In 1955, the distinguished Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, spiritual leader of the New West End Synagogue in London published a very small sixty-one page booklet entitled “Jewish Prayer”. In seven brief chapters he discusses “What is Jewish Prayer?”, “Does God Answer Prayer?”, “Praising God”, “Thanking God”, “The Use of Hebrew in Prayer”, “The Technique of Prayer”, and “Congregational Prayer and the Synagogue”.
He informs the reader that there is more than one type of prayer. There is the prayer of petition in which the worshipper asks God to grant a request. There is the prayer of thanksgiving for blessings we have received. There is the penitential prayer in which we ask God to forgive our sins. And finally, there is the doxology, the prayer of praise.
Our rabbis have taught us that prayer is the “service of the heart” and that when we pray the worshipper must always be aware of “da lifnai mi ata omaid”… know before Whom you stand.
It makes no difference if our prayer is long or short nor the language in which we pray. What does make the difference is our sincerity . As the rabbis have taught “Rachmana liba ba-ee” … the All-Merciful God demands the heart.
It is with Jacobs’ second brief chapter that I have difficulty. In nine pages he asks and answers “Does God Answer Prayer?” It appears to Rabbi Jacobs that since all things are pre-determined, what is the point of asking God to answer our prayer.
He cites an example. Two men are praying at the same time in the same synagogue. One man is a manufacturer of raincoats and therefore he prays for an abundance of rain. The other man is a farmer and he prays that God will withhold the rain so that his crops will not be destroyed. To whom will God listen? Which of the two men will have their prayer answered?
In the terrible years of the Holocaust, millions of Jews prayed to God to grant them life. Six million of them did not receive God’s answer. The German Nazi Christians went to their churches on Sunday and prayed for their victory. They wore their motto on the buckle of their belts: “Gott ist mit uns”.. God is with us.
The allied forces prayed to the same God for the same victory. God could only answer one of them.
Often God’s answer, one that we don’t want to hear, is “NO”. A young child prays for a bicycle but doesn’t get one. He asks “why should I pray to God? He doesn’t give me the things I pray for”.
My children and my grandchildren are healthy, thank God. Yet every morning and every night in my prayers I ask God’s blessing for their good health. They are healthy because God has pre-determined it and thus, my prayers are ineffective.
I pray for the happy marriage of an almost 50-year-old never married daughter. I pray that God will send her a bashert, an intended one, for a long and happy marriage. But God does not respond. Why has He determined that my child should remain lonely and unmarried? Since all things are pre-determined, He must have a reason, but it is a reason that is unacceptable to me.
Rabbi Jacobs concludes that if all our personal prayers for health, wealth, success and happiness were answered, the synagogues would be empty. We would have no need to offer prayers of petition in the presence of a minyan and a community of fellow-worshippers.
So I have decided to stop my personal prayers and devote my attention to those written by wiser men than me in the prayerbook. If God demands the service of my heart He shall have it fully.
The Baal Shem Tov once told a parable to his followers. “When wood burns, it is the smoke alone that rises upwards leaving the grosser elements below. So it is with prayer. The intention (Kavanah) alone ascends to heaven. Prayer without Kavanah is like a body without the soul” .
Does God answer prayer? Each one of us must find the answer within our hearts. Perhaps when I cease to cry out prayers of petition I will be enabled to concentrate with greater intent, with fuller Kavanah, on the words of pious men in former generations.