashem. Rather than feeling let down, Josh can be grateful for the opportunity to develop a closer relationship with Hashem.
May we all merit achieving a close relationship with Hashem.
Shmuel Dovid Kirwan