Shemot – What is Prayer?

A story is told about a disco bar that opened next door to a Church. The minister and parishioners were quite distressed and upset by this, as it ran counter to the environment they worked to create and to the values they held dear. Under the guidance of their minister the church members began to pray for the Almighty’s assistance with their problem. About a week later there was a thunderstorm in the area and a bolt of lightning struck the bar, causing a fire which burnt the bar to the ground. The owner of the bar blamed the church for his misfortune and he sued them in court. The church, in their defense, denied that their prayers were effective in causing the fire. The judge was perplexed as to how he would rule. In despair he said, “How does one deal with an atheist who is convinced that prayers are answered, and on the other had a group of believers who firmly deny the efficacy of prayer?”

Parshat Shemot opens a new chapter in world history and in the formation of the Israelite nation. Genesis dealt primarily with people, individuals. Exodus steps back and provides a broader perspective of the emerging nation. This nation was forged in the crucibles of ancient Egypt, its birth was preceded by difficult and oppressive labor.

After many decades of slavery the Pharaoh of Egypt died and the verse states that the people groaned under the burden of slavery and they cried out in pain. This cry rose up to God from their labor. The following verse states: “And God heard their cries and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God saw the Children of Israel; and God knew.” (Exodus 2:24-25)

The outcry of the people from their pain and oppression was animal like, primal and base. They had a moment of relief after the Pharaoh’s death and a groan escaped their lips. Hardly a prayer. Yet, the Torah writes that their God heard their cries and the memory of His covenant with the forefathers came before Him. The groans served as the catalyst for the redemption of the children of Israel from Egypt.

R’ Hirsch, in his commentary to Parshat Vayechi, notes that the word we use for prayer, tefilla, does not denote an expression of sentiments from within, it is not an outpouring of the heart. It is rather the integration of an external idea into one’s consciousness, it is the assimilation of the outside into the heart. Hirsch goes on to explain that our daily prayers, the liturgy we recite three times a day, do not necessarily express our deep, heartfelt emotions, at least not without one preparing oneself and having absorbed completely the ideas articulated in those prayers. Indeed, if our prayers were intended to be merely an expression of internal thoughts there would be no place for the pre-formulated prayers which are consigned to specific times of the day. The fact that our prayer is pre-set into a specific formula and designated for recital at specific times of the day indicates that our prayer has a different purpose and function from the cries expressed by Jacob’s descendants in Egypt. Its purpose is to educate us; the role of our daily prayers is more a study session, an exploration of fundamental elements of our faith, rather than a raw, emotional appeal. We recite these prayers daily in order to implant them deeply in our minds and psyches.

That said, the spontaneous outpouring of emotion is equally important. It may not appear overtly in our formulated liturgy but it certainly has a place, either incorporated into the regular prayers or expressed on its own. The Midrash cites R’ Yochanan who notes that there are ten terms of prayer. (Interestingly, our word for prayer, tefilla, is not one of them.) These include terms such as pleading, crying, moaning, supplicating etc. It is not only the fervent, spiritual plea of a soldier in a foxhole, with bombs exploding all around him. It is the clenched fist of a student before an examination, hoping for good results, it is the silent murmur of the player on the field before he takes the shot from the 3 point line. It is the desperation of the speeding driver that police do not detect him, it is the exclamation ‘Oh my God!’ that comes out of our lips when we are surprised by something.

I once asked a colleague how many people pray in his Synagogue. He thought for a moment and then answered facetiously, “Oh, about ten percent.”

My colleague may have been referring to the number praying from the Siddur, but the actual number of worshippers engaged in prayer was certainly higher, including the silent plea of the young man in the corner, wishing that services will be shorter than usual today.

©2020 by Wellington Jewish Community Centre.