In one Talmudic story, G-d asks humans for a blessing (Berachot 7a). The rabbis go even further and teach that G-d prays (Chullin 60b).
R’ Yochanan said in the name of R’ Yosi ben Zimra: “How do we know that G-d prays? Because it says: ‘I will bring them to My holy mountain, and I will gladden them in My house of prayer.’ It does not say ‘the house of their payer,’ but ‘the house of my prayer.’ This teaches that G-d prays. What does He pray? ‘May it be My will before Me that My mercy will suppress My anger, and that My compassion will prevail over My (other) attributes, and that I will deal with My children with compassion, and that I may treat them beyond the strict interpretation of law.
Another passage (Berachot 6a) suggests that G-d even wears tefillin. Of course, some commentators don’t take these teachings literally. After all, who would G-d pray to? And G-d doesn’t have a body to wear tefillin. However the teaching is still valuable. We learn that prayer is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It takes courage and humility to pause and reflect upon the self and existence. G-d “prays” and thus praises creation and reflects upon existence.
A certain philosopher asked Rebbi Hoshaya and said to him: If circumcision is so beloved (by God), why wasn’t the first man created circumcised? … Everything created during the six days of creation requires further work. For example, mustard seeds must be sweetened, legumes must be sweetened, wheat must be ground, and man must be improved (Midrash Genesis Rabah, 11:6).
The first humans were the last of creation to show that they had no part in the initial stages.
Our Rabbis taught: Adam was created [last of all beings] on the eve of Sabbath. And why? — Lest the heretics say: The Holy One, blessed be He, had a partner [Adam] in His work of creation. Another answer is: In order that, if a man’s mind becomes [too] proud, he may be reminded that the gnats preceded him in the order of creation. Another answer is: That he might immediately enter upon the fulfillment of a commandment, the observance of the Sabbath. Another answer is: That he might straightway go in to the banquet. The matter may be compared to a king of flesh and blood who built palaces and furnished them, prepared a banquet, and thereafter brought in the guests. So too, Adam was created in a world that was already prepared. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, page 38a)
Humans had no part in the creation of the world, but we have a huge part in the future of the world.
For millennia, humans have turned to prayer for their own needs and those of others. Recent research has tended to indicate that Jews may be less likely than many others to pray. The Pew Research Survey showed that overall, 55 percent of Jews (albeit nearly all Orthodox Jews) viewed religion as very or somewhat important in their lives, versus 44 percent who viewed it as not too or not at all important, versus 79 percent of all Americans who viewed religion as very or somewhat important. However, an earlier study was even more telling. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2007 U.S. Landscape Survey, 58 percent of Americans prayed daily, ranging from 80 percent among black Protestants, 71 percent among Muslims, 58 percent among Catholics, 53 percent among mainline Protestants, and (last among major religions) 26 percent among Jews.
The question of the efficacy of prayer has been put to scientific trial on a number of occasions with mixed results. A Mississippi study of patients (nearly all were women) concluded that direct person-to-person prayer sessions improved the depression and anxiety scores, although they did not affect cortisol levels. On the other hand though, it is worth noting that a three-pronged study of Christian prayers for strangers undergoing heart surgery found that there was no effect on the outcome regardless of whether the patient knew about the praying, and that there was an increased chance of complications following surgery among those who had been prayed for. We don’t consider prayer to be magic where we simply receive all of our needs and wants asked for. Rather prayer, when done well can, among other things, ground us and improve us and provide us inspiration and positive energy to fulfill our life missions.
On a personal health level, prayer seems to be on the rise. According to National Health Interview Survey data based on more than 50,000 interviews, the number of people who prayed about their health increased from 43 percent in 2002 to 49 percent in 2007. Those who exercised less, were depressed or had dental pain, or whose health had changed dramatically were most likely to have reported that they prayed. The self-reported results indicated that those who prayed thought that it had helped their health.
SØren Kierkegaard, the great 19th-century Danish thinker, taught that “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” One of the great values of religious life is the charge to experience existence more deeply. Rather than merely analyze our existence we must immerse ourselves in the deepest and highest form of living. Often times we can solve problems, but at other times we must merely humble ourselves amidst the challenges. As the union was crumbling, Abraham Lincoln said: “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”
Today, we are surrounded by personal, local, national, and global challenges. There is much work to be done. Even though we are capable of much, we have the sacred opportunity to humble ourselves through prayer and introspection. G-d can create or destroy the world in a moment, yet G-d is found in prayer immersed in truth, hope, and love. So, too, we can achieve much (and we must!), but we must also pause to consider the correct path.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”