Does Prayer Ever Work?

The story is told about a family gathered around the dinner table.  There are many guests who have been invited for the evening.  The father is very proud of his daughter and wants to give her a role in the festive meal, so he asks her, “Would you say the blessing before we eat?”

“I don’t know what to say.”

The dad smiles “Just say what you hear your mom always say.”

The daughter thinks for a moment, and then speaks, “Dear God, why did we invite all these people to dinner?”

It’s funny the things for which people ask me to pray.  “Rabbi, could you say a prayer for the New York Mets?”  “Rabbi, we are getting married outdoors… would you say a prayer so it doesn’t rain?” “Rabbi, I am taking a trip to Atlantic City next week.  Can you pray that I hit 20 black?”

I know, for the most part these people are kidding me, so I play along with ethereal responses, like:  “Sure, how many home runs would you like the cleanup hitter to hit?” or “Would you like the roulette table to hit that black 20 once or twice? …”

Yet, behind all the joking lies a serious question.  If we don’t really believe in prayer as wish fulfillment, then why do we pray?

READ: Does God Hear Our Prayers?

And, of course, there are more profound questions, “Rabbi, I have a dying friend… my prayers can heal, right?” 

In these moments, a fierce dialogue takes place from within.  “No, I don’t believe that prayer really heals people, do I?” 

Perhaps it makes people feel comforted and cared for, maybe spiritually whole.  But do I really believe that God will heal your friend because of your prayers?”

And, then I must look in the proverbial mirror and ask: If I don’t believe any of this, then why am I a rabbi?  Why ask people to come to Synagogue at all?  Why do I do what I do?  Why would anyone take any of this seriously?

READ: If God Is Listening, Why Won’t He Cure Cancer?

Why pray?  I have asked this question in this space before.  And, as I grow, I offer varying reasons for something, which I hold deep in my heart and I believe, can qualitatively change the nature of our lives.

In this moment, I write to you about communal prayer.  Why come together to pray?  I think when we gather to pray, we experience a symbiotic connection.  We could stay at home and pray by ourselves. But there is strength and comfort in coming together for purposes, which are totally individual, and at the same time, absolutely communal.  So often, we feel that we are the only ones who are experiencing our brand of joy or sadness.  But, when we are together in one space, we realize that we are just like everyone else…..human beings, traveling, struggling, falling, getting up, accomplishing….all of it, together. 

READ: Communal Prayer Versus Solitary Prayer

Communal prayer reminds us that we are not alone, but a part of a community with commonalities that on one hand remind us of our unique nature, and on the other, we are spiritual comrades in arms, navigating the terrain as one.

Guilt was the mode some of the rabbis of my childhood used to get my family to synagogue. Even as a child, I couldn’t stand that for of motivation. It made me feel even worse about an experience that would ultimately bore me anyway. So, I have made a conscious decision in my own rabbinate to “not do guilt” as a way to encourage the prayer experience.

My clergy team and I spend hours every week to put together a spiritually edifying experience that attempts to stir the mind and the spirit. We try to reinforce also that praying together strengthens our sense of history. While community feeds our need for companionship, our hunger for history reflects the need for continuity.  Prayer helps us to participate in the link of the chain of our traditions, connecting generations past and future.  We do not share the same time as our ancestors, but the prayers that they prayed, the aspects of their lives with which they struggled, are ours now.  And one day, our encounter with prayer will become those of generations to come.

According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great theologian, our struggle with prayer is an outgrowth of our search for a home and our refusal to relinquish it.  He wrote:

All things have a home:  the bird has a nest, the fox has the hole, and the bee has the hive. A soul without a prayer is a soul without a home.  Weary, sobbing, the soul, after roaming through a world festered with aimlessness, falsehood and absurdities, seeks a moment in which to gather up its scattered life, in which it divests itself of enforced pretensions and camouflage in which to call for help without being a coward.  In his cottage, even the poorest man may be defiant of misery and malice.  The cottage may shake, the winds may blow through it, the storms may enter it, but there is where the soul expects to be understood.

Ultimately, we all want to be seen and heard.  We all want to tell someone our deepest secrets. Prayer allows us to say everything out loud than no else may listen to.  Prayer helps us process our despair; helps us judge how it is that we are doing. Prayer helps us stop and realize that we are so small in the face of this world and in the face of our God… so small that sometimes we get a glimpse of how unique and how special we can really be.  And when we do so standing next to one another, we remember most importantly that we do not have to be alone. We can a hold a real hand and feel the connection of “like” without ever turning on our phones to see how many “likes” our last post received.

If any of this reaches, perhaps it might be time to try it again.  You can’t do it wrong.  You will not be judged.  And, you might within the halls of your community find peace and deeper human connection.

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