The Art of Prayer

Prayer is by far one of the greatest gifts that God has bestowed on man. It enables us to surpass ourselves; to see the world from God’s perspective; to stand still and consider our lives anew; and to create a sense of uneasiness within us. It asks us to realize that there is much more to our lives than the bread we eat and the comfort we demand. In some way it wants us to realize that feeling at home in our world is one of the greatest existential threats that confront us. To live is to possess the art of being a surprised guest in this world, not a tenant. Too much everydayness, however, has overtaken our lives, and meaningful prayer has become mission impossible for most of us. Instead of allowing prayer to transform us, we have converted prayer into a means by which we allow ourselves to get used to the smallness of our existence. Life then becomes a cliché, and the commonplace reigns supreme. Prayer is now being used as a ploy to convince ourselves that we are deeply religious and do not need to wake up and ask ourselves why we exist and who we are.

Even those who are used to going to synagogue three times a day must ask themselves whether the words they utter can be called genuine prayer. Most of us aren’t even aware that there’s a problem because habitual prayer hides the actual art of praying. Too often, our prayer is not much more than the repetition of words as they appear in the prayer book, without the understanding of what they wish to convey.

That being the case, one must ask why tens of thousands of religious and not-so-religious Jews are prepared to go to synagogue and repeat, year after year, the same words that by now are boring for most of them. The fact that they continue to attend synagogue is something of a miracle. What is there in the human spirit that moves them to do so?

Man is a homo religiosus. Ontologically, his very being is made from a substance that moves him to pray. This is true not only about the religious person but even the atheist. All expressions of wonder and hope are forms of prayer. Watching a sunset, seeing the birth of a baby, listening to majestic music, all elicit from man a need to express wonder and astonishment, which are really forms of laudation. Hoping for a good ending, a better future, and the restoring of one’s of health are all forms of prayer, even if they are directed not to God but to nature, or even a nonentity. The deepest feelings in man’s life are often expressed in one utterance: “Wow”! Or, “Please let it end well.”

There is no escape from prayer.

When the religious person prays, he knows that behind the words of his repeated daily prayers there is a world that he doesn’t want to let go of, though he feels he has lost it entirely. He intuitively knows that there is a vast landscape of deep content behind these prayers. He no longer lives there, but he bathes in its light. And so he says words that transcend him, because he’s aware that they have great meaning though he is no longer connected to them.

Prayer as Chutzpah

How does man dare to speak to God, the Master of the Universe? The presumption that man can just open his mouth and believe that God will listen to him is unrivaled impertinence. When someone wishes to get an audience with the Queen, much paperwork has to be done, many meetings are held by ministers and officials, and security issues are considered. After all that, maybe he’ll be granted an audience in Buckingham Palace; and then, only for a few minutes. But when speaking to the Lord of the Universe, religious people are of the opinion that they can just walk into the inner chambers of the King’s palace. Moreover, they don’t even need to come to the royal palace. They take it for granted that the King will come to them in their homes, and even their bedrooms, where they stand before Him in their nightwear. The implications of all this defy the imagination!

Goethe, the great German poet, said: Wer einem lobt, stellt sich ihm gleich — He who praises another places himself on the other’s level. Indeed, what right has man to praise God?

We don’t really know the answer to this question. Perhaps we are like the atheist who said he praised God every day because it was the only way to convince himself that he was not God.

The question, however, is so strong that the Jewish tradition has devised two ways for the praying man to escape this problem so as to avoid embarrassing himself. The first is to hide behind Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah. It was they who invented prayer and believed it was legitimate despite its impertinence. Apparently, they knew something that we don’t — something that called for praising God. Our defense is therefore clear: We are not the instigators. We are just continuing a conversation of more than 4,000 years. Don’t hold us responsible. We didn’t start it! If not for these men and women, who were closer to you and greater than we are, we would not have dared utter a word of praise to You.

The second means of escape is to hide behind each other. Our most important prayers of praise are recited with a minyan. We only dare to open our mouths if we feel that we are not standing alone before the King of the Universe, presumptuously expressing our praise. In the company of the community, strengthened by our feelings of solidarity and brotherhood, we dare speak to God. A minyan is a city of refuge and a compromise to human weakness. We hide behind each other because we are afraid of being exposed.

What Can Be Said?

It is one thing to dare to pray, but quite another to know what to say. When a delegation is invited to see the prime minister in order to convey the importance of certain community needs, many hours of preparation and careful deliberation precede the actual meeting. Every word and every sentence counts.

How much more consideration should be given to every word before one approaches the King of all kings. To utter the appropriate word requires great profundity. But who is knowledgeable in this? Only those well versed in the art of idiom and phraseology, who know the inner chambers of the human heart in all its purity.

Not everything that comes out of the mouth of man should reach the ear of God. Which praises and requests are noble and worthy enough? While biblical man was highly skilled in this art, it became an impossible task for modern man. Too much ego permeated his petitions, and even his praises, until it became so embarrassing that something drastic had to be done. A rescue operation had to be initiated, to pull man out of this abyss. Ladders and cranes were brought in, scaffoldings were erected to prevent man from sinking so deeply into his narcissistic swamp that he would ultimately succumb and no longer be able to say anything to God.

And so the prayer book was born. Modern man lacks the vocabulary to say what is in his heart, and even what should be in his heart. The prayer book saved man’s life just in time, before he committed spiritual suicide.

While there is a need to reconsider some of the established prayers, because they may no longer be relevant to modern man’s condition, the vast majority of these prayers should evoke in us an exclamation of exaltation: These are exactly the words I was looking for but could not find within myself. A prayer book is really a dictionary and thesaurus consisting of words that we otherwise would have lost.

The Paradox of Supplication

The most natural part of prayer is supplication, asking God to help us in our often complicated and painful lives. There is no human concern that is outside the scope of petition. It is this category of prayer that comes to us most easily. But it is the most difficult prayer to justify in terms of philosophy. Is God not all-knowing? Is He God if He needs us to inform Him of what we need? So what is the point of asking Him? As God says in Isaiah (65:24), “Even before they call, I will answer.” Is it not blasphemous to imply otherwise?

And there is even more at stake. It is hard, for example, to believe that our prayers for the healing of ill people have any influence at all, since God already knows what His answer will be.

The Sages have struggled with this huge problem.

Several thinkers have stated that the purpose of these prayers is not to placate God in order to change His mind, but to teach and remind ourselves that, firstly, we are dependent on Him. Secondly, we should be asking only for things that are consistent with Judaism’s teachings and not for matters that are contrary to the values of our tradition. And lastly, we should be asking not only for ourselves but also on behalf of others, so as to make us more sensitive. This is clearly seen in the words of the Shemoneh Esreih/Amidah.

Still, this paradox — of our praying to God even while He is all-knowing — is essentially the well-known conflict between man’s free will and God’s foreknowledge. Since God knows everything in advance, how can it be that man has free will to act as he desires? In philosophical terminology these problems are called antinomies and paralogisms. Maimonides seems to suggest that providence need not be explained as God’s intervention from above in man’s actions and fate, but as man’s ascent from below to comprehending God. In other words, man’s free will depends on his own endeavors to gain Divine providence. God is beyond time and space and therefore not bound by the concepts “earlier” and “later.” If so, man can petition God without violating God’s foreknowledge. The words “Even before they call, I will answer” are simply referring to a reality in which there is no before or after, and so petitions become possible.

Prayers as Dreams

Fixed prayers are also dreams. They tell us where our priorities should lie and what we should be dreaming of. When we pray that God’s greatness be recognized by all of mankind, or that the Temple be rebuilt; when we pray for purity in our hearts, or for the mashiach’s arrival, we may say the words, but when looking into our hearts we realize that these matters are not at the core of our lives. They may lie somewhere hidden in our subconscious, but we no longer dream about them because our day-to-day needs have become our priority. Due to our shortsightedness, we cannot see the forest for the trees. We live in a state of spiritual slumber, and these “dream prayers” wake us up. They inform us that we’re on the wrong track and have lost those priorities that should make our lives more meaningful and distinct.

To Borrow Mozart’s Notes

Is it possible for one standard set of prayers to express the inner lives of hundreds of thousands of people, male and female, each one psychologically and emotionally unique, spanning centuries?

The prayer book is meant to be a volume not of words but of musical notes. When a great musician plays Mozart, he doesn’t actually play “Mozart”; rather, he borrows Mozart’s notes and plays his own music on these notes. He releases Mozart’s musical notes from their confinement and carries them beyond themselves.

The praying man plays his inner symphony on the musical notes of Israel’s great composers, its Sages. Gifted musicians involved in their orchestral score not only bind their audiences to heavenly spheres; they inspire each other to discover new dimensions of their own souls as well. Similarly, participants in community prayer play the serenades of their souls, which, through a moment of artistic symbiosis, evoke previously unknown worlds in the hearts of their fellow minyan participants.

Prayer as Preparation to Pray

What if the inner music of the soul is locked up and cannot break through? Should we stop praying when we’re not in the mood? What does the musician do in that case?

The musician knows one thing — to stop practicing is suicidal. Lack of practice will only make it harder, if not impossible, to perform later. By continuing to practice, he keeps alive his ability to play and gets into the mood. To sit back and wait until he’s in the mood is futile.

And so it is with the praying man. His ability to pray will remain alive only by continuing to pray, even at times when his soul is cold and his heart empty of all feeling.

Most of the time, then, praying is a preparation for prayer. Only occasionally will there be a glorious moment when the praying man will actually pray. But who is to say that the “prayer in preparation for prayer” is not the most valuable and exalted form of divine service?

To Deserve

Man’s ability to think, act, build, love, and enjoy can easily turn into an embarrassment if he doesn’t use these faculties responsibly. There is indeed one inescapable question: Does man deserve these gifts? Does he have any claim on them? The shattering truth is that man cannot possibly deserve them. Nobody has ever earned the right to love, to enjoy. They are gifts, not rewards. How, then, can man live with dignity and self-respect? There is only one answer. These undeserved gifts require a response. They need to be discharged. Only then can man have dignity and live a life of grandeur. It is through prayer that he achieves this goal. By thanking and praising God for all of these faculties, man acquires self-esteem. He converts his embarrassment into nobility.

The Exegesis of Translation

Translation has become a technical skill, an academic endeavor. It may work in some instances but is completely inadequate when translating prayers, which must be a deeply personal act. Translations of religious texts must evoke emotion and inspire passion. Prayer translations must be seen as a form of exegesis, not merely an attempt to literally translate the words of the Hebrew prayers. The translator must release the words from confinement and discover their spiritual equivalents, which are found between the written texts. He has to feel and convey the vibrations of the words and must leave enough space for the praying people to fill in their own emotions, provoking them to feel and experience their own translations.

Michael Haruni’s translation, side by side with the original text of the Hebrew prayers, as well as the most beautiful and colorful images, allows us to discover our own translations. He has offered us a new opportunity to feel and experience our prayers. For this he is to be highly commended.

This essay appears as an introduction to the new and fully illustrated weekday siddur Nehalel with English translation.

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About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.