Piny Hackenbroch
Senior Rabbi Woodside Park Synagogue, London

Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tyre?

Then I’ll get down on my knees and pray,
We don’t get fooled again,
No, no!
The Who, Won’t Get Fooled Again

As Jews, prayer has always been sacrosanct – a first, rather than a last resort. King David himself was defined by prayer: veani tefilati – “ I am my prayer”. Prayer is our means for connection and dialogue with G-d. That having been said, all of us, without exception, will have found ourselves questioning the efficacy of our prayers, at one time or another. After all, is it not natural to have doubts along the road of faith?

But, more importantly, how are we to understand our own doubts? Is it really natural to have them? Or should I be ashamed of these sometimes  fleeting thoughts?

The Ishbitzer Rebbe, the 19th century rabbi and founder of the Izhbitzer-Radzyn dynasty of Hasidism,  describes three distinct dimensions that G-d operates in our lives.

The first dimension is where God is not known in the world. There are areas for each of us where we feel in life God’s presence is hidden from us. The second dimension, is where God’s presence is palpable and manifest. We just feel it. The third area, is somewhere in between these two extreme dimensions. God’s presence is sometimes manifest and other times hidden from us. It is in this area alone that the realm of prayer operates.

In the first and second areas, a person may choose not to pray either because it seems a  pointless exercise or  because he  feels he is blessed without any exertion in prayer. In the third area, where the individual sometimes has experienced that Divine presence and on other occasions  has not, the individual will believe in the necessity to pray since he knows that his prayers carry weight.

The efficacy of prayer is the subject of contention in the Parsha that we read this week. The Jewish people found themselves with the sea in front of them, and the Egyptians in hot pursuit behind them with nowhere to run or hide. Moses turned to God in fervent prayer. Yet God’s response is telling, rather than accept the heartfelt prayer of Moses, God rebukes Moses:

Why are you praying now? – tell the Jewish people to move forwards (into the sea)! (Shemot 14:15)

We find ourselves baffled as to the response of God, surely there was never a greater need to pray and have one’s prayers heard, then when the Jewish people who had just emerged from the slavery of Egypt, faced imminent extinction.

The Talmud elucidates and fills in the gaps in the narration:

These worshipped idols (the Jews) and these worshipped idols (the Egyptians) (Yalkut Reuveni Beshalach)

Moses’ prayer invoked  closer scrutiny of the Jewish people and their worthiness to be saved from their Egyptian former masters by God. In the heavenly realm, there arose at the time of Moses prayer a tumultuous dispute by the celestial beings as to whether the Jewish people were worthy of being saved through a Divine intervention.

On closer scrutiny, both the Jewish people and the Egyptians were idol worshippers at the time and therefore, despite the prayers of Moses on behalf of the Jewish people, we were not seen as having sufficient merit for a further redemption from the Egyptians -prayer would not be effective under these difficult circumstances.

What were and what are the Jewish people to do when prayer for whatever reason is not considered to affect the necessary changes we wish?

The key was handed to the Jewish people as we stood with our backs to the wall prior to the miraculous splitting of the sea as the new born nation faced its first existential crisis.  If we were to  imagine a child that is used to always getting their way and then the child is told by the mother “No”, the child has to learn a new pattern of behavior that will perhaps enable the parent to say yes. This was the position we found ourselves as our nation was in its infancy.

The key from G-d when prayer would not work was to move forwards.

But what did G-d mean? What are we expected to do in such a scenario?

The Zohar suggests that the key lies in the one-word instruction Moshe received from G-d

“Speak to the children of Israel and Move

Rav Zadok in elucidating the cryptic words of the Zohar suggested that the notion of prayer is borne out of us intellectually having awareness as to their perceived needs from health to wealth and everything else in between.

We turn to G-d as the source of blessing. We pray because we feel we are in a position of knowing and understanding it is a place of reason and rationality. That may well be effective, we recognise our needs we express to G-d our needs demonstrating our dependence on Him for all aspects of life and G-d will respond in kind.

But there will be occasions, says Rav Zadok when in logical terms we simply even with prayer cannot be deemed worthy of further blessings that we are demanding of G-d. We simply may not have sufficient merit in our own right. It is in such situations, says Rav Zadok, when we feel our prayers are blocked, that we need to approach G-d from a different stance.

If, then, we aren’t worthy of response – we may just need to call upon an irrational response. Maybe instead of prayer, we need to simply move forwards. This requires us to demonstrate our faith in being willing to make self-sacrifices in serving G-d.

By making ourselves vulnerable, surrendering our intellect, ego, and perceived control to G-d we take a step into the unknown. This in turn, he suggests, leads G-d to deal with us irrationally without judging us on merit, rather  out of pure love. Suddenly, we are able to receive love from our higher power in a way we could not have imagined previously.

At the splitting of the sea, G-d taught the Jewish people an invaluable and timeless lesson in terms of our relationship with Him – to take the next right step no matter what.

Naturally, in the first instance, through prayer, we will approach G-d from a place of intellect and logic. Through prayer, we can speak to G-d and draw closer to Him through recognising   our total dependence on him for our daily needs.

Yet there are occasions, when we will be expected to demonstrate our unfailing  love and show our total commitment and  faith to Him. It is when we approach G-d with that steadfast faith and love that G-d is then able to reciprocate and shower His blessings on us in a disproportionate fashion.  At the splitting of the Sea the Jewish people through their willingness to plunge into the raging sea, demonstrated their unflinching willingness to make self-sacrifices in their lives in the service of G-d, thereby making them worthy of salvation.

This is reflected in the structure of our prayers today. We go through these two stages of service. Firstly, we recite the Amidah through which we express our carefully considered needs, an exercise in relating to G-d through our intellect. Yet immediately afterwards we fall on our  faces in utter submission in the Tachanun prayers, in this we express our willingness to totally submit our will through self sacrifice to G-d’s will , surrendering our egos and control. Letting go of the reigns of control in our lives can be a daunting prospect but, as our nation experienced at the splitting of the sea, when we are able to do so, anything and everything is possible. Instead of  edging God out (E-G-O), we’re able to edge closer to him in faith.

Credits: co-authored with Dan Sher

About the Author
Rabbi Hackenbroch is Senior Rabbi of Woodside Park Synagogue, London, UK, as well as a commercial mediator, Holocaust Educator and sought after speaker.
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